In response to our scenario design workshop, we were asked to delve a bit further into the distinction between core and alternate scenes in a GUMSHOE adventure.

TL;DR: Make sure there’s one path through a GUMSHOE scenario. Those are your core scenes. Add more paths. Those are your alternate scenes.

A Core Scene provides one or more core clues—information the characters need to find other scenes, where they will gain further information and ultimately gather all the facts they need to solve the central mystery.

To confirm that your story has such a path, plot your core scenes on a diagram. If you can draw a line connects them all, you have a story the characters can be successfully navigate.

For players to exercise agency, though, they must also be able to choose how they move through the story. That’s where the Alternate Scenes come in—they provide other ways for gain some or all of a scenario’s core clues.

You can build in player choice by using only Core Scenes, with scenes that include more than one core clue. If the scene “Library Fire” contains two core clues, which lead to “Coal Chute” and “Wary Widow,” the group that chooses “Coal Chute” first creates a different sequence of events than the one that picks “Wary Widow” first.

Alternate scenes allow a simpler, surefire way of guaranteeing choice within the story. If the core clue leading to “Coal Chute” is found both in “Library Fire” and “Map in the Glovebox,” the players can get to it from at least two directions.

You don’t need more than two or three alternate scenes. By definition, an alternate scene might not happen. By adding more of them you both increase choice, and increase the amount of material you prepare that won’t appear in play.

Not all alternate scenes include core clues. They might feature interesting or fun sidetracks that players can go down or not, as they prefer.

Other scenes might put the characters in danger without providing information. Most notable of these types is the Antagonist Reaction, triggered by player actions, in which bad guys initiate events that push back against the protagonists.

Non-informational scenes, triggered by player decisions, appear in some GUMSHOE games, an example being the Hazards seen in The Yellow King.

Every scenario diagram will and should look different. (The one shown here has its scene titles stripped out, to avoid spoilers.) As you can see, it is a pretty simple example, with a couple of Alternate Scenes and as many Hazards.

When designing a scenario, the first sequence of scenes you invent as you plot from beginning to end are your Core Scenes. That’s almost certainly the easiest and clearest course of investigation for the characters to follow.

When you build in additional choice by creating additional scenes that provide core clues, those are your alternate scenes.

The core / alternate distinction is a tool that helps the designer ensure that the scenario includes a) one viable path through the story and b) and other paths, too.

If you’re writing for another GM to run, the distinction shows your work, indicating which scenes will most likely happen and which ones might or might not.

Players never need to know any of this. For them, the scenes they choose to activate are the story. They don’t see what might have happened if they’d made other choices—unless they read the scenario, or get the GM to tell them.

Though the difference between the two scene types may seem complex when explained, it’s dead simple in practice:

  1. Find one sequence of scenes the characters can navigate to solve the mystery. Those are your Core Scenes.
  2. Add scenes that provide alternate paths through the scenario. Those are your Alternate Scenes.

As long as you follow those two simple steps, you can’t go wrong.

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.

A column about roleplaying

by Robin D. Laws

Last time we started laying out a loose episode structure for your Yellow King Roleplaying Game Paris sequence. Start there for episodes 1 through 7.

Episode 8: Visit from Home

Follow a time-honored serialized storytelling convention, bringing in a relative who drops into Paris to complicate an art student’s life, illuminating their backstory.

The relative’s personality contrasts with the characters’, sparking entertaining conflict. A stern investigator has a flighty, extroverted mother. The flibbertigibbet Poet has to squire around the forbidding father who wants him to set prose aside for the family insurance firm.

After a light comic opening, reveal that the relative arrives pre-enmeshed in Carcosan trouble. Mom has invested in a skin cream that owes its remarkable properties to black star magic. Father wishes to procure an antique at the behest of a masked blackmailer capable of ignoring the constraints of time and space.

A player may have already laid seeds for this by connecting their Drive to a relative. If someone’s looking for a missing sister or hoping to clear the name of a falsely accused brother, or came to Paris to escape a scandal involving a wastrel father, that story now surfaces, with a decadent, supernatural hook.

Episode 9: Police and Thieves

Dispatch the art students into the Parisian demimonde to solve a mystery with a criminal element. See pages 133-137 of the Paris book.

