This article originally appeared on DyingEarth.com, between 2004 and 2007.

A column about roleplaying

by Robin D. Laws

Considering how focused roleplayers are on plundering and looting, it’s surprising how little stealing we’ve done from the world of improv. Like us, sketch comedy troupes use collective, on-the-spot creativity to make entertainment out of nothing. And they don’t even need d12s. Or whatever it is that we need when we say our hobby is like playing cowboys and indians, except with rules to guarantee that the dead stay down when they get shot.

Let’s hijack one of improv’s central principles right now. That fundamental principle is “never negate.” In an improv, you never merely cancel out another participant’s action. Imagine that you and I are performing an improv together. We’ve been given a location by the audience — a construction site — and that’s all we’ve got to work with. You start the skit by sitting down and miming as if you’re removing your lunch from your lunch bucket. Then you say, “Too bad we’re getting fired today, huh? And here I was, just a week away from retirement.”

Now, my mental wheels were already turning the moment I heard the words ‘construction site.’ I had a whole different direction I wanted to go in. I wanted to establish that we were merely amateur construction enthusiasts at construction worker fantasy camp. Maybe my idea was funnier than yours, but now that you’ve taken the lead, I can’t simply negate what you’ve done to clear the decks for my concept. The principles of improv forbid me from simply saying: “You are completely mistaken, Pete. We haven’t been fired at all. In fact, we are amateur construction enthusiasts attending construction worker fantasy camp.”

Instead, I have to set my thought aside and build on yours. Since I’m trying to be funny, I need to add a twist or reversal, or at least a set-up that my partner can turn into a joke. Such as: “Yeah, you kill one measly supervisor and they get all safety-oriented on your ass.” All of our mental prep work — all sixty seconds of it — is out the window, and we’re off in an unexpected direction, flying blind, creating in the moment. This process generates the energy and sense of surprise that makes improv seem funny — often much funnier than the exact same material would be if rehearsed it and polished into a finished sketch.

In the above example, I’m not negating you’re idea, but I’m not just accepting it and parroting it back to you, either. I’ve returned your serve while putting a new spin on the ball. I’ve said, “Yes, but.” Yes, we’re getting fired, but we deserve it — if anything, we’re getting off easy.

Few roleplaying game sessions present situations as open-ended as the very beginning of an improv sketch. There are game rules to take into account, PC backstories to keep consistent, and a certain amount of world detail and plot preparation you hope to preserve. Within these parameters, though, the ‘yes, but’ principle is a powerful technique to engage your players by rewarding their creativity while at the same time keeping them on their toes.

Let’s say you’re running a game in a landlocked fantasy nation with a vaguely ancient Bronze Age feel. A player building a new character, inspired by her recent purchase of the Pirates of the Caribbean DVD, really, really wants to play a pirate. Your initial response, based on the logic of your world and the prep work you’ve done, is simply to say no. It’s crucial to your geopolitical story arc that the kingdom be landlocked. That pretty much rules out naval piracy. However, you’ll have a much better chance of keeping that player happy, and having her contribute positively to the game, if you can give her part of what she wants. Say, “yes, but…”

“Yes, but in this setting the equivalent of the pirate is the bandit in the hills. The bandits in this world are the same unruly, rum-swilling outlaw types with stolen, ragtag finery and a perverse code of brotherhood you’re thinking of when you use the word pirate. But instead of attacking seafaring ships, they raid caravans from horseback.”

Maybe you hadn’t given any thought to bandits in your setting before now. Now you’ve allowed your player to help shape your world, by making your bandits into pirates with the serial numbers filed off. You’ve given her the feel she wants, while changing the details to preserve the campaign elements you need.

“Yes, but,” can be a useful tool during play, too. Is there a magic item shop in your fantasy city? You’ve decided that there isn’t. Not only do you find this gaming convention too ridiculous for belief, but you’ve also established that the city is ruled by a rapacious robber baron. If such a shop did exist, he’d surely have confiscated its wares long before now. However, when the players look for a magic item shop, tell them why, and then hit them with a “yes, but”:

“Here’s what you learn after a few minutes of asking around: there used to be a magic item proprietor in town, but the Black Baron absorbed its contents into his treasury. Now it’s run by one of his stooges, even though it hasn’t sold an item in years. If adventurers show up to sell something, the Baron’s goons confiscate their treasures and give them the bum’s rush out of town. If they show up to buy, the shopkeeper wheedles as much information from them as he can, then reports them to the Baron. The original owner fled the city and supposedly lives in the cave network by the river. He and a number of other exiles are looking for adventurers willing to aid in the baron’s overthrow. Rumor has it that he squirreled a few of his items out of town before the Baron’s tax collectors swooped in. Maybe he’d still be able to arrange a swap for you.”

