A column about roleplaying by Robin D. Laws

When the original Fear Itself came out in 2007, horror was in the depths of its torture phase, typified by the Saw and Hostel franchises. Always the most reliable indicator of the zeitgeist, horror cinema reflected America’s anxieties about its place in the world under the shadow of Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay. The early Obama years saw a retrenchment into Hollywood’s recycling ethos, with a spate of remakes recapitulating the shock cinema of the 70s and 80s. Both of these horror cycles predominantly featured casts of young friends and peers facing the hideous fates that await most scare-flick protagonists—the default assumption of the game. One current horror wave, post-dating Fear Itself, places the family unit in the crosshairs of supernatural or monstrous danger. A Quiet Place, Hereditary, Sinister, Bird Box, Us, and the Netflix series The Haunting of Hill House all evoke fears of family dissolution in the face of threats from without. The more ghostly variants often show the influence of Kubrick’s The Shining. Political in a different way than the previous torture cycle, they touch on domestic economic unease, depicting families fighting to survive, and remain intact, under crushing external pressure. (Although they’re still going strong, I’d categorize these as products of the inward-looking late Obama period. Cultural waves take a while to show up on screens, so Trumpian horror may mark another imminent shift, with The Purge and its follow-ups as leading indicators.) To tweak Fear Itself for family horror, revisit character generation to create a cast of close relatives who will face a terrifying situation together. Start by dropping Drives. The implicit need to protect one another, literally and metaphorically keeping the family together, motivates the characters. Drives ensure that PCs act like horror characters, often giving them a positive reason to head into danger. In a family game, the characters generally seek to escape a situation which continues to ensnare them.

  • They’re socked in for the winter at the creepy hotel.
  • The ghost manifestation follows them even when they abandon the creepy house.
  • Monsters are everywhere and no place stays safe for long.
  • The source of horror is coming from inside the family.

Here, characters investigate to escape the problem, not to burrow deeper into it. The GM must actuate that by keeping the pressure on, driving them toward the information that might just allow them to get through this. During character generation, ask each player in turn to specify their role in the family. You might specify that at least one player must take on a parental role. Or, if no one wants to be Mom or Dad, most characters wind up as siblings—presumably orphaned in an earlier manifestation of the scenario or campaign’s central menace. Some players may try to wriggle free of emotional obligation by creating distant relatives. Redirect the urge to play third cousins or distant uncles. A recently arrived newcomer to the family, such as a new spouse or a biological half-sibling who showed up waving a genetic test, still works. Specify that they’ve had enough time to commit themselves to the family unit. They might have an outside perspective but still need desperately to preserve their connection to the others. In a DramaSystem game you’d then devise a map of blocked emotional agendas that each seeks from the others. Although conflict may exist or arise between PCs, in this case the focus is on coming together against an outside danger. Characters might be distant from another at first; if they survive, it’s because they bond in pursuit of survival. This theme appears in some familial horrors, like The Haunting of Hill House, but isn’t so much a factor in A Quiet Place. Instead start off the collective thinking by asking the group to come up with an answer to the following question: What blow has the family recently endured? Groups who like to dig in and find their own way can take it from there. Ones who prefer to choose from supplied prompts can pick one of these choices, perhaps riffing a variation:

  • We all mourn our missing family member, who was killed either recently, by known means, or many years ago, in an incident we still struggle to understand.
  • We underwent a bankruptcy or are on the verge of one.
  • The head of the family has been suffering professionally.
  • One of us committed a crime that made life hard for everyone.
  • One of us underwent a medical crisis and yearns for tranquility and quiet.
  • One of us was victimized or traumatized.
  • We survived a terrible accident, perhaps of mysterious origin.
  • A weird destiny encircles us.
  • Our family has been cursed for generations.
  • We have just moved house, and we have to make it work.

As GM, you might instead specify a collective blow tied into the premise. That last item on the list fits a classic haunted house outing. A crime within the family might trigger supernatural vengeance. The head of the family in professional crisis could be headed for the psychic break that escalates the horror, because as we all know, ALL WORK AND NO PLAY MAKE JACK A DULL BOY. Skip the step where players choose Sources of Stability. Instead, each family member treats all the others as sources, suffering the ill results when one of the PCs fatally succumbs to the horror. Family-based horror works well for convention scenarios, providing an immediate premise and stakes for the players. Save time by handing out pregens with family roles already specified, allowing participants to pick which ones that appeal to them. Some players prefer to avoid the emotional intensity of familial interaction, often for strong personal reasons you don’t want to blunder into. They may have already experienced family dissolution, or regard relatives as people to escape from. In horror, this impulse might be called “Mummies? Yes! Mommy? No!” Be sure to secure buy-in, either by talking to your players at home or clearly signaling the premise of your con game on the sign-in sheet.