  • Oddly chosen targets of the latest anarchist bombing wave suggest a connection with Carcosa.
  • Prisoners released from Le Sante Prison commit murders they can’t remember. The art students must identify the inmate distributing smuggled excerpts from the play and untangle his vengeful scheme.
  • Sûreté head turned private eye Marie-François Goron enlists the art students in his inquiry into a hypnosis-related murder that echoes the old case that haunts him, the slaying of high profile courtesan Régine de Montille.

Episode 10: Psychogeography

Create a scenario that draws the art students to an iconic Paris location.

  • A ritual to feed souls to the king must naturally take place at the city’s axis mundi, also known as the Eiffel Tower.
  • How did strange yellow flowers come to overrun the botanical exhibits at Jardin des Plantes?
  • Are the lights seen at night at the Picpus Cemetery connected to victims of the revolutionary guillotine, or something older?
  • The Catacombs—portal to the shores of Hali?

Episode 11: Ripples from Brittany

Bring in haunted Brittany, site of Robert W. Chambers’ better supernatural stories outside his King in Yellow cycle. Either have the weird beings of its folklore show up in Paris, or send the art students on a road trip to the sea-swept coastal town of Brest. In this latter case, disturbances inland and out on the sea could presage the rising of Carcosan island, the model for the legendary city of Ys.

If you want to keep the students in the city, the mystery might revolve around:

  • the hulking, demonic church guardians called the Nain.
  • the troublingly self-willed and mobile skull of a Breton sorcerer.
  • a rash of improbable deaths, each heralded by the sound of an unearthly locomotive—a sign that the long-tressed Breton herald of death, the Ankou, has come to town.

Episode 12: Royal Return

A new mystery leads once more to the member of the Carcosan royal court you introduced in Episode 6. The plot the art students uncover is meant to further the royal’s previously established agenda. Build in opportunities for:

  • the player character most connected to the royal to pull away—or draw closer.
  • the other characters to interact with your big bad.
  • Foreshadowing an even bigger plot, which comes to fruition in episode 17.

Episode 13: Family Obligation

A message arrives from back home, urging one of the art students to attend to a matter concerning the family business empire. This leads to business or political intrigue instigated by a conspiracy bound together by the Yellow Sign. Depending on how the player describes the source of Papa’s wealth, this might involve:

  • sabotage of a ship or factory.
  • embezzlement to fund the conspiracy’s activities.
  • a smokescreen that falsely implicates the company in assassination or massive graft.

Episode 14: Weird Science

An experiment gone awry, no doubt after someone in the lab read the play, sends the art students on the trail of Patchworks, radium ghosts, or a device that sees past events—and then alters them.

Episode 15: Secondary Villain Returns

The recurring antagonist first seen in episode 3 returns, seeking revenge on the art students or running a new scheme for domination only they can unravel. This time, give them a solid opportunity to finish off this foe for good.

Episode 16: Political Entanglement

When scandal threatens a prominent politician, the art students can’t help but see a Carcosan modus operandi behind it. Investigation draws them into the halls of power, as they determine which of France’s factions have been suborned by the pallid mask. Is it the Legitimists, aka Monarchists, desperate to reverse their vanishing influence? The Bonapartists, believing themselves to be in communication with the spirit of Napoleon? Or those normal-seeming Moderates, who currently hold power and thus have the most of what Carcosa seeks?

Episode 17: A Glimpse of Hali

A climactic mystery brings back your chosen Carcosan royal and gives your players the chance to wrap up various sub-plots of this first sequence. The scenario allows the art students the chance to behold Carcosa, perhaps to travel there briefly. Whether they achieve a victory that feels suspiciously like a happy ending, or are drawn into a doom that will bedevil later counterparts depends on how well they do during the closing confrontation.

In the next installment of See P. XX, the series outlines continue, with the front half of a similar episode guide for The Wars.

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 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.

In response to Gar’s senseless assault on a beloved GUMSHOE ability, Robin reluctantly reveals a terrible secret.

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.

A column about roleplaying

by Robin D. Laws

As more Yellow King Roleplaying Game scenarios appear, you’ll see single-use Injury and Shock cards keyed to their specific details.

These might refer to the entities that out the cards. Or they could require characters to interact with the particulars of the mystery in order to discard them.

Prepare in advance for scenarios you create by building scenario-specific cards.