Though you haven’t given the adventurers exactly what they want, you haven’t slapped them with a flat no, either. You’ve provided both a plot hook to follow up on, and a way of achieving their underlying goal (buying or selling a magic item) that doesn’t violate your own tastes or campaign logic.

“Yes, but” can, on the other hand, assist you in improvising additional conflicts challenges into what would otherwise be flat, uninspiring scenes of information gathering. Does the spice merchant know anything about the abduction of the high priest, the players wonder. You decide that the answer is “yes, but”: he saw one of the perpetrators, but will provide the information only in exchange for a favor: the adventurers must first forcibly persuade a decadent young noble to leave his daughter alone.

Though you don’t want to go overboard with side missions like this, the occasional instance can inject variety into your session — and also provide play opportunities for players who are more interested in butt-kicking, infiltration, intrigue or puzzle-solving than investigation.

The usefulness of this technique, however you choose to use it, stems from its origins in improv. It encourages you to add options instead of merely foreclosing them. Most importantly, it inspires you to think sideways before answering important questions, preserving surprise not only for the players, but for yourself as well.

As previously mentioned, I’ve been running Canadian Shield, my lighthearted Fall of DELTA GREEN riff, with QuickShock rules. This lets me find gaps in The Yellow King Roleplaying Game card set to rectify here on the Pelgrane blog.

Recently, an investigator’s careless words to a vengeful ghost resulted in an attack on an innocent person, who lost decades from his life to its premature aging power.

Paging through my folder of Shocks, I saw that the cards relating to shame and guilt in The Yellow King Roleplaying Game are all highly tuned to their circumstances. The most obvious candidates refer to the Morale ability, which appears only in The Wars and Aftermath.

Specificity of effect is a good thing, but it does leave room for more generic cards around this theme. After all, what typical group of player characters isn’t constantly pulling skeevy stuff that their fictional counterparts in other media would probably have to confront and possibly be altered by?

This card pair should cover most of the moral corners player characters tend to cut. As usual, the Minor card appears first and the Minor second.

RATHER THOUGHTLESS

Shock

-1 to Presence tests.

Discard with a gesture of amends to the person you harmed.

CAN’T LOOK AT YOURSELF

Shock

-1 to Presence tests.

If in hand at end of scenario, roll a die. Odd: becomes a Continuity card.

Discard with an act of self-sacrifice commensurate with your offense.


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

Whether designing for your home game, the GUMSHOE Community Content program, or an independent product using the Open License, the process of designing a scenario for GUMSHOE One-2-One breaks down the same way.

With a few adjustments, detailed here, the process matches that for designing a mystery for standard or QuickShock GUMSHOE.

I built GUMSHOE One-2-One on the assumption that the pressures and focus of running a game for a single player calls for a solid foundation of preparation. When you’re engaged with a player throughout the session, you lack the thinking time to heavily improvise your way through an investigative scenario that holds together in the moment and will make full sense in retrospect. In multiplayer, the group often misses key points in the chaos of discussion and speculation and never looks back. In a solo game the player is much more likely to spot plot holes you inadvertently leave in an on-the-fly session.

Standard GUMSHOE presents two main scenario structures:

* the maze of clues, which presents a flow between established scenes the players can navigate in several directions and to varying outcomes

* the ocean of clues, which lays out a broad situation, relying on player choices to create a narrative by seeking information, with the GM responding to each choice along the way

My scenarios tend to follow the maze model; Ken gravitates to the ocean.

For published One-2-One scenarios, and your own games when getting started, I recommend the tighter maze structure. These allow you to anticipate the Challenges you’ll need to create, described in greater detail below.

If designing a One-2-One scenario based on an existing GUMSHOE game, refer to the GM section of that book, where you’ll find its steps for scenario creation.

Let’s say you want to write a scenario more like the full-on Lovecraftian ones found in Trail of Cthulhu, as opposed to the mythos-noir mashup of Cthulhu Confidential.

Flipping to page 192 of the core book, you see that scenarios consist of:

  • a hook, the initial problem or question drawing the investigators into the mystery
  • the horrible truth, the much worse, Mythos-inflected problem lurking behind the hook
  • the victory condition, a scene or set of circumstances in which the character resolves the central mystery — but perhaps also realizes, in a jolt of cosmic unease, that true and final triumph over gnawing emptiness of the universe is impossible
  • antagonist reactions, scenes that can happen at any time, as the opposing cultists, creatures or other opposition forces of the scenario strike back at the investigator

You then build scenes into a maze of clues, as you would for multiplayer GUMSHOE, making four main adjustments (one of them optional.)