Fear Itself is a game of contemporary horror that plunges ordinary people into a disturbing world of madness and violence. Use it to run one-shot sessions in which few (if any) of the protagonists survive, or an ongoing campaign in which the player characters gradually discover more about the terrifying supernatural reality which hides in the shadows of the ordinary world. Will they learn how to combat the creatures of the Outer Black? Or spiral tragically into insanity and death? Purchase Fear Itself in print and PDF at the Pelgrane Shop.

Because most RPG play advice goes to GMs, we tend to focus on them as the source of possible roadblocks in a session’s pacing. However, although in most game systems players lack the narrative control of GMs, they can also throw wrenches into the machinery of any plot.

I’m not just talking about moments when players shoot each other’s plans down (though that too can easily become a drag if you’re not careful.) No, I’m talking about the moment when the player leaps in, trying to turn a GM yes into a GM no.

As a player, when you hear another player propose an action to the GM, you may from time to time feel the temptation to leap in with a logical objection.

Other player: “I rush out onto the fire escape.”

GM: “Okay, once there, you—”

You: “Oh actually buildings in this part of the country typically don’t have fire escapes.”

Other player [fumes silently]

GM [fumes silently]

Now, put as baldly as that, you may be saying to yourself, “Oh actually I don’t do that.” And, as you are a fine and delightful person and a habitue of the Pelgrane blog, let’s stipulate that you wouldn’t.

But some people do, and you might be surprised if you were to inventory your past in-game utterances. Player-side blocking happens reflexively, and I don’t think that anyone who does it means to or realizes the implications of what they’re doing.

Some of us suffer a particular susceptibility to the urge to block GM approvals of other players’ actions. The temptation can strike players who mostly GM. Plot-hole-seeking viewers who have trouble suspending disbelief while watching genre movies and TV shows can also blurt out action-blocking statements at the gaming table.

As in the scripts you’re spotting implausibilities in, GMs are often letting strict practical logic slide in an effort to empower participation and keep things moving. Busting them on this slows or stops the action, shifting focus to picayune detail, at the expense of the broader narrative.

When you feel the tingle of a plot block dancing on your tongue, the easiest thing to do is nothing. Just don’t say that. At the end of the session you can regale the rest of the group with your superior fire escape knowledge while also implicitly praising the GM for not letting stuff that doesn’t matter kill momentum.

Alternately, in cases where your realism needs simply can’t be contained, find a way to turn a block into an adjustment. Instead of saying that the action the GM is ready to allow can’t work, propose a way that it can.

“Oh actually, there aren’t fire escapes in this part of the country, so likely Sajid watches the burglars from a balcony. Is it maybe made of frosted glass, helping him hide while he does it?”

 

“Nobody wants to see that, smell that…”

When a news story starts with the phrase “In what sounds like a scene from a horror film,” the media monitors at the Ordo Veritatis sit up and take notice.

When a basement floods with gore and bone, as happened in Bagley, Iowa in mid-October, they send a team of investigators, alert to possible Esoterrorist activity.

It might just be that the neighboring meat locker shares a drain with the unfortunate homeowner’s basement. That will certainly be the story the agents spread when they later conduct their Veil-Out.

Or it could be a blutkeller, an Outer Dark manifestation that forms around abattoirs and meat-packing facilities. A spell propagated by Esoterror operatives conjures it into this reality. The working requires the dumping of a human corpse amid animal waste products at the facility. An entity enters the mixture of blood and flesh, either remaining in the facility or slurping down the nearest drain or sluice. It then periodically surfaces to opportunistically attack lone victims, pulling them down into itself and devouring them, ooze-style. When it disappears into a partially clogged drain after an attack, it leaves a portion of itself behind. The blutkeller can come up through any connected pipe, or through demonic multilocation, phase into another nearby underground room. It can only phase into buildings visited by persons who have come into skin contact with its liquid residue. During the mission briefing, the team’s Mr. Verity strongly advises the use of hazmat suits when examining any potential blutkeller effluvia.

The demonic entity lacks solid substance and cannot be fought by normal means. An ingenious team might manage to contain or slow its rampage by freezing it with liquid nitrogen. To permanently banish it from the world, they must place the person who summoned it in its presence. Compelled to attack and devour its benefactor, it shrieks with thwarted rage before a red vortex sucks it back into the Outer Dark.

