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.

This weekend, Metatopia, the game design festival, has moved online! Register here until Sunday, November 8th at 6:30PM EST if you’re interested in catching up with some of the content. Here’s where you can find the Pelgranes in the mix (all times are in EST):

Friday, November 6th

9:00PM – 10:00PM
D044: Translating Non-Game Intellectual Properties To Games
Presented by James Lowder, Darren Watts, Daryl Andrews, Scott Woodard, Robin Laws. Licensing an intellectual property for your game is potentially both artistically and financially satisfying. However, the process of actually melding your design with the specifics of the property is a creative challenge, to say nothing of the perils of disappointing the fans! Our band of experts have worked with a wide range of IPs and will share what they’ve learned.
Serious, All Ages
Location: Concord

 

Saturday, November 7th

9:00AM – 10:00AM
D054: Games, Gamefeel, Vocabulary and Umami
Presented by James Wallis, Cat Tobin, Kieron Gillen, Jacob Jaskov. We all know how certain games feel in play and how they make us feel, but as designers and critics we don’t have a set of words to describe it. Do we need an experiential vocabulary of play, and what would one look like?
Serious, All Ages
Location: Concord

 

6:00PM – 7:00PM
D073: The 100 GP Pearl: Economics and Trade as Design Elements

Presented by Jason Pitre, Rob Donoghue, Emily Dresner, Kenneth Hite. Economics and trade have long been foundational elements of game design, from the hyperinflation of dungeon pillaging to the free traders of Traveller. In this panel, we discuss how these aspects can be used as the foundation for game mechanics and procedures. Don’t make me quote the rules of acquisition at you.

Serious, All Ages
Location: Concord

 

9:00PM – 11:00PM
D079: RPG Points of View

Presented by Darren Watts, Nicole Lindroos, Kenneth Hite, James Crocker. Explain This Lingo: Trad. OSR. Story Game. Lyric Games. And Indie, which shouldn’t be about design at all. OK, folks from the Forge. We know this gave you the vapors. It’s okay to go make yourself a cup of tea and skip this one. There are a lot of folks coming in who have missed a whole lot of RPG chatter, and we get questions about what the lingo means fairly regularly. We’re going to dip into what these mean and what each category brings to the table that can be stolen and repurposed elsewhere.

Serious, All Ages
Location: Concord

 

Sunday, November 8th

9:00AM – 10:00AM
D085: Building Better Character Connections
Presented by Cat Tobin, Becky Annison, Sharang Biswas. How to Design !More! !Drama! into your RPG! Some of the most satisfying role playing experiences come from the dramatic outcomes of emotional connections between player characters. We look at ways for tabletop and LARP writers to design for deeper character relationships and dynamics, to provide a structure for GMs to bring more of the good kind of drama to their RPGs.
Serious, All Ages
Location: Concord

 

12:00PM – 1:00PM
D091: Grow Your RPG Brand

Presented by Cat Tobin, Will Sobel, JR Blackwell, Christopher McGlothlin, Maz Hamilton. You’re an RPG designer now! That’s great, but now how do you get your awesome game in front of players who will appreciate it? How do you position yourself for future projects? Basically, how do you get your name on a game to mean something? Our panelists grapple with this sticky problem!

Serious, All Ages
Location: Concord

The following articles originally appeared on an earlier iteration of See Page XX in September 2008.

Robin D Laws discusses the nature of believability in RPGs, and we present not one, but three interviews from Luke Crane. This month also sees the launch of a flurry of new products, including a Keeper’s Screen, and James Semple’s first Pelgrane release – music for Trail of Cthulhu. The sleeve notes are here for your edification. Finally, Jason Durrall has provided a summary of character creation guidelines for Trail of Cthulhu. Perhaps this is gilding the lily, but who I am to begrudge our customers golden petals?

Contents

The following articles originally appeared on an earlier iteration of See Page XX in June 2008.

In this issue Robin D Laws discusses the use of genre conceits in Mutant City Blues, we have more music from James Semple, and a second interview by Luke Crane. This issue sees the return of Mystic Moo – learn how to get your fondest wishes, with cosmic ordering. I was very pleased with the results of the last poll – our readership is higher than I expected – so I’ve included another one, with a peculiar question. Your feedback really helps.

The following articles originally appeared on an earlier iteration of See Page XX in April 2008. 