For example, in my playtest of the This Is Normal Now sequence, a foe from the book, the fleeners (p. 46), had different Injury cards than canonical ones given in the book. Fleeners are irritatingly terrifying minion figures made of animated papier-mâché. With their keening cry of “fleener fleener fleener” they harass the enemies of their masters, inducing unease and reporting back to headquarters with supernatural senses.

In our series, they served a politician benefiting from Carcosan reality alteration. By the time the investigators discovered this, multiple investigators were wearing another aspect of his conspiracy, a sinister Fitbit-like device called an Urchin, on their wrists. In the game book, the Injury cards they dish out in combat need to fit any number of situations GMs might use them for. At my table, they could key into this other plot element, like so:



Non-lethal. -1 to all tests.

Discard when you fail a test by a margin of 1.



-1 to Focus and Presence tests if any character in the current scene has expressed a view the fleeners’ master would agree with.

Discard by freeing yourself of an Urchin.

Clogged Sinuses reflects what happens when you fight a papier-mâché enemy: it falls into dust even if it beats you, creating a cloud of not entirely ordinary dust that gets literally up your nose.

Fleener Effect is an oddball example of an Injury that exacts a psychic toll. Events in the game had already established the extraordinary lengths characters had to go to to get Urchins off their wrists. Worse, if you receive the Fleener Effect and don’t have an Urchin already on you, you have to acquire one, put it on, exposing yourself to its various ill-effects, and then get it off again, in order to discard the card.

Or you can wait until the end of the scenario and discard it then, as it is not a Continuity card.

Tying cards into ongoing sources of fear in your game gives them an extra frisson. The awful cries of foxes became a motif in my game. Now that I look back on it I wonder why I didn’t incorporate them into a card effect. So many ways to unnerve the group, so little time…

When tying a discard condition into specific story events, ensure that the condition can be achieved. You want the player holding the card to feel pressured, but not entirely forced, to make the attempt. Focus on actions that are risky or hard to achieve, but that they might want to perform even without the card. In this example, getting rid of an Urchin is a good thing in its own right.

Players simply resign themselves to the risk of holding onto a card, and its ill consequence, if you attach too unpleasant or challenging a discard condition to it. A card that gives them the option of, say, killing a particular innocent GMC, feels too much like a force.

Here’s an unfairly manipulative version of a custom card:



-2 to Focus tests.

Discard by killing sweet Sally Murdoch.

The fear of turning evil is a horror staple and within bounds, but your custom card should invoke it without nakedly jerking the player around. Instead you might consider a choice the character which, though queasy, the character can recover from:



-2 to Focus tests.

Discard by confessing your unwelcome homicidal impulses to a therapist, authority figure, or Sally Murdoch herself.

When using discard effects to nudge players further into the story, couch the condition vaguely. This allows players to think they’ve cleverly solved a problem. Overly clear descriptions risk the feeling that players must pixel-bitch their way to one predetermined cut scene. Perhaps include a couple of possible scenes that fulfill the conditions.

Like so:



Lose 1 Health and 1 Composure at 6 AM each day (world time.)

Discard when you escape, taking a wrongly convicted prisoner with you.

This version might seem too restrictive:



Lose 1 Health and 1 Composure at 6 AM each day (world time.)

Discard when you escape, taking Albert Chen with you.

Or it might work fine, especially if the players are already thinking of rescuing Albert by the time the card appears. That way the discard registers as a bonus incentive toward an existing goal, not a hoop to reluctantly jump through.

Create your own custom cards with these templates, formatted for Adobe Photoshop and the open source GIMP image editor:

For licensing reasons we can’t supply fonts. The card header is a Garamond font, which you probably already have in some form. You’ll want to play around with the size, based on your specific version of the font, and the length of each card title. My version has it a default of point size 32. The body text is P22 Mayflower Smooth, by default at point 22 in this template.


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.

For no reason that I can think of offhand, you may be wondering how to stay fit now that you’ve been sent home from work.

(In this scenario you are lucky enough to have a job that can send you home, and also fortunate enough to be able to contemplate an exercise routine.)

I swore I wouldn’t become the guy who talks about his workout but as someone who already works where he lives, I do have this one weird trick some of you may find useful.

If you don’t have the room or dough for a full-sized exercise bike, head to your online retailer of choice and type in “mini exercise bike” or “portable exercise bike” in order to own a cheap piece of plastic junk like the one pictured here.

As you can see, durability is not its strong point. The onboard timer on this one crapped out about a year in. The straps that keep your feet in the pedals have long since been replaced by generations of duct tape.