Until that happens, the summoner gains an infusion of psychic energy each time the blutkeller kills. This attracts luck, positive attention, and physical vitality. Agents may concentrate their search on local individuals gaining sudden wealth, popularity, or fame. To prove their case, they seek evidence that the target researched the ritual and had its corresponding, distinct sigil tattooed somewhere on the body.

It is not possible to cast the spell without expecting an ensuing series of horrible deaths. While agents may regret the necessity of feeding the summoner to the entity, they can assure themselves that the target made its bargain with the Outer Dark knowingly and

[sunglasses off]

…in cold blood.


The Esoterrorists are occult terrorists intent on tearing the fabric of the world – and you play elite investigators out to stop them. This is the game that revolutionized investigative RPGs by ensuring that players are never deprived of the crucial clues they need to move the story forward. Purchase The Esoterrorists in print and PDF at the Pelgrane Shop.

A column about roleplaying

by Robin D. Laws

Pity the poor monsters. With Halloween over, they’re nursing hangovers and anticipating fallow months of scant employment over the holiday season.

Here at Pelgrane we love our monsters twelve months a year.

But what happens when you love a monster too much to want your GUMSHOE characters to fight it?

We think of horror stories as featuring monsters as antagonists. Right from the start though, with Frankenstein, the genre has called into question the nature of monstrousness. For every out-and-out fiend, like Dracula, we get a beleaguered beast, like King Kong, we should merely have left alone.

Recapitulating horror tales where we empathize for the Other requires some translation to work in the GUMSHOE format. Investigative horror assumes that the protagonists learn about, and then vanquish, monstrous beings. For this to work the players have to want to see the creatures defeated.

Our key horror games handle this issue by keeping the creatures clearly predatory. The Lovecraftian beasties bedeviling Trail of Cthulhu investigators want to stick our heads in jars or drag us down into the watery depths. The Outer Dark Entities of The Esoterrorists revel in their planned destruction of our world. If they’re misunderstood, it’s by the poor human saps who think they can gain power by letting them through the membrane.

This doesn’t mean that we can’t evoke the more creature-friendly strand of the horror tradition. We do have to exercise some care, ensuring that players can continue to sympathize with their own characters when the monsters they confront turn out to be misunderstood.

Plenty of horror tales have us root for the Other as an instrument of just vengeance. They don’t feature investigators attempting to thwart them. Freaks wouldn’t make a lick of emotional sense if it centered around a team of cops or private eyes trying to protect the cruel Cleopatra and Hercules from terrible comeuppance at the hands of the sideshow performers.

If you’re structuring a GUMSHOE scenario so that the targets of the creatures deserve an awful fate, your players will eventually ask why they’re trying to stop them, instead of helping them.

For example, you might want to explore a social issue through the vengeful ghost trope. At first it might seem appealing to show ghosts of workers killed in 1911’s notorious Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire fatally haunting sweatshop operators. But if you depict the vengeance as righteous, players won’t feel particularly motivated to protect their victims. If you depict the ghosts choosing the wrong targets, you’re making villains out of the people whose tragedy you meant to highlight.

You can answer that question by making your vengeance-seekers unsympathetic from the jump. Sure, Freddie Krueger wants to get back at the children of the people who burned him to death, but they did that to him because he was a serial killer. This, of course, solves the issue by entirely sidestepping it.

A monster can evoke sympathy even as it nonetheless has to be stopped. It might be justifiably enraged after being dislodged from its lair, or transported to the Broadway stage in chains. Still, its inevitable rampage threatens innocent lives, and the investigators have to discover the means to either pacify or destroy the creature before many more are killed. This allows the investigators to feel a sense of pathos when the beast meets its destruction.

Alternately though, you could design the mystery so that they’re trying to find a way to save both the creature and its potential innocent victims. Maybe they need to find the amulet allowing them to pacify the fish-man, luring it safely back to its lagoon. Or the scenario occurs in the creature’s island, grotto or isolated valley, with the heroes figuring out a way to stop the real antagonists, the showmen who want to capture the so-called monster.

A sapient monster might serve as an unwilling antagonist. A lycanthropy victim might be the one who contacts the investigators, begging them to find a way to cure her condition before the full moon next rises. She’s been through the whole routine of chaining herself up at night, but somehow that always fails, leaving her roaming the moors again. So far she’s only devoured cattle but she’s sure that eventually she’ll stumble across the wrong hiker and tear him apart. The real antagonists might turn out to be the sorcerers who cursed her, man-eating werewolves who don’t want the cure getting out, or the sinister researcher intent on using her blood as a pharmaceutical ingredient.