This month we step beyond the limitations of the pixel and into the glorious world of sound. James Semple introduces us to the new theme for Esoterrorists, Luke Crane shares air with Vincent Baker, and Paul MacClean advises us on how to record our gaming sessions. Juila Ellingboe discusses how her game Steal Away Jordan, and points us at recorded actual play. Mystic Moo will appear shortly with her Moocast. Please answer our poll. I know lots of people read our webzine, but I don’t get much feedback. Your response will help me improve content.

Contents

The following article originally appeared in an earlier iteration of See Page XX in June 2008.

A column on roleplaying by Robin D. Laws

The Trouble With Tasers

Technology is ruining the storytelling business. Lately it seems like every new innovation of communications technology renders another classic plot device moot. GPS tracking, widespread closed circuit camera use and electronic paper trails make contemporary detective stories harder and harder to write. The screenwriter Todd Alcott, analyzing the works of the Coen brothers, noted that all of them are set before the cell phone era as we know it. Their plots inevitably revolve around disasters of miscommunication and couldn’t happen in a world where people can easily contact one another while in transit.

I recently underwent a tussle with another annoying piece of technology that threatens to wreak special havoc on roleplaying game scenarios. In real life, the taser may be, as its proponents argue, a useful piece of putatively non-lethal weaponry allowing for the peaceful capture of dangerous criminals. In game mechanical terms, they’re a freaking nightmare. They break the paradigm of suspenseful back-and-forth fights on which gaming’s bread is buttered. A taser rule that successfully models the way the things work in real life brings about an instant end to a physical confrontation in one shot. You get hit by a taser, you go down, end of story.

Roleplaying games have traditionally differed from the action genres they derive inspiration from in the ease with which it is possible to KO opponents. In a movie or novel, the hero can conk out an enemy with a karate chop to the neck, sap to the back of the skull, or old-fashioned Vulcan nerve pinch, raining no particular problem down upon the author. The characters are all under his control, so he can count on them not to transform into cold-blooded killers at the sight of an unconscious foe.

PCs, controlled as they are by players, exhibit no such compunctions. When it comes to the chance for an easy kill, players blithely have their characters engage in behavior they’d recoil from if performed by their favorite movie or comic book heroes.

Combat mechanics traditionally rush in to to fill this morality hole, by making it no easier to KO an enemy than to kill him. That way the PCs wind up killing in self-defense, or at least in the process of a fair fight against an opponent who chooses not to surrender. Some rules sets of yore make it even harder to grapple or disable a foe than to kill him, though this is as much a case of simulation gone awry as an attempt to enforce genre norms.

A designer can fudge the relative difficulties of a kill versus a KO when it comes to most forms of combat. It’s easier in genre fiction to render an enemy unconscious without lasting consequences than it is in real life, where vigorous thumps on the head lead to concussions and brain injuries. Taking on a heavily armed and armored opponent who’s trying to kill you probably does make it difficult to score a harmless knockout.

Several of the games I’ve worked on, starting with Feng Shui, allow characters to specify that they’re fighting to disable even while using the standard combat system, making it just as easy to kill as to KO.

Tasers, if rendered accurately, screw up this balance completely. They really do make it almost trivially easy to take an opponent out of the fight in one shot.

Here our genre sources do provide the answer. You’ll notice that sympathetic protagonists, even the cop characters in procedural shows, do not go around zapping perps with tasers. In TV and movies as well as in games, the one-shot nature of the taser makes for boring action sequences. More crucially, there’s the sympathy factor. We can accept heroes who shoot or manhandle the bad guys, but taser use just seems sinister. Perhaps it’s the humiliating nature of a taser bring-down that triggers a sympathy switch. We’d end up identifying with the defeated villain instead of the basking vicariously in the protagonist’s victory.

As audience members, we may also be haunted by real-life abuses of the technology. Anyone who follows the news on this subject has seen the horror stories, starting with sudden death by cardiac arrest. Because the consequences of taser use are, compared to a gun, advertised as negligible, cops and security personnel have shown a distressing tendency to treat it as a weapon of first resort. As it would be in a gaming situation, it’s too easy to use in real life. We’ve seen it deployed to curtail the civil liberties of peaceful protesters. (This will be a huge problem in the years ahead as mass non-lethal technologies come on line and fall into the hands of authoritarian regimes.)

In short, pop culture has, perhaps aptly, tagged the taser as a bully’s weapon.

