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.

A plot hook for The Yellow King RPG (This is Normal Now)

One or more investigators have a connection to teenager, Ayda, who comes to them for help. Her friend Carlos has retreated to his room and won’t come out. Last night his parents called a therapist to come over and coax him into seeking help at a facility. Still he refused.

Carlos isn’t having a mental health crisis, Ayda explains. It’s something much weirder than that. She’s heard that the investigators know about this stuff, and, against her friend’s instructions, is telling them what she knows.

Nearby in the neighborhood, in a mini-mall parking lot, stands the broken remains of a pay phone.

A few months ago, rumors started going round the local high school. If you listen to the phone, you might hear weird whispering voices. They sound distant and old-fashioned, the urban legend goes, like they’re reciting some Shakespearean play. Though not one that’s on the curriculum at school. The weird voices mention a king wearing a pallid mask, and someone named Cassilda. At the end it gets super perverse and awful, until you can’t stand it any more and fling the receiver away.

Then you’re doomed. Within a week, unless you convince someone else to listen to the phone and doom them instead, you die. A freak accident that pertains in some way to your personality kills you.

Cynthia Mortimer was the first to hear the voices. The expensive handbag she was so proud of and always boasted about got caught in the doors of a subway train, dragging her to her death.

Then Phil Campillo, a maniacally focused tennis player, got his head pulped by a bizarrely malfunctioning ball machine. They say he listened to the call to protect his girlfriend, Amy Washington, who couldn’t resist trying it out.

A week ago, a private investigator hired by Rich Danforth’s family was looking into the rumors and asking questions. He raised security dogs, and died when one of the stepped on his gun, releasing the trigger. Rich admits that he listened to the message, then chickened out and had his father hire someone to hear it in his place.

That’s how Carlos tells it, anyway. When Ayda asked how he learned all of this, she couldn’t pin him down. It’s like you just kind of know, right?

This is day six, and even though Carlos is staying away from everyone and everything, he can tell he’s next. Unless the investigators can figure out what’s going on and find a way to put a stop to it.


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

 

A column about roleplaying

by Robin D. Laws

This column concludes a four-part series illustrating what might happen in your grand Yellow King Roleplaying Game arc with a precis of what happened in mine.

It’s the present day. Not in a weird, post-revolutionary New York City, but in Toronto. Where everything is safe and ordinary. Where the characters we saw in the previous sequence of YKRPG lead quotidian lives, as drifted versions of their formerly hard-nosed, war-damaged selves.

In our sequence of This is Normal Now, the PCs looked like this:

 

Player

Character

Job

Drive

Freaking Weird Moment

Familiar Face

Chris

Alex Chavez

Barista

Greed

boss was murdered by an invisible stalker

na

Justin

Walter van Sickle

Technical Writer

Adventure

went to a Fringe play and doesn’t remember anything from intermission on & usher said play hadn’t happened that night

Lester Steele – (former silver cartel) boss

Paul

Georges Dubois

Landscape Painter

Thirst for Inspiration

aced his med school exam but exam he submitted was not what he wrote

Jordan von Sommer – (former preppy cop) – university pal

Rachel

Judith Dortmuth

Photographer

Malleable

at her friend’s photo opening, with playfully occult portrait – one of the portraits winked at her

Neera – TTC bus driver

Scott

Gavin Byrne

PKD Lecture organizer

Wants a Weirder World

woke up on the slab in the Process building

Tami Akana – his boss in this world, People’S Deputy

Sue

Sara Delaney

Barista – / Aspiring Actress

The Munchie Zone, next door to Cannabis Connection

Learn Real Magic To Make Herself a Star

tried to cast a spell and actually succeeded in levitating an object

Jeff Gill aka Creepy Carcoscan Guy – boyfriend and fellow barista — a not so successful classical musician

Jurie

Jack

Vanderbos

Marketing Coordinator

Escape from Mundanity

Checking Tweetdeck for his clients’ social media & led to weird meme / bot campaign about #foxes — all trace then vanished

Edmund Dawson – (former dissident) – hangs out in the park wearing tweed and being wise & playing chess

 

The Familiar Face entry notes the counterpart of a GMC from the previous sequence, drifted to the mundane reality of this one.