Your tragic monster might have already gone down the path of murder and destruction, while retaining enough self-awareness to regret it. The cannibal clone of a researcher’s dead husband has enough conscience to regret his flesh-eating compulsion. But then, only human meat grants him sustenance, and he isn’t up for suicide. Again, your scenario could give the players a moral choice between finding a cure or simply killing him.

You could twist this into your take on the Jekyll and Hyde dichotomy. The heroes discover that the killer they’ve been tracking is one of two personalities occupying the same body. Killing or imprisoning the monster means that the affable, helpful and entirely innocent alter ego suffers punishment too. Do the investigators prevail on the good half to make the ultimate sacrifice? Again, solving the mystery by finding a cure provides a less fraught conclusion for players who rebel when presented with no-win situations.

The easiest version of the sympathetic monster is one in which evil humans know of the creature’s existence and are framing it for their own crimes. The snake folk mind their own business in the remote mountains, until meth cookers familiar with his legend start dropping corpses covered in fake fang marks. When the investigators find out that the real monsters are people, they might take care of them on their own. Or, if they’ve established good relations with the reptile people, they might invite them to help clean up the nest of killers threatening their quiet, isolated lives.


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 Trail of Cthulhu, Night’s Black Agents, Esoterrorists, Ashen Stars, Mutant City Blues and Fear Itself. Learn more about how to run GUMSHOE games, and download the GUMSHOE System Reference Document to make your own GUMSHOE products under the Open Gaming License or the Creative Commons 3.0 Attribution Unported License.

Revising your writing requires acute concentration. The first draft may be an act of pure creation, but when you start to patch it up, any tool that can assist your weary brain warrants consideration, no matter how mechanical it may seem.

Almost every writer’s first draft includes stylistic bugaboos that need to be hunted down and eliminated.

For example, you may know that you occasionally:

  • confuse “their” and “there”

  • overuse dashes or quotation marks

  • use “affect” when you mean “effect”

Nearly any manuscript can use a scrub for unnecessary uses of the word “that.” Half the time you need it to retain sense or rhythm. The other half, it’s just sitting there, killing the rhythm of your sentence. Scrutinize each appearance.

In roleplaying writing, when describing hypothetical actions of characters or objects in a game session, you can almost always strike the word “will” and then tighten further:

The truck will come barreling out of the alley at the investigators.

Becomes…

The truck barrels out of the alley at the investigators.

To mention another issue I always go on about, you may know that you use too many inactive verbs: “is”, “are”, and “be.”

Either through an editor or with the aid of a word cloud generator, you may have discovered that you over-rely on certain words or phrases. (Which words pass muster and which you ought to trim is a bigger subject, so for the sake of this discussion let’s stipulate that you’ve identified the words and phrases you want to ration.)

Bugaboos of whatever sort easily slip past the eye when revising. You place them in your document unconsciously. They can remain equally invisible to you when reviewing . Force yourself to see them by using the formatting feature of your word processor’s search and replace feature to highlight each instance of the word or phrase you’re looking for. Search and replace in both Word and LibreOffice* allows you not only to find instances of formatting, but also to add it where none exists. So if you’re looking for all instances of “that”, search for “that” (no formatting) and replace with “that” (highlighted.) Before beginning the revision in earnest, repeat the process for each bugaboo you want to spot.

As you comb through your text, your selected errors and problems jump out at you in blazing yellow. This makes it harder to mentally screen out the stuff you’re looking for.

Is this annoying? Yes, and that’s a plus. After a while you’ll have cut or un-highlighted so many instances of your target word or phrase that you might just rewire your brain so you make that mistake less frequently during the initial draft phrase.

Editors love writers who show progress by overcoming their familiar bugaboos. Using a trick to get there doesn’t count as cheating. And even if it did, they’d love you all the same.


*Google Docs, deliberately feature-light, does not provide for this. Yet another reason why nothing you write for professional publication should be composed exclusively on Google Docs. It’s fine for first draft, if you find it convenient, but when readying for submission you need the formatting capabilities of an actual word processor.

A column about roleplaying

by Robin D. Laws

In Ashen Stars, players portray freelance law enforcers working the spacelanes of the frontier sector known as the Bleed. Their ability to secure lucrative contracts depends on their reputation, which goes up when they solve cases well and honorably, and drops when they get caught cutting ethical corners.

The game simplifies this by assuming that the crew always gets a good contract, but after an expensive fallow period if they have dragged their Reputation.