Trying to reconcile these issues with the known properties of taser weapons sent me down several blind alleys as I worked to develop GUMSHOE rules for them. Before finally accepting the simple solution that was in front of me all along, I considered:

  • dodge rules making it easier to avoid a taser hit
  • fumble rules making a taser harder to use than it is in real life
  • allowing characters to shrug off taser strikes

None of these attempts to nerf the taser passed even GUMSHOE’s loose reality demands. Finally I realized that this was not a matter of rules mechanics, but of literary conceit: PCs in GUMSHOE don’t use tasers because heroes in pop culture don’t use tasers. For Mutant City Blues, there’s the suggestion that lawsuits over inappropriate taser use have led to mountains of paperwork and career setbacks for detectives who resort to them. Maybe in The Esoterrorists we’ll specify that tasers are the fruit of an occult plot to enable tyranny, and that their use weakens the membrane. But really these are fig leaves of credibility placed upon an overriding literary convention:

Real heroes don’t use tasers.

The following articles originally appeared on an earlier iteration of See Page XX in February 2008. 

Tools, toys and transport are the theme for this issue of Page XX. Robin D Laws discusses the use of music to end scenes in GUMSHOE games, and James Semple provides some stings for Trail of Cthulhu. Jamie Maclaren says the fidgeting and playing with toys at the gaming table isn’t all bad, and Simon Carryer closes his excellent series for Trail of Cthulhu GMs with an article on the majestic liners and tramp steamers of the thirties. For Mutant City Blues, we present interview with Dr Lucius Quade, the world’s premier scientist in anamorphology, the study of mutant powers (toys for gamers, at least).

Contents

The following articles originally appeared on an earlier iteration of See Page XX in December 2007. 

In this issue, Robin D Laws discusses three ways you can resolve interpersonal conflicts in the GUMSHOE system. Interpersonal conflicts also feature in Mystic Moo’s Yuletide pantomime, and Simon Carryer reminds us of the fun of festive travel with his article on Rail Transport in the 1930s. Finally, Steve Dempsey suggests a way you can improvise adventures using GUMSHOE, perhaps while sitting in a turkey induced stupor around the log fire.

Contents

The following articles originally appeared on an earlier iteration of See Page XX in October 2007. 

October heralds the relaunch of See Page XX to fit in with the new look Pelgrane Press website. But it’s more than cosmetic; there are other changes – this month features more articles than we’ve ever had before. We have two interview, one with Kenneth Hite, author of the forthcoming Trail of Cthulhu, the other Brennan Taylor, President of Indie Press Revolution. Graham Walmsley shows how adaptable GUMSHOE is, in this case as a basis for Live Action Roleplaying, and Robin D Laws shows you how to create use GUMSHOE with other settings. Fred Hicks talks about the fine balance between character empowerment and danger. As a resource for the forthcoming Trail of Cthulhu, Simon Carryer offers us a fact-packed article on air transport in the 1930s and finally, dear old Mystic Moo gives us the RPG Horoscopes for the season, and acts as an agony aunt for roleplayers with “issues.”

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

A column on roleplaying

by Robin D. Laws

[Ed.This was originally an internal design document, but it should come in useful for anyone interested in GUMSEHOE background creation.]

The GUMSHOE system departs from standard RPG design practice in a couple of significant ways. Neither of the two extant rules manuscripts, Esoterrorists and Fear Itself, expends much precious space explaining the theory behind these choices. To design rules add-ons for GUMSHOE, though, you have to think in the way the system demands. This document shows you how think GUMSHOE.

Tediously Obligatory Disclaimer

Before we start, please note that just because GUMSHOE makes a certain game design choice doesn’t mean that we’re saying that all games should be this way, or that these design choices are objectively better than others in all cases. They’re right for GUMSHOE. It is meant to perform a specific job. Other games built to achieve other ends might arise from completely opposite principles to be ineffably awesome. A crunchy, rules-driven, determinative, simulationist, integrated game could rock. It is not this game, though.