Chris went through a record number of characters in this final installment. The above entry notes his character as of the conclusion. His first character, Jerry Jean-Leon, appeared in this reality as a security guard, working at the weed dispensary owned by Scott’s original PC, Ben Rodriguez—who in Aftermath had been the Government Lethal Chamber technician.

What can I say? The mind-bending swirl of our 2018 had the Shock cards coming thick and fast, and, well, emotional casualties occurred.

The introductory scenario from the book, “Entanglement,” took two sessions, bringing the group together and showing them that they were all somehow connected by a supernatural conspiracy.

The following two sessions led them to investigate an up-and-coming local politician with unsavory links to Carcosa and associated atavistic philosophies. Through Jack’s marketing agency several members of the group were outfitted with wristband style personal assistant devices called Urchins. Though otherwise eager-to-please, these mobile devices could not be removed by ordinary means. When they started to rewrite Jerry’s past recollections, he fatally shot himself. (This was the player’s choice rather than an exit caused by taking too many Shock cards.)

In the next scenario, Jerry’s rugged counterpart from Aftermath showed up in this reality as the group probed a murder connected to their coffee shop hangout. The players obligingly embraced dramatic irony, treating this previous player character (now played by me) as the obvious villain. The real bad guy, who Other Jerry eventually helped them take out, was the Carcosan assassin from the prior sequence, a dead ringer for Sara’s boyfriend.

The following week, Jack’s assignment to set up a marketing event at one of the city’s haunted locations led the group to the Don Jail, a prison turned historical tourist site. They identified an eerie manifestation on the cell walls as an incipient new gate from Carcosa. In a returning motif, a maquette of a winged Salome from an exhibit of Gus Morley statues at the jail vanished during their ghost-busting. Meanwhile, a person Chris’ first replacement character, Clark, recognized as a character from a Philip K. Dick novel, came around the dispensary looking for the right prescription to shield his mind from an alien satellite beaming Gnostic philosophy at him. Finally a sighting of the animated statue flapping around outside the coffee shop cost Ben his grip on reality, for the second PC loss of the sequence.

Week seven dealt with the consequences of that departure and developed ongoing plot lines. The group learned more about the Urchin and the company behind it, pointing to the existence of a schism within the Carcosan conspiracy.

The following scenario tangled Judith up in the murder of a portrait client, a Russian oligarch with ties to arms dealing and one of the two conspiracies. The killer? His daughter’s Pretty Polly doll, armed with a butcher knife. This led the group to a cliffhanger at the victim’s warehouse full of C4.

After the explosion, the group discovered that a villain from previous sequences, Addhema the vampire, was back in play, allied with the animated doll. This sent them to a library in cottage company that held a collection of books once owned by the American poet Aaron Ravenwood (a Paris PC), which held a tome containing the means of killing Addhema. The players did the GM a solid by declaring that one of their aunts owned a cottage nearby, allowing for haunted events in the deep lakeside woods at night. This plunge into bloodcurdling Canadiana claimed Chris’ second character.

When dawn came but darkness remained, the group realized that events had taken on a global scale. Putting to rest the ghosts they’d raised at the cottage restored the sun’s progress through the sky—but not before Chris’ third character, a rustic local Eliptony expert, also lost his grip for good.

Returning to the city, the group engineered a confrontation with Addhema and Pretty Polly. This did not go well, requiring their last-minute rescue by their pal, the Philip K. Dick character.

Now knowing the story of how the Paris characters originally unleashed Carcosa on the world, they realized they would have to travel back in time to stop them. Further research into Addhema’s backstory led the group to her native stomping grounds in Poland. There they found a haunted tree containing a gateway to Carcosa.

After various horrors exploring that alien realm, including a meeting with the PKD character in which he revealed himself to be the King in Yellow, they found the portal they needed. It took them to Paris in 1894, before the events of the first sequence. When the American art students arrived in the city, the This is Normal Now characters invited them to a picnic and efficiently murdered them.

They returned to our 2018 forever altered. Unlike them, it was now truly, genuinely, unironically normal, with all of the shocks of their last few months remembered but undone.

After more than a year and a half of epic play, the forces of Carcosa had been defeated for good.

But in that was in my game. In yours, they’re just getting started…


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.