The existence of desirable contracts suggests its opposite—there must be terrible contracts none but the foolish or desperate ever accept. Players may ask you what they passed up while waiting for a decent job to appear on their comm screens. For flavor’s sake, here are some examples you can give them:

* The Nufaith of Eregrinism offers a bounty to the crew willing to dislodge the possessing alien entity from the body of their founding prophet, Eregrin. Several crews have found Eregrin over the years, leading a peripatetic existence spending the money he absconded with as he departed the church. Repeated scans have proven no unusual brain activity. The Eregrinists’ explanation for their prophet’s apostasy cannot be correct, rendering their contract unfulfillable.

* The Daralala clan wants the muckworm of Leipzig-7 apprehended and transported for trial to their space station in the Cerberus Outzone. They first mooted this contract a decade ago, and it’s easy to see why no one has taken them up on it. The muckworm dwells in the toxic sludge comprising the mass of Leipzig-7. No one has yet invented a hazard suit capable of sustaining survival in this environment. Nor has any independent researcher established the muckworm’s sapience, and thus its criminal liability in the death of explorer Heran Deralala. Also, the worm is ten miles long and weighs as much as a large moon. No known technology would facilitate its successful transport.

* Towerreach, a wealthy cybe real estate developer from Muscadin, has lodged a complaint for criminal libel against a rival, a durugh named Esagalius. He disputes Esagalius’ claim of having built a more perfectly symmetrical skyscraper than his own. The charge of criminal libel is not recognized on the durugh’s home planet, Farcin—nor, indeed, anywhere else but Muscadin. He is thus not extraditable. Nabbing him from Farcin would constitute kidnapping, a crime devastating to any laser crew’s reputation.

  • A tavak spice merchant, Bedat Who Encompassed the Unsurpassable Flavor, offers a hefty reward for the apprehension of her wife’s killer. However, a clear holo-image has since come to light showing Bedat herself fatally strangling her. No one has offered to pay for Bedat’s apprehension. Though the contract she put out as a show of her innocence remains in the system, no one believes she’d pay for her own arrest.
  • The current and past president of Nusardia have extended competing embezzlement charges against one another. Though both undoubtedly committed the charged offenses, the Nusardian High Court famously nullifies all laser contracts naming the planet’s corrupt high officials. It typically slaps laser crews with civil and criminal penalties if they try to act on them. Only greenhorns get mixed up in Nusardian politics.
  • Balla environmentalists offer a reward for the apprehension of polluter Zimax Zell, whose ships befouled the rings of Olumba. However the contract acknowledges his likely death in the explosion of the freighter Constant, which had him registered as a passenger.
  • The bereaved family of transport fleet magnate Zimax Zell seek the arrest of the eco-terrorists who blew up his flagship, the Constant. Three previous laser crews all reached the conclusion that an interaction between a stellar anomaly and an engine fault caused the ship’s destruction, exonerating the activists named in the contract.
  • A trade consortium offers a reward for the utter destruction of the Ultraviolets, a pirate fleet of the Kraken Outzone. Lasers all know that the consortium itself acts as a fence for goods and ships seized by the Ultraviolets. Everyone suspects that they promulgated the contract as a lure to bring ships to the Kraken for capture.
  • The Operating Board of Patrune offers apprehension contracts for numerous citizens accused of violating its draconian immigration statutes. Lasers avoid working for Patrune for two reasons. One, they find it dispiriting to arrest desperate people who run afoul of their unjust legal system. Two, the Operating Board pays on an infamously slow schedule, when it does so at all.
  • An alliance of laser crews offers a reward for the apprehension of the Operating Board of Patrune for non-payment of outstanding invoices. This contract has clearly been lodged for symbolic reasons, as the promised fee in no way compensates for the logistical challenges of arresting the entire executive of a sitting government.
  • The vas mal scholar Honorious Miike will pay a sizable reward for the recovery of his yamagchan, an object (or perhaps abstract force?) he is unable or unwilling to describe. “You will know it when you find it,” the contract simply states.

Players being players, yours may decide that they want to turn one of these entries, all written as time-wasting dead ends, into an actual adventure.

If you can see a way to turn the dud contract they fixate on into something, do that. This might be a simple matter of having the wild goose chase implied by the contract lead them to a completely different mystery—perhaps one you already had in mind. Or you could devise a way around its supposedly insurmountable obstacles.

Otherwise, you can play out the expected failure of the mission as a quick vignette. It could lead into a character subplot or provide the spark for fun inter-character banter. After you’ve wrung all the interest you can from that, they find a new contract actually worth pursuing.


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

When organizing an RPG corebook a tension typically arises between its two roles as a tutorial document and a reference guide. The perfect organization remains an impossible ideal, perhaps humming along on some Platonic plane but not in this reality. Learning and playing an RPG isn’t nonlinear, in that you start doing it and eventually wind up having done it. But the line you and your group follow winds up being different from anyone else’s.