Before doing that, create the character who stars in your scenario.

This allows you to perform the first adjustment, making sure that the plot allows the hero access to Sources whenever she needs information outside her set of investigative abilities. Sources are the Game Master Characters the investigator consults when confronted with areas of knowledge outside her own expertise. So if your final sequence has the investigator plunging down into a Yithian complex buried deep under mysterious Davenport Iowa, write that bit so that she never needs an ability she doesn’t have. Once she lacks the freedom to visit one of her reliable band of experts, she can only rely on her own information-gathering skills.

The second difference between multiplayer and One-2-One scenario construction is that you create structured Challenges instead of the straightforward general ability tests found in Trail.

In a Trail scenario a Difficulty 4 Hypnosis test simply lists what happens when a player succeeds:

A character performing a Difficulty 4 Hypnosis test permits another to remember his

dreams.

For One-2-One, you instead build a Challenge and create its associated Edge and Problem cards, as detailed on p. 44 of Cthulhu Confidential.

Advance 6+: Miles recalls his dream. Also, you are able to implant a suggestion of emotional resilience, protecting him against any further dangers that may lie in wait for him. Gain the Edge card “Power of Suggestion.”

Hold 4-5: Miles recalls his dream.

Setback 3 or less: Miles falls into feverish nightmare, shrieking and groaning for mercy. Gain the Problem card, “Price of Hubris.”

Extra Problem: The process of hypnotizing Miles dredges up your own dread worries of Deep One ancestry. Gain Problem card “Ancestral Glimmerings.”

POWER OF SUGGESTION

Edge

Proposing an outcome that makes story sense, spend this card to allow Miles to extricate himself from any situation.

PRICE OF HUBRIS

Problem

-1 to tests of Mental abilities.

Discard when you fail such a test.

ANCESTRAL GLIMMERINGS

Problem

That fear you suppressed over the family portrait you found in Innsmouth comes back.

Mythos Shock.

Like other Mythos Shock cards, Ancestral Glimmerings might come into play in the Emotional Coda, which brings us to the third adjustment between multiplayer and One-2-One scenario designs. Find places in a standard scenario where a character might die, and instead design that point of suspense into a Problem card that only activates at the end, after the mystery has been solved.

In multiplayer, one investigator might be shot to death in the middle of a session. The player creates a new character while the others continue on, waiting for a moment where the replacement might credibly arrive.

In One-2-One, the character takes a Problem card:

GUNSHOT WOUND

Problem

Discard by Taking Time to get your bullet hole sewn up by a competent doctor or equivalent.

If still in hand at end of scenario, you die.

And finally, preferably during the victory condition scene but maybe earlier, try to write in a scene that emphasizes the character’s aloneness and lack of backup. A particular event at the end of “The Fathomless Sleep” can only happen to a solo character, and plays out as a memorable moment again and again, for multiple GMs and players. I don’t want to spoil it but if you check out the scene you’ll see what I mean. Scenarios don’t absolutely need this element, but they sure pay off when you can fit them in.

To recap, then, scenario design for One-2-One requires XX adjustments from multiplayer:

  1. check access to Sources
  2. create Challenges
  3. move character demise to coda
  4. (optional) find a signature moment that underlines aloneness

GUMSHOE One-2-One retunes, rebuilds and re-envisions the acclaimed GUMSHOE investigative rules set for one player, and one GM. Together, the two of you create a story that evokes the classic solo protagonist mystery format of classic detective fiction. Can’t find a group who can play when you can? Want an intense head-to-head gaming experience? Play face to face with GUMSHOE One-2-One—or take advantage of its superb fit with virtual tabletops and play online. Purchase Cthulhu Confidential and other GUMSHOE One-2-One products in print and PDF at the Pelgrane Shop.

In the latest installment of their play by clip game, Gar’s character makes a shocking discovery upon making his rendezvous with the Thing in the River, and Robin breaks down the fine art of the auto-success.


GUMSHOE is the groundbreaking investigative roleplaying system by Robin D. Laws that shifts the focus of play away from finding clues (or worse, not finding them), and toward interpreting clues, solving mysteries and moving the action forward. GUMSHOE powers many Pelgrane Press games, including The Yellow King Roleplaying Game, Trail of Cthulhu, Night’s Black Agents, Esoterrorists, Ashen Stars, and Mutant City Blues. Learn more about how to run GUMSHOE games, and download the GUMSHOE System Reference Document to make your own GUMSHOE products under the Creative Commons 3.0 Attribution Unported License.