Design Watchwords

The design watchwords for GUMSHOE are:

  • Emulation of narrative structure (not simulation of imaginary reality)
  • Technique (not rules)
  • Simplicity (not crunchiness)
  • Modularity (not necessarily integration)

Emulation: The ultimate goal of GUMSHOE is to foster play that feels like a mystery novel, TV procedural, or occult adventure comic. Precisely what’s being emulated differs from kit to kit. The first question when designing a rule is: “How would this happen in the source material?” Supplementary questions include: “What structural effect do scenes involving this have on the story? What effect are they meant to have on the audience?” The logic is literary and structural, not literal or reality-oriented. If you design a rules add-on and its result is to encourage behavior or activities that characters in this sort of investigative fiction never engage in, you’ve gone off track, substituting extrapolative logic for dramatic logic. Do not attempt to introduce more verisimilitude than the source material requires.

Also, respect the power of clichés. Sometimes they are required to allow the machinery of genre plotting to work. Many players engage in roleplaying to get up close and personal with their genre expectations. A new spin on a tired trope can be fun, but if your add-on allows only a revisionist take on the material you’re emulating, you’ve created something eccentrically limited. Sometimes it might be appropriate to be self-aware and ironic about the clichés that come with your territory—in a Scream-type scenario, for example. More often you’ll want to find ways to make clichés feel fresh and powerful again.

Because we’re emulating narrative structures, not simulating an imaginary reality, scenarios should not call on GMs to make random determinations for anything that matters. Don’t tell us that the guards will react violently if they roll X and peacefully if they roll Y. Tell us that the guards will react violently under condition X or peacefully under condition Y. Better yet, make these two conditions dependent on player choices or the use of their general abilities. Give us decision trees for GMC actions and reactions, depending on how the PCs change the situation. (General notes on GMC plans and motivations might be preferable in many cases.)

Theoretically there is an investigative sub-genre which, to emulate properly, requires you to ignore any of the other pieces of advice given in this document. If so, do it—but be clear that your deviations from the norm address only that sub-genre.

Simplicity: When designing a new rule, challenge yourself to find the simplest possible expression of it. The urge to complicate is powerful, but must be resisted. Avoid crunchiness creep. Other games put rules front and center during the play experience, and that can be cool, too. But here we want the rules to get out of the way of the GM and players. Episodes of rules use should happen quickly, and take up only a small percentage of any given game session. Just because a rule is cool, doesn’t mean that it is necessary. A rule is never an end in and of itself; if it doesn’t justify itself, it’s so much mental smog.

Technique: The best way to keep a rule simple is to have no rule at all. A technique is a structured way of playing, for GMs and/or players, into which numbers and die rolling do not enter. The flashback concept from Fear Itself is a prime example of a technique. It shapes play in a distinctive way and refers to a narrative technique players will know from fictional sources. It is purely a novel way to perform interactive scenes, without a mechanical reward or consequence.

Another example of technique would be the stereotypes from Fear Itself. Where another game would realize its desired archetypes by giving them rules properties—making them templates for character creation, directly determining your game statistics—this is a simple list that you can take or leave. It is a springboard for player creativity. Again, it gets the players thinking about the source material, but leaves them free to realize them in whatever way, and to whatever degree, they want.

Modularity: First edition AD&D is a modular rules system; sub-systems operate independently of one another. No particular effort is made to make PCs and monsters conform to the same scale and list of capabilities. When Gary and company needed a new rule, they thought, “how do I make this work?”

Third edition D&D is an integrated design; all of the rules systems interrelate. When the designers came to each rules subset, they asked themselves, “How do I make this work in a way that’s congruent with the rest of the system?”

Design integration is considered an important goal for state-of-the-art crunchy games. Integrated rules are aesthetically satisfying and ought to be easier to learn and remember.

GUMSHOE is a modular system, with a twist. Where you can maintain congruence with the existing rules and still emulate the source material, you should do so. However, emulation takes precedence over congruence. The key example here is the way that the game handles abilities completely differently, depending on their relationship to narrative structure. Investigative abilities work one way; general abilities use a completely system.

Aesthetic neatness never takes precedence over function. Note how in GH some of the Psychic abilities use the Investigative mechanics, and others use the General. Again, this depends on their story role: whether they are used to gather information, or to handle threats. In the first case, failure is not permitted. In the second, it is.

There are also actions that use different abilities (and rules sub-systems) depending on their narrative consequences. In GH, you might use Investigative Procedures to find a hidden item that provides information, or Sense Trouble to find one that endangers you. In Esoterrorists, you’d use Explosive Devices to find a bomb whose placement doesn’t threaten you, but does provide a clue. If its primary purpose in the narrative was to threaten you, you’d use Surveillance instead.