With that in mind I broadly structure GUMSHOE core sets to follow the players’ experience of the game, then move on to material both players and GMs need, and finally to GM-only sections, including setting, GM tips, and the intro scenario. Within each section, however, I follow reference guide principles. So you get all of the combat rules together, in an order roughly patterned on the way a fight plays out. But within that, sections are also ordered in conceptual order. This means that if subsystem H requires the use of core rule 3, that core rule has to appear before the subsystem. (Sometimes I’ll tuck a needed but infrequently used subsystem in an appendix, where it isn’t looking all complicated and confusing in the main body of the rules.)

Whatever the book structure, it’s not what happens when a GM teaches the game to others.

If I got to choose how everyone does it, I’d recommend keeping rules explanation to an absolute minimum until needed in play, with the following stages:

1. general intro to the setting, core activity, and, if unfamiliar to the group, the basic style and ethos of the rules set. (“You play ultra-competent occult investigators who fight an occult conspiracy on behalf of an international secret agency. It uses GUMSHOE, rules tuned specifically for investigative storytelling.”)

2. character generation, focusing on player choices, with only the rules details needed to understand the choices before them. (“These are your investigative abilities, which you use to reliably get information when you look in the right place. The numbers next to them provide special benefits beyond that, which I’ll explain in play.”)

3. the first scenario, with rules explanations supplied when they come up. (“Okay, this is one of the general abilities we talked about earlier. You’re rolling a six-sided die, hoping to hit a target number, usually 4. You can spend any number of points from your pool to increase the chances of success.”)

When players ask questions during character generation, answer until they’re satisfied. They’re probably not looking for the whole spiel. In most cases you’ll find they’re focused on imagining their characters and aren’t primed to also fully absorb even the comparatively simple rules found in GUMSHOE.

This way they don’t feel overwhelmed with information, and get to reserve their attention to the creative side of character generation. When the time comes to use a rule in play, it’s more likely to stick. You’re demonstrating it by example, with an attached emotional resonance from the story situation.

This method also allows learning in short bursts, also a key to memorizing abstractions.

A column about roleplaying

by Robin D. Laws

One of my core dicta for The Esoterrorists setting is that its good-guy, anti-occult covert agency, the Ordo Veritatis, never turns out to be have been the secret villains all along. Although this horror game draws heavily on the technothriller, where betrayals of protagonists by superiors remains an evergreen stock element, I recommend striking that particular chestnut from the scenario writer’s kitbag.

I do this for several reasons:

  • It punishes players for buying in. The setting and the case-of-the-week structure demand reliable Ordo contacts.
  • The setting’s hard horror is already bleak and horrible enough. As a counter to that I want players to feel that they can rely on the people giving them the mission—even if they mostly have to solve problems without calling in backup.
  • Thanks to Shadowrun’s Mr. Johnson trope, it lands as an even more common cliché in RPGs than in other media.
  • In an RPG context, the loyalty switcheroo particularly annoys players, who respond by vandalizing the fourth wall. They know the cliché, expect the cliché, and are probably talking about the cliché during the scene where they get their briefing from the GMC you need them to trust. Though in general I treat narrative tropes as useful tools for improvised storytelling, this one encourages the sort of out-of-character tactical discussion we disdainfully call metagaming.

Having said all that, you might be seeking s a way to take the familiar theme of betrayal and do it up right. Two simple principles allow you to to flirt with this motif without injuring the players’ trust in the Ordo, the setting—and you, the GM.

Don’t Make It the Twist

Characters in fiction might well be surprised when their allies turn out to be heels. Anyone who’s played more than a handful of RPG sessions expects this as the default. Avoid the dread deflation of unsurprising surprise by setting up a betrayal as part of the mission premise.

  • Mr. Verity, the briefer who gives you the mission, betrays you right away. She* shows up with guns blazing. After you neutralize her as a threat, learning why she tried to execute her team becomes the initial spur of your investigation.
  • In mid briefing, an alien parasite erupts from Mr. Verity, killing him. After stomping it into ichor, you have to find out how it infected him and what that has to do with his briefcase full of documents.
  • Mr. Verity assigns you a mole hunt mission. The Ordo has learned that a member of another team has been compromised—but they don’t know which one. You’re sent to shadow your counterparts and identify the agent who’s gone over to the Outer Dark. Since teams only come together when working a case, you also have to deal with the supernatural threat they’re tracking. Since you’re PCs and they’re GMCs, it goes without saying that you discover something crucial about their Outer Dark Entities that they need to know to save their lives, or those of others. How do you communicate your intel without blowing your mole hunt? Does their case connect to the double agent’s scheme, or is it a side complication?
  • You’re ordered to track down a former agent who has gone rogue and already now leads an Esoterror cell. A past personal connection links him to the team. He can identify them, complicating their effort to get at him. But for plot device reasons they’re the ones with the best chance of apprehending him.
  • Mr. Verity gives an apparently normal briefing, except the character with Bullshit Detector can sense that they’re lying their ass off.