But if you pull up a chair, slide your feet in, and are ready for a bit of annoying wiggling around to keep it in position, bingo, you’ve got all the benefits of a fancy schmancy exercise bike.

I use the interval training system, the stop-start method of one minute fast and strenuous, alternated with one minute slow and leisurely. Over the last few years I’ve had bizarrely great results with it. As I am not a doctor or a fitness coach, I’ll leave you to research the details of interval training from people who are.

My whole routine, timed to songs, goes like this. For warm-up and warm-down, I pick songs between 3:30 – 4:30 long, except for the fast songs to cycle to, which can be any length as long as they add up to eight minutes.

One arm warm-up

One leg warm-up

One song of vigorous arm exercise

Eight minutes of interval on the bike, alternating fast and slow in one minute intervals

One medium tempo warm-down

One slow tempo warm-down

I use a phone app to time the shifts between intervals. There are a bunch of them out there. The one I use is the aptly named Interval Timer.

If you can stand my taste in music, I have a whole bunch of Interval training playlists on my Spotify account. Because I am a game designer, I have numbered them so I can pick one at random each morning. Here’s an example:

I find it much easier to talk myself into doing this routine than general aerobics. Yes, that’s what I’m saying, it is easier and gets better results than anything I’ve tried before. The biking even somehow gives markedly better results on the arm stuff. And while this paragraph makes it sound like I have purchased an interest in a mini-bike manufacturer. I assure you that I have not.

In particular I find this routine easier than calisthenics because, once the arm exercises are done, I can look at my phone the rest of the time, countering the WELL-DOCUMENTED MIND-NUMBING BOREDOM OF EXERCISE.

With interval training you are supposed to rotate days of not doing it. I am a non-stickler on this bit, usually knocking off on the weekends.

If you are anything like me you may also be happy, as we hunker down in our enclosed spaces for the coming rough patch, to have a way of offloading useless stress adrenaline. There are only so many beers. Or so many beers you should drink in a given period, at least.

And that’s the end of me breaking character. After this is over, remember, I never told you any of this.

A column about roleplaying

by Robin D. Laws

While developing collaborators’ scenarios for Black Star Magic, I found myself puzzling out a design style question arising from a particular feature of QuickShock.

In previous iterations of GUMSHOE, and most other games with hit points or a hit point-like function, characters can theoretically leave play at any time. In all GUMSHOE games characters can die physically, ending their stories and requiring players to create replacements. In our various horror games, characters can also exit after cracking under intolerable mental strain.

The Yellow King Roleplaying Game follows that pattern: your character can shuffle off in both ways. Unlike games with traditional hit points (Health points in GUMSHOE) or Sanity / Stability points, YKRPG characters take their final curtains after receiving a predetermined number of Injury or Shock cards. After 3 or 4 cards, depending on how forgiving the GM has chosen to make her game, they’re outta there.

My scenarios provide ample opportunities to take Injury and Shock cards. In fact, one of the key requests made by playtesters was STOP MURDERING US SO HARD.

One or two of my more forgiving colleagues, on the other hand, just might have submitted scenarios including a less-than-fatal number of Injuries and/or Shocks.

This raised the question: is that poor form?

A scenario for standard GUMSHOE might make the prospect of death unlikely, by going light on scenes featuring fights or physical hazards. Likewise it might feature only a handful of Stability or Composure tests. But depending on how many points players have invested in key pools, you can’t say for certain that the scenario won’t dispatch a PC or two.

In QuickShock you can count the number of times the characters might take cards, and see that it doesn’t equal the Final Card threshold.

That’s before taking edge cases into account, though.

In an ongoing game, one or more characters may already have Continuity Shock or Injury cards carried over from previous play. This drops their effective thresholds for receiving new cards. If you have the Injury card Circulatory Damage, you start every scenario being able to receive one less Injury additional card than you did when you began play. A scenario that deals out a maximum of two Injuries could, if you get both of them, end you.

Also, the GM, responding to surprise player choices, may wind up improvising additional fights, hazards, and disturbing events. When these go wrong they hand out cards over and above those listed in the scenario. “You can’t die from the cards listed in the scenario” must always be read as “You can’t die from the cards listed in the scenario, if you only do what the scenario predicts you might do.” Those of us who have ever run a game know how big an if that is.

