A column about roleplaying

by Robin D. Laws

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Halloween is nigh, so I’m going to stat up some spooky monsters—in this case, pirate ghosts! These restless undead might haunt the Iron Sea coast, the rivers of the Fangs, or the Midland Sea around Necropolis and Omen.

You can find all sorts of ghosts in the 13th Age Bestiary, from the Petulant Never-Was to an Epic Haunting. The monsters below are based on the disgraced legionnaire and major haunting. The dead men tell no tales ability is a modified version of the death marker’s marked for death ability.

Abilities for Most Ghosts

Most ghosts have several or all of the following abilities:

Bound hauntings: Most ghosts are bound to an area, usually the area of their death. This ability won’t come up much in play, but it does make it seem likely that ghosts can be easier to get away from than other monsters. Move far enough fast enough and the ghost returns to the area it’s bound to. Occasionally festivals for the dead or other rituals can call bound ghosts from their hauntings, but those are unusual and temporary circumstances.

Exceptions: There may be ghosts that are bound to people, or events, or phenomena that travel. There might even be ghosts that aren’t bound to anything, but at that stage there are several other questions that surface and odd magical, iconic, or unique intervention seems likely.

Flight: Most ghosts fly, though some may be quite slow, seeming to drift or walking on air. Ghosts that fly in unusual ways will be flagged with their own abilities.

Exceptions: Not all ghosts fly. Some seem constrained to act much like they acted when they were alive, and flying wasn’t part of their life package.

Unnatural touch: Many ghosts can alter the temperature of their environment to more closely match the underworld or afterlife that they’ve so far evaded. Sometimes that’s icy cold, sometimes that’s burning hot, and sometimes it’s just kind of normal, which would go unnoticed unless the ghost is somewhere abnormal!