Also, think thrice before saddling players with the unintentional betrayals of institutional incompetence. As Ken would quickly interject if this was a segment of our podcast, that’s unrealistic in the light of real life espionage, the history of which buckles under the weight of various epic blunders. If you’d like to explore that in your game, look at THE FALL OF DELTA GREEN, which bakes massive institutional failure into its premise, and thus the implicit player-GM contract. Let Ordo agents face a panoply of other awful obstacles, but spare them from being screwed by superiors’ stupidity or venal interference from the upper echelons.

Maybe that’s why the other agencies fail so often—the smart people all got recruited by the Ordo. As mundane agencies flounder, it operates on a lofty, world-saving plane above the rolling ineptitude epidemic of contemporary politics.

Leave the Ordo Like You Found It

Construct your scenario premise to avoid blowing the entire agency as a resource the PCs can trust in the future.

  • For your antagonist, use a single rogue agent or team, not the top leadership of the entire agency.
  • The conspiracy doesn’t go all the way to the top, but has only corrupted a particular field office or specialist department.
  • At the end of the scenario, a favorite past Mr. Verity steps in to confidently take charge, assuring the group that all the weeds have been successfully pulled.
  • Use the Bullshit Detector ability to your advantage. When a high-placed GMC makes a statement the PCs can trust, tell the relevant character that they can treat it as 100% reliable.
  • Treat betrayal as a one-off, not a staple. One betrayal from agents corrupted by perverse beings of unspeakable torment is misfortune. More than that is carelessness—your carelessness as a GM.

Players get overwhelmed easily in a horror mystery scenario. Preserve the benevolent yet distant hand of the Ordo Veritatis as a backstop they can resort to when you need to nudge them out of a hole they’ve dug themselves into.

* All briefers use this code name regardless of the honorific normally attached to their real identities.


The Esoterrorists are occult terrorists intent on tearing the fabric of the world – and you play elite investigators out to stop them. This is the game that revolutionized investigative RPGs by ensuring that players are never deprived of the crucial clues they need to move the story forward. Purchase The Esoterrorists in print and PDF at the Pelgrane Shop.

Are you afflicted by reality slippage? Seeing pallid-masked pursuers behind every tree? Waiting for the final results of a terrifying printing process that has left you on the precipice of your Final Shock Card? It’s summertime in the Pelgrane’s Nest, and that means cocktail recipes to cool your brow and chill your blood. Remember, always bow to the Hyades responsibly.

RUBY OF CASSILDA

1 ¼ oz dark rum

¾ oz hazelnut liqueur

½ can San Pellegrino aranciata rossa

Serve on the rocks.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 
 

 

 

 


BLOODY HALI

4 basil leaves, sliced, then muddled in bottom of glass

Juice of ½ lime

2 oz cachaça

Tomato juice to taste

3 drops liquid smoke

Serve on the rocks

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


MR. WILDE’S CAT

1 ½ oz bourbon

½ oz port

4 oz Jarritos pineapple soda

4 oz club soda

Absent Jarrritos, sub in the pineapple soda you can find.

Serve on the rocks.

A column about roleplaying

by Robin D. Laws

Continuing from last month, we look at the Dreamhounds of Paris player characters who survived to the 1960s and how they might make cameo appearances as sources of information in The Fall of Delta Green.

Agents seeking Giorgio de Chirico (1888- 1978), painter of eerie, depopulated landscapes strewn with Classical debris, find him in his home near the Spanish Steps in Rome. Still busily at work on new canvases, he long ago abandoned his so-called metaphysical style, no longer wanting anything to do with the Dreamlands. Should agents show up brandishing one of his old paintings, he declares it a forgery. Ironically, it may be a forgery of his own creation, as his old style commands higher prices than his current, Rubens-inspired work, and he sometimes pays the rent by dashing one off and signing an old date to it. Art might spot the fraud, giving the group leverage to gain the info they seek from him. He may confess that he still occasionally slips back to the Dreamlands, where he tries his best to revert it to its pre-surrealist state. Nowadays that means removing the Oldenburg stuffed hamburgers and the field of Warhol electric chairs.