In yet another also, the GM never tells the players that a scenario includes few Shock or Injury cards. It’s not the actual likelihood of investigator demise that creates suspense in play, but the threat of it as perceived by the players, that delivers the emotional freight. When you get the last card listed in the scenario, you have no way of knowing that there aren’t a boatload more of them still potentially to come. Unless you read the scenario afterwards, you’ll never see that you were actually safe.

For those reasons, I decided that it should not be a requirement that every published scenario hand out enough cards to potentially kill off a character.

Also, with rare exceptions, Shock and Injury cards impose other penalties on the characters who receive them. That’s why they exist. Unlike a quantity of lost hit points, they create lingering effects that impact the story. They sit in front of the players, reminding them that something has gone wrong. Something that must be addressed. The anxious desire to get rid of these awful, nagging cards mimics the fear and unease of the characters. Even if you can only get one card of a given type in a scenario, when you get it, you generally really want to get rid of it. One card you remember getting, or struggling to discard, exerts a greater impact than some Health points you lost and then refreshed.

Even if that weren’t the case, a philosophical design question remains: is it somehow cheating, or poor form, to introduce the possibility of character demise when it can’t actually happen? A D&D or 13th Age game assumes you’ll be fighting up a storm over most evenings of play. But if a particular adventure has you intriguing your way through a trade dispute with little chance of taking an ax to the face, you likely consider that a refreshing change of pace. After a while you’re going to want to get back to the core activity of battling and looting, jotting down hit point losses as you go. But the adventure where the stakes aren’t the characters’ survival doesn’t register as a cheat.

For a scenario to engage the players, they have to care about something. They must want for X to happen and fear that it will not. The prospect of character death exists in games as a default set of stakes: do you live or die?

In the mystery scenario that GUMSHOE offers, you always have another measure of success, other than “am I still breathing at the end?” When you figure out what’s going on in time to prevent disaster, see justice done, or simply slake your curiosity, you’ve won.

As long as your choices lead to either good or bad consequences, those consequences don’t have to be Shock or Injury cards in order for players to walk away from the table remembering a gripping narrative.

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 part one, we talked in general terms about preparing players used to Call Of Cthulhu for their first session of Trail Of Cthulhu. In particular, you want to show that the GUMSHOE system’s core investigative mechanic isn’t as radically alien or mechanical as some readers of the rules assume.

Here’s the demo that illustrates the point. Use it before your first session, prior to character creation. This is a solo demo. Pick the player who you think will be most resistant to learning new rules in general, or to stepping out on his beloved CoC rules in particular.

Paraphrase the following quickie scene so that it comes out in your standard GMing voice.

You are Dr. Tyler Freeborn, assistant professor of anthropology at Miskatonic University. You enter a hotel room, expecting to meet with a colleague, Professor Hamilton Simonsen. Instead you find the man’s nearly beheaded corpse crumpled next to a desk chair. Lying next to him, in the middle of his pooling blood, is a tribal fetish of some kind.

Improvise whatever details you require in response to player questions. When paraphrasing, preserve the way that the text above heavily leads the player toward the fetish. Eventually the player should put the anthropologist-fetish connection together and ask if he can identify it.

First, run the scene-let under Call rules. Have the player roll his 75% Anthropology skill. Run the skill use just as you would in any CoC session: the player might explicitly mention his ability, or might just ask the question, requiring you to confirm that he’s using Anthropology.

If he rolls successfully, tell him that it’s a curse fetish created by the notoriously degenerate Jharo-Jharo tribe of the lower Amazonian basin. The foremost expert on the Jharo-Jharo is Wallace Welkley, former adjunct professor at Columbia University. Notoriously, Welkley was denied tenure after a paper by Professor Simonsen accused him of fabricating his interviews with the Jharo-Jharo.

If the roll fails, tell the player that he thinks he ought to remember the style of the fetish, but can’t. Maybe a trip to the library will remedy that. Then cut to a scene in the library, where he makes his 80% Library Use roll. If he succeeds with that, give him the above info. If not, cut the demo short, saying that eventually the Keeper would find yet another way to get the information to him.

(With a 75% skill level, and a higher Library Use as a backup, chances are that the player will succeed in the first version of the scene, as well as the second. The point here is not to show off GUMSHOE’s main feature, that you never fail to get an important clue. Here you’re illustrating that, except for this feature, the process of gathering information is essentially the same as it is in CoC. You’re heading off the mistaken assumption that the guaranteed availability of clues somehow allows players to short-circuit the normal give-and-take of interacting with the scene and calling on appropriate abilities.)