Shock and Injury cards in The Yellow King Roleplaying Game are balanced assuming ongoing series play. When running a one-shot you may want to consider altering existing cards to make them nastier, or creating new, more intensely horrible ones. As in any horror game, players in one-shots often embrace the death spiral and find it perfectly in genre to end the session with a notable casualty count. YKRPG cards allow you to end their characters either physically or mentally. Given the reality horror motifs of its setting, you may find yourself leaning toward the latter.

I recently ran a game in the “This Is Normal Now” sequence for the gang on Dragonmeet eve in London. In addition to having a range of existing cards ready to serve to them, I cooked up a few tuned to the theme of the scenario—including this awful specimen:

In an ongoing game, something this harsh might be suitable for a climactic episode or the farewell to a player who has to drop your game for another commitment. Otherwise it’s way too brutal. Single cards that threaten to take your character out of the game do exist, but generally have much more forgiving discard conditions than this one, which requires you to pass the menace along to another player.

I don’t see myself using this card outside the context of this particular scenario. If I did, I’d drop the first effect line. There’s just too much going on in this card and the players found it confusing. The beneficial effect that tempts you to hold onto the card, endangering yourself and encouraging you to do bad things is something that works better in ongoing play. In a one-shot, the enticing circumstances don’t occur often enough.

As you might infer from the card title, the scenario was an homage to The Wicker Man, but with the dark impulses behind Brexit substituting for original film’s sexual panic. Players took on the roles of a Romanian short term construction crew, bound together by family ties, hired to complete an unfinished giant hollow wooden man in time for a music festival on March 29, 2019. (If you’re going to pay tribute to a classic, make that obvious as soon as possible, then add some other twist. The reference should never be your big revelation, because someone’s likely to guess it sooner than you planned.) I told players they could discard a card for free if they guessed the scenario’s title: Hard Brexit. No one got it, though Ken came up with a solid self-referential podcast pun, based on its setting in the town of Brampton.

Some readers may be hovering over your keyboards asking if we’re going to publish this, but it would be well past its topical sell date long by the time we could get it out. Anyway, all you really need is “Carcosa + Wicker Man + Brexit” and you’re good to go. For bonus points, perform a quick search of the local weirdness of a spot that cast the referendum’s densest Leave vote.

The card above is the Major Shock from a pair; here’s its Minor partner.

And here is another pair of custom Shock cards I didn’t wind up using. You can apply these to any Yellow King game, one-shot or not.


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

A column about roleplaying

by Robin D. Laws

It’s the present day. After a hundred years, the totalitarian Castaigne regime has fallen, and ex-insurgents like the player characters intend to make America a better place. But the vestiges of Carcosa left behind have other ideas.

This is the third in a series of four columns showing you what a full arc of The Yellow King Roleplaying Game might look like, with events from my own game as an example.

Having previously played art students in Belle Epoque Paris and soldiers of the Continental War, the players start the third sequence, Aftermath, by creating a set of characters with links to the previous ones. The post-revolutionary characters in my game were:

 

Player

Character

Civilian Occupation

Drive

Worst

Memory

Parallels

Chris

Jerome “Jerry” Jean-Leon

Security Guard

Political Cachet

mall was used as emergency collection center ala Katrina and hundreds of people died because he didn’t guard the electrical system

justifies his actions with unclear but loud references to Republican ideals

Justin

Walter van Sickle

Reporter

Writing Fodder

accidentally shot and killed friendly politician in a mistaken identity situation

Dropped a warehouse on some enemies

Paul

Nathan Dubois

Doctor

Redemption

final stages of the revolution, felt guilt over necessities of triage – made him identity people who could be moved (but were very hurt); is sure they were sacrificed in a gate-closing ritual

like the medic who started killing for the “greater good”; ancestor was Georges Dubois

Shel

Judith

Photographer

Vendetta

return to NYC on eve of revolution with info from family and younger siblings; arrived too late to see that younger sibling Vanessa was Yellow Sign agent and annihilated the rest in some sort of supernatural

first camera she ever owned was full of images of Ida’s work

Scott

Ben Rodriguez

Mechanic

Nagging Visions

crashed into a rooftop while in a Castaigne helicopter; only he and Jerry survived, watched rest of crew slowly die

a decorative gargoyle thing always seems to be there watching and it wasn’t there last week

Sue

Sara Delaney

Coffee Shop Owner

Wants to End It Once For and All

abusive relationship by leader of the resistance cell

world’s biggest Sophie fan girl

Jurie

Jack

Vanderbos

Marketing Coordinator

Danger Junkie

weird fox-like creatures sat back and looked at him peacefully had been eating people and licked his hand in a friendly way, tempting him to join them

likes weird things and has aversion to paper

 

We started with the “Sleeping Dogs” scenario from the book. Weirdly attentive readers will note that Hank Knight, the murder victim from this mystery, is an echo of Henri Cheval, the missing lover from the beginning of Paris. Your game won’t have an Henri Cheval, so you will probably reconfigure the victim so that it echoes events from your own series.