Previous to his death in 1968 at 81, agents can locate the cerebral granddaddy of conceptual artists, Marcel Duchamp either in the Greenwich Village New York studio where he secretly putters away on new projects, or at home in Neuilly-sur-Seine, France. Age has left undimmed the sardonic twinkle in his eyes. Prying information from a reluctant Duchamp may require an agent to lose to him at chess (not a difficult feat), followed by Flattery of his playing skill. The old man might be lured back to the Dreamlands, doubtless in the dream-form of his female alter ego Rrose Sélavy, by the opportunity to play a Grandmaster there. Duchamp remains fast friends with Man Ray, a frequent visitor at Neuilly-sur-Seine.

After a lengthy sojourn in Sedona, New Mexico, the German-born painter, collagist and bird avatar Max Ernst (1891-1976) moved back to France. The agents find him working in his Provence studio alongside his American wife, Dorothea Tanning, also a surrealist painter. Finally financially secure, he ruefully recalls the hunger and occasional danger of his Dreamhounds days. Having once painted a gruesome protective mural to aid his late friend Paul Éluard against a Mythos entity, he might do the same for the team on an Inspiration spend.

Largely retired from a career devoted to theatrical set design, Valentine Hugo lives modestly in a Paris flat. When visited by agents, she maintains a decades-long pretense, claiming to have abandoned painting and drawing. HUMINT shows that she’s lying—and indeed, a locked room contains countless visual works, including one on the easel right now. Even then she says she has stopped showing her work out of shyness, when really she’s doing it for Pickmanesque reasons. Or the paintings act as a portal to the Dreamlands, Leng or Yuggoth. Or she has enemies trapped in the confines of her delicate linework. Hugo dies in 1968, at 80.

René Magritte lives long enough to see his paintings of impossible realism, suffused with deadpan wit, embraced by the counterculture generation. A man of regular habits even during his interactions with the 30s surrealists, he leads a quiet life with his wife Georgette near Brussels. Though he never admits to participation in any supernatural event, he tells the agents what they want to know by couching his memories as fiction. As his final year, 1967, approaches, agents may note outward signs of his pancreatic cancer. After meeting him, the agents are pursued by faceless, bowler-hatted men clad like Belgian bankers.

The painter André Masson (1896 – 1987) has returned to the automatism he practiced in his surrealist days, now through his present viewpoint as a Zen Buddhist. His new faith tempers his turbulent, anarchic personality. The agents may be drawn to Paris flat after learning of his support for Algerian independence, for which he is arrested in 1961. Leveraging this with the aid of French intelligence contacts may allow them to subject him to Interrogation. Secrets he may harbor include not only his Dreamlands activity but Mythos involvement in the Spanish Civil War, which he witnessed first hand. (Thus allowing you to dragoon your copy of Soldiers of Pen and Ink into DELTA GREEN service.)

Even for DELTA GREEN agents, getting access to the world’s most famous artist isn’t easy. Pablo Picasso (1881-1973) might take a shine to them if pick up on and echo his contempt for his longtime personal and ideological enemy André Breton. HUMINT shows that his claims never to have been involved with or influenced by the surrealists include a healthy dollop of protesting too much. Picasso still works feverishly at an array of paintings and sculptures, never mind the critics who call them passé and perverse. An unflinching Stalinist (at least in public), his Party connections may be of as much interest to agents as his long-ago Dreamlands jaunts.

The American surrealist photographer and experimental filmmaker Man Ray (1890-1976) lives in Paris’ St. Germain des Pres neighborhood with his wife, the dancer Juliet Browner. Agents may find him in a retrospective mood, as he is either working on his 1963 autobiography Self-Portrait or still has his notes lying around. Naturally the published version omits all the details of filming an experimental film in a supernatural realm, or the time he was nearly devoured by the disembodied lips of ex-lover Lee Miller near the Nameless Rock. Streetwise may permit agents to filch undeveloped film canisters bearing the legend “les fouet de Dylath-Leen.”

Dadaist poet and performance artist Tristan Tzara has stepped back from public life after antagonizing fellow Communists by supporting Hungary’s liberalization movement. His grudge against André Breton continues: his old nemesis deepened his troubles by agreeing with him too loudly. Tzara accepts the occasional prize for his contributions to poetry, studies the works of 15th century poet-criminal François Villon, and promotes African art. When agents ask for his help, he conditions it on a favor in return. They must banish the invisible entity that pursues him. Half a decade ago, it moved into his apartment in Zurich, trapping him there. Now, his health mysteriously failing, he feels its inexorably nearing presence. He’ll tell them anything—anything—so long as they banish it. Presumably the agents do a partial job at best, as Tzara dies of unknown causes on Christmas of 1963.


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.

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