Then replay the scene under Trail rules. Show how it plays out exactly as it did for Call, except that there’s no roll, and the information is supplied right away. As before, the player might explicitly call on an ability, or ask the question, requiring you to confirm that the ability is being used.

At this point, the player might raise the railroading question—if he can’t fail to get a clue, doesn’t that mean that he’s simply being led around from scene to scene, without being able to make meaningful choices?

In response to this, you might show how the ability to fail simply masks what is essentially the same structure under both rules sets. Eventually Freeborn will connect the fetish to Wallace Welkley. The only difference is that he always gets it right the first time in Trail, whereas the Call Keeper has to keep generating plausible alternate ways to convey the information in the face of initial failure. In both games, what happens when Freeborn meets Welkley remains up for grabs.

Let’s say that Welkley is the innocent victim of an occult conspiracy and doesn’t know who to trust. How the player chooses to treat him when they first meet determines whether Welkley cooperates, or flees and is killed by the real villains. If he’s hostile or sneaky, one story branch occurs. If he keeps his cool and reassures Welkley, he brings him onside—but must then protect him from later threats. This choice point doesn’t change the identity of the real villains, in either Call or Trail. In either system, the endpoint might be predetermined or improvised. In neither case does the choice point change how the story plays out on the way to the unmasking of the real villain. Trail no more or less railroady than Call. What it lacks is the confusion and backtracking arising from repeat attempts to uncover the same piece of information. This might feel like choice, but is anything but.

Having illustrated this key sticking point with your mini-demo, you might then go on to lay out the other ways in which Trail diverges from Call. Show how the Sanity/Stability dichotomy allows for insane cultists who are nonetheless stable enough to effect their sinister plans. Mention the Drive system , and how it works to ensure that players create the sorts of characters who are impelled to take the actions required to make a Lovecraftian horror story work.

Additional demos might reinforce other aspects of the rules the players find challenging.

If a player tends toward the risk-averse, hyper-rationalist decision making that kills horror plotting, run him through a dangerous situation first as a Call character, without drives, and then as a Trail PC, who of course must move forward and engage with the story. A mini-scene hinging on the classic “do I go down in the basement where I think there’s a shoggoth” question should suit the purpose admirably.

Although the general abilities are quite simple, the focus on investigative abilities might give a skewed idea of the system. Remedy this with a third mini-scene in which Freeborn must use his Athletics to jump a fence. (To keep other players engaged, you might swap off who gets to play Freeborn in each scene-let.)

If investigative spends seem puzzling, return to the interaction scene between Freeborn and Welkley, assuming that Freeborn has decided to seem reassuring. Show the differences in response that Freeborn might gain with different Reassurance spends—1 point might calm Welkley for a scene’s worth of dialogue, after which point he succumbs to paranoia and flees. 2 points keeps him calm and available for a day, while 3 points gets him to stick around and follow instructions for the case’s entire duration.

Related Links

A narrative genre is a set of prefab expectations. Whatever the medium, storytellers use genre to attract an audience. When you draw on a popular genre, you hope to capture a built-in audience that returns repeatedly to stories told in that mode. By signaling that the story we’re about to tell belongs to a given genre, we’re telling the members of our audience that we’re going to play with its associated expectations. Memorable effects can be created by subverting those expectations. But in the main, you’re promising to honor a good proportion of them. When you promise a genre tale but deliver something else entirely, a big chunk of your audience emerges from the experience feeling cheated.

Expectations are established before the story is told, in what we roleplaying gamers would call a meta level. A novel tells you what genre it is with its book design and back cover copy, not to mention the style and content of its cover illustration, if any. Films signal their genres with trailers, titles, posters, and promotional blitzes.

In roleplaying we can shorthand the genre signaling by identifying the game we’re running. If I say I’m starting up a Champions campaign or a Vampire one-shot, you tailor your expectations of that experience to your past knowledge of the game in question. If I’m running something new, or a game you’re unfamiliar with, I have to spell the genre directly: we’re running superheroes, or a contemporary horror story concerning the interactions of Machiavellian bloodsuckers.