As is their wont with canine-themed investigations, the group took an expansive four episodes to explore all the nooks and crannies of this case.

Weeks five and six had the group investigating weird manifestations near a cemetery filled with early leaders of the Castaigne regime. As they sought to identify the nearby residents who had activated the Carcosan reality-bending effect, they confronted its manifestations: killer clowns, a human-sized fiji mermaid, and of course screaming foxes. Ultimately they traced the outbreak to the Yellow Sign insignia that bored, vandalizing teens had pried from the headstones in the cemetery’s VIP section.

During this scenario the group settled on its political goal, as Aftermath characters do. A good chunk of the first of this two-parter was devoted to the group deciding on its agenda and then discussing how to advance it. They decided to lobby for the creation of an agency to fight the occult. Their investigation of the haunted graveyard came at the behest of a likely patron in this pursuit, concerned about the plummeting property values of nearby apartments he owned.

The subsequent scenario returned to the murder mystery format. The killer turned out to be a revered dissident leader—or rather, the bio-engineered duplicate the regime replaced him during the bad old days. The dissident angle brought in one of Walter’s story hooks, his friendly fire shooting of another key anti-regime intellectual. The players dealt with this neatly, cooking up a press conference at which the duplicate revealed its monstrous form and fatally attacked the regime interrogator who killed the real dissident.

In week eight the team identified the explosives used in a bombing as dating back to the 1947 Continental War. This echo of the previous sequence led them to a scheme to sell off the still-functional contents of the city’s war museum. The plotters asked for mercy, on the grounds that they hadn’t being fully paid since the collapse of the old government and hey, curators gotta eat too. The team found itself in no mood to grant leniency, especially after the culprits tried sprung a death trap on them.

Mysterious heart attacks, deemed supernatural in origin, occupied the team’s attention in weeks nine and ten. They found that someone was directing a vengeance spirit, which echoed a longstanding motif from past sequences by leaving fiery winged Salome outlines at its murder scenes. The plotter turned out to be an important ally of their political patron, who wasn’t ready to cut him loose. This confronted the ex-insurgents with a moral dilemma—did they compromise and take the political win, or turn in the perp and set back their agenda?

The next week broke from Aftermath for a reprise of Paris, featuring the first set of characters in middle age. Set in Chicago during the influenza epidemic, this change-of-pace scenario had the group chasing an impetuous young Isaac Philipson—seen previously as a baby and then as the adult commander of the French army—in pursuit of a mystical artifact.

Moving back to Aftermath, the next two weeks concerned The Process. Powered by the artifact introduced in the reprise episode, this growing franchise operation offered to remove peoples’ traumatic memories of the civil war. The group investigated, finding plenty of creepiness but not enough evidence to take it down.

By this time it was the holidays again in our real world, so the next two-parter featured a “Christmas Carol”-referencing Carcosan assassin. Bent on revenge after being stiffed on a payment, it hunted the greedy members of a silver cartel. The crew made another uneasy political compromise by protecting the surviving cartel members in exchange for their support on the anti-supernatural agency. They took out the assassin in a Central Park showdown; only one of them had to wear the Santa suit.

Weeks fourteen and fifteen led the team to a weird science conspiracy stealing the brains of unconnected, apparently obscure individuals. The players, but not the characters, recognized the victims as famous celebrities in our timeline. Ultimately they discovered the purpose of the scheme: to reopen the shuttered gates to Carcosa by rerouting them through an alternate reality.

At the conclusion of this case, the team earned the final Chit point (the marker of their political progress) required to achieve their agenda.

With this milestone reached and the alternate realities motif now on the table, it was time to switch to the same characters in a different world, that of This is Normal Now.

Which we’ll get to when this series of columns concludes next month.


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. Preorder The Yellow King Roleplaying Game in print and PDF at the Pelgrane Shop.

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