Beat the scores of our top single or team contestants as our Virtual Pub Quiz unleashes fiendish questions from Robin D. Laws, Kenneth Hite, Rob Heinsoo, Gareth Ryder-Hanrahan, Cat Tobin, and Wade Rockett.

Is that dolphin charismatic or sinister? Grab a glass, virtual or actual, and find out.

Our virtual panel series cleans ichor from its blades as very special guest Sandy Petersen joins Swords of the Serpentine designers Kevin Kulp and Emily Dresner, along with Kenneth Hite, Gareth Ryder-Hanrahan and moderator Robin D. Laws to provide tips and hooks for mixing swords and eldtrichery.

Among the reasons for running my light-hearted Fall of DELTA GREEN home variant with QuickShock rules: I can share custom cards I create for it here with you.

In the first scenario, intrepid agents of the Dominion Bureau of Research, an unacknowledged Canadian spy outfit, tracked a mole in the Avro Arrow plant in Malton, ON. Before they could figure out whether he had reestablished contact with a new Soviet handler, they found him melted to goo on the floor of his Kensington Market rooming house.

The possibility existed that they too would find themselves on the receiving end of a MAJESTIC melting ray. Due to their admirable caution in confronting this newly discovered adversary, they skirted this fate and, with it, the following QuickShock Injury cards.

The Minor card suggests an indirect hit from a heatless melting ray that works by breaking down cellular walls. The Major card comes with a direct hit, one that potentially touches off a cellular cascade that turns the victim to goo at scenario’s end.

MELT SCAR

Injury

-1 to Focus tests.

MELTED FLESH

Injury

Gain 2 Health when you receive this card. Lose 2 Health on any failed Physical test. If Health ever drops to 0, and this card is still in hand at end of scenario, you die.

Discard by finding the cure.

In The Yellow King Roleplaying Game, this is exactly the sort of sinister technology that might have gone missing from Castaigne regime armories during the revolution depicted in Aftermath. In This is Normal Now, the melt ray could be wielded by scientists developing technologies they believe to come from a crashed UFO access, but are really of Carcosan origin.


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.

In our latest virtual panel, Kenneth Hite, Robin D. Laws, and Gareth Ryder-Hanrahan are joined by special guest, Chaosium’s Lynne Hardy, to discuss the perennial connection between H. P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos. We cover the core elements of Cthulhu gaming, Call of Cthulhu’s impact on the hobby, striking a balance between hopelessness and flipping out, how gaming changed the mythos, our favorite bits of Yog-Sothothery, and more.


Trail of Cthulhu is an award-winning 1930s horror roleplaying game by Kenneth Hite, produced under license from Chaosium. Whether you’re playing in two-fisted Pulp mode or sanity-shredding Purist mode, its GUMSHOE system enables taut, thrilling investigative adventures where the challenge is in interpreting clues, not finding them. Purchase Trail of Cthulhu and its many supplements and adventures in the Pelgrane Shop.

In part 2 of Gar and Robin’s Play-By-Clip game, Gar walks us through his process for allocating GUMSHOE general ability points. And his character examines an alarming message he was not meant to read.


GUMSHOE is the groundbreaking investigative roleplaying system by Robin D. Laws that shifts the focus of play away from finding clues (or worse, not finding them), and toward interpreting clues, solving mysteries and moving the action forward. GUMSHOE powers many Pelgrane Press games, including The Yellow King Roleplaying Game, Trail of Cthulhu, Night’s Black Agents, Esoterrorists, Ashen Stars, and Mutant City Blues. Learn more about how to run GUMSHOE games, and download the GUMSHOE System Reference Document to make your own GUMSHOE products under the Creative Commons 3.0 Attribution Unported License.

Join us on YouTube for the latest Pelgrane Virtual Panel, with tips and tricks for GUMSHOE One-2-One play and design from Robin D. Laws, Gareth Ryder-Hanrahan, Ruth Tillman and Cat Tobin.


GUMSHOE One-2-One retunes, rebuilds and re-envisions the acclaimed GUMSHOE investigative rules set for one player, and one GM. Together, the two of you create a story that evokes the classic solo protagonist mystery format of classic detective fiction. Can’t find a group who can play when you can? Want an intense head-to-head gaming experience? Play face to face with GUMSHOE One-2-One—or take advantage of its superb fit with virtual tabletops and play online. Purchase Cthulhu Confidential and future GUMSHOE One-2-One products in print and PDF at the Pelgrane Shop.

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