Rules systems, as distinct from games, communicate no genre expectations. Tell me you’re running a GURPS or Basic Roleplaying game, and I’ll need to know the genre you’re running to start to imagine what might happen in it.

Settings contain highly specific genre information—by telling me you’re running Delta Green, you’re leading me to anticipate a mix of genre elements drawing on both the horror of HP Lovecraft and the techno-thrillers of Robert Ludlum.

Expectations become more precise as narrower genres are signaled. Broad genre categories suggest a tone, probably the emotional payoff you’re meant to feel at the end, and a very rough concept of the story’s structure. If all you know about a movie you’re about to see is that it’s a comedy, you expect to laugh, and probably to get a happy ending. Conversely, if you know you’re about to see a bawdy teenage comedy, you’ve plunked down your money for lots of gross-out humor and probably a plot-line concerning the heroes’ efforts to get laid. Specific cliché elements come to mind at this level. If the movie is set at a summer camp, you won’t be surprised when the third act revolves around a contest against the non-underdog camp on the other side of the lake.

Roleplaying often embraces specific cliché in a way you’d never tolerate from other storytelling mediums. Its more directly vicarious nature invites us to creatively enter and take part in our favorite works, reimagining ourselves at the center of them. If a new movie series features a two-fisted 1930’s archaeologist who chases relics and fights Nazis, and his name isn’t Indiana Jones, we’ll scorn it as derivative. But if a player shows up to a pulp-inspired game with a character clearly based on Jones, that’s part of the point of the exercise. If genre is the addition of ritualized repetition to narrative, roleplaying genre is to a great extent an imaginative interaction with the characters, situations and images from our favorite stories.

When genre suggests specific structural elements, or even stock scenes, a collision can occur between our genre expectations and our preferences as roleplayers. These preferences vary by player type. We tend to see the preferences of our own type or types as objective markers of the ideal roleplaying experience. Those connected to tastes we don’t share are, depending on our level of detachment, either annoyingly off-point or steeped in darkest blasphemy.

The degree of adherence to genre, especially to its structural elements, varies depending on the relative value you place on freedom of choice.

Storytellers, the group most likely to seek an overt interaction with a suite of genre elements, want the GM to steer the story toward key story elements. They value choices, except for those that keep them from engaging with the genre tropes they want to play with.

Specialists, who play the same character types every time out, want you to import their favorite images and story elements into every game, regardless of genre. Their choice is to be the ninja, the weird dude, or the winged cat bard. Genre elements are their bread and butter—provided their fave type fits the genre at hand.

Butt-kickers want to get to the next fight; stock story elements that move them to the next battle with a minimum of fuss are good. Choices that do not concern whose butt to kick are extraneous.

Tacticians maximize choice to minimize risk. They prefer to operate in a world informed by genre imagery, but without reference to narrative conceits. This type yearns for a world in which genre elements behave according to speculative logic. A GM who steers the story toward a key sequence messes both with their sense of cause-and-effect, and with their highly valued freedom of choice. That includes the choice to avoid drama, which is often the tactician’s goal.

Method actors may also place maximal freedom of choice, which allows them to identify with their characters and make choices from inside their headspace, over ritual adherence to a promised formula.

In some cases, you can get around this variable interest in recapitulated narrative elements by explicitly announcing that it’s what you’re up to. Warning the players that the dramatic logic of your Bond-inspired game requires their characters to be captured at least once per scenario may lower the resistances of players who usually chafe at this sort of thing. But more explicit recitations of the fictional contract you’re putting on offer only go so far. If what I want out of roleplaying bears no connection to this goal, I may need to sit out a game or session that revolves around it. By the same token, if I show up to a WWII game wanting an evocation of Hollywood war movies and instead get an open-ended experience with outcomes based entirely on simulative principles, I’ve made a category error. It will interfere both with my own enjoyment, and the players who’ve signed on for exactly what the GM is dishing out.

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At its core, the GUMSHOE system makes an adjustment to the way we have traditionally run investigative scenarios. Although dramatic in effect, it is actually a small change in practice. Ironically, it’s this very simplicity that can sometimes make the transition from the traditional model to the GUMSHOE approach a tricky one. Some GMs and players expect it to be more radical in practice than it actually is, and have get themselves tangled up in the process.