Reassurance (gaining information) and Shrink (healing psychic damage) provide another example. Similar according to real-world logic, very different when you look at narrative effect—and therefore treated with different mechanics.

Another split: PCs are treated differently than supporting characters. GMCs need general abilities but aren’t actively investigating mysteries and don’t need investigative abilities. In most genres, important antagonists don’t need Stability scores — though text defining their areas of knowledge and mental states could be very useful.

These distinctions can be counterintuitive, so don’t introduce them for their own sake. When necessary, though, swallow your aesthetic qualms and embrace them.

When designing new rules, the configuration of other rules is important but is not a starting point for your thought process. If you need to devise drowning rules, don’t start by looking at the falling rules and extrapolating from there. Ask yourself how drowning works in the material you’re emulating and go from there. You’ll want to eventually look at the falling rules to see how they match up, and if a previous designer followed the same assumptions you did. If they solved the same problem you tackled in a more elegant way, then go back and tinker. If your solution works better for your situation, stick with it.

As you design new kits, modularity may inspire you to swap out portions of the core rules for something that works better for the material you’re emulating. Trail Of Cthulhu might require a different way of tackling Stability. Many other theoretically possible investigative kits, from Scooby Doo to Agatha Christie, would dispense with it altogether.

GUMSHOE is meant to be a tool kit, from which GMs can mix and match add-on rules to create the settings they want. Encourage this mind-set by indicating what other sorts of investigative games your add-on might be good for. Be clear which add-ons are suitable only for your sub-genre, and which ones have broader applications.

Anti-Rules

When attempting to design systems that facilitate the GMs and emulate narrative structure, you may find it useful to consider creating an anti-rule.

Even gamers who think they know otherwise will over-rely on any rule you put in a game book. Any Call of Cthulhu player will tell you that a good GM doesn’t make you roll for the really important clues. Yet when we play a conventional investigative game of any type, we do have the players roll for clues all the time, because the rules provide for it. Like a gun on the table in the first act of a play, if you introduce a rule, it’s going to go off. GMs who know better will use it anyhow, out of reflex. GMs who don’t know better will cause countless hours of bad entertainment.

An anti-rule is a rule that exists purely to prevent the GM and players from doing this. It looks like a rule and walks like a rule, but really its main function is psychological. It gives gamers the comfortable feeling that there’s a rule guiding their behavior, giving them permission to engage in organically creative play. Like a rule, it provides structure, but unlike a rule, it doesn’t determine what happens in play.

The investigative rules of GUMSHOE are a prime example. The entire rules structure exists to prevent you from rolling against an ability to get a clue. It’s a rule to tell you you don’t need rules. The point-spending for evocative but nonessential clues adds a comfortable and satisfying gamey element to the experience. It allows you to use a rule now and again, but safely, so that the rules don’t get in the way and spoil everything.

Scenario Note: GMCs Making Rolls

Something I should have thought about sooner: whenever possible, it’s best to take situations in which a supporting character makes a roll and turn it around to one where the PCs make a roll against a difficulty. [Ed: We call this approach “player-facing.”]

It’s not so much an issue in combat and physical situations, where both PCs and GMCs typically have about enough points to last through one confrontation. But in situations like perception, PCs and GMCs are not really congruent. PCs have to space out their point spending through an entire adventure. GMCs are usually there for only a scene or two, and so can spend huge chunks of points on a roll. Having the GM making this tactical decision for them suddenly puts her in an adversarial situation that doesn’t really gibe with the spirit of the game.

In some cases you won’t be able to get around it, but whenever possible, turn these situations around. Instead of having the GMC roll Sense Trouble to see through an impersonation, set out a condition which, if the player makes the wrong choice, triggers her suspicions. Instead of having the GMC roll to search the PCs and find weapons, have the PCs make an Infiltrate roll to hide them so well the frisker doesn’t find them. This is not only fairer to the players but makes them more active participants in their own adventures.

Thought Process

In conclusion, when confronted with a rules problem, ask yourself the following questions, in the following order:

  • How does it work in the source material?
  • Is there a way to do it as a technique, and not a rule?
  • If I need a rule (or anti-rule), how simple can I make it?

Having already worked out the narrative consequences of the action I’m trying to model, have other designers already tackled similar problems in a way I’ll find instructive?

Do I label it as a universal add-on, or specific to this sub-genre?

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