Many of the groups reporting challenges in making the shift are longtime Call Of Cthulhu-ites now checking out Trail Of Cthulhu. This doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s harder to go from Call to Trail than it is to play any other GUMSHOE game after being steeped in the traditional investigative model. It may just be that there are more CoC partisans trying ToC, because Trail is, unsurprisingly, the best-selling game in the line to date.

Nonetheless, it’s useful to look at ways to transition a group who have Sandy Petersen’s brilliant and classic game encoded in their DNA to the different take offered by GUMSHOE.

Here’s the basic point to takeaway from these two articles: GUMSHOE is a small change with a large effect.

Help your players make the transition by reinforcing it as you introduce them to the game, and again during play.

Start by asking yourself how resistant your group is likely to be to a change in technique.

Some players are frequent adopters—they like to try all of the new RPGs that come down the pike. They keep up with news of upcoming releases. These days, your frequent adopter is probably a fan of the indie movement. Frequent adopters enjoy learning new rules. Since they do it all the time, they’re quick to figure out how rules work, and to work out their implications in play.

Many other players are system agnostics. They want to play, and don’t care what rules you use. System agnostics may express skepticism about the influence of rules on play. They believe, rightly, the main factor in the success of a session is the quality of the participants. Their disinterest in rules per se leads them to discount the degree to which differing rules sets impact play, given the same GM and players. It makes them reluctant to learn new rules, period.

Others are system loyalists—they’ve been playing the same game since they discovered that it was their favorite. Often they have several faves, each in a different genre. Loyalists may identify culturally with their game of choice, the way they might with a sports team or favorite band. When they participate in online forums, it’s often to defend their chosen game from comments made by its detractors. Whatever their game, their passion and commitment demands respect. In the case of Cal, they also deserve props for their great taste. (Did we mention already that CoC rocks?)

It is natural to expect resistance from Call loyalists when trying to move them to Trail. It’s like asking a Yankees fan to suddenly start rooting for a some goofy new expansion team! Loyalists may be open to learning new rules for completely unrelated settings, but may see a switch to Trail as representing unnecessary effort.

With both agnostics and loyalists, convincing them to give Trail a shot requires a sales job on your part. For both groups, point out the simplicity of GUMSHOE. They may be expecting the usual detailed, complicated system, with tons of new stuff to remember. Explain that learning GUMSHOE doesn’t require that level of commitment.

In the case of loyalists, show that you respect their affection for Call. Sell Trail without seeming to attack or critique the game they love. Describe ToC not as an improvement on, or replacement for, CoC, but a new approach that yields different results.

Finally, accept that your group’s most fervent loyalist will still be resistant even after you say all of this.

Maybe there are hypothetical frequent adopters out there who all buy the book, learn the rules independently and come to the session with rules learned and characters ready to go. We all know that this isn’t how it usually works. Take advantage of the customary first session in which you introduce the rules and guide the players through character generation to teach the rules in a way that emphasizes their simplicity and continuity with existing practice.

You may face your toughest challenge from players who are resistant for whatever reason and have already read the rules. Resistant readers sometimes make incorrect assumptions about what actually happens in a game of Trail. The most common of these is that in GUMSHOE you enter an environment, look at your character sheet, and robotically list all of your abilities, to which the Keeper responds by reading off clues in response to each relevant ability recited. This is best addressed with a quickie demo, which we’ll provide in the next installment of See P. XX.

It may also be worth your while to recap some of the rules that players, especially resistant or reluctant ones, tend to misread. By reminding them of the rules as written, you can head off common misunderstandings.

Some players trip themselves up on the concept of Investigative ability points, forgetting that you’re never penalized for not having points to spend. Point spends add fun but tangential clues, make your character seem especially impressive, or secure side benefits unrelated to the investigation. The text explains this, but some players assume that the existence of a resource to manage means that the points must be critical to success. Present describe investigative points as icing on the cake. Remind them that they can successfully complete cases without ever using them.

It also helps to explain to your players that GUMSHOE emulates genre sources and does not simulate reality. For example, general points buy your character time in the spotlight. Use the metaphor of an ensemble procedural show on TV. Each main cast character typically gets a moment to shine in each episode, in a way that reinforces his skill set. When choosing general abilities, players are deciding what sorts of successes will most often define their characters.

Although you can often describe a character who has run out of general points in an ability and fails as a result as being exhausted or distracted, the points aren’t really a measure of literal fatigue. Instead they operate as a literary device. Dramatic logic underlies the entire system.

Part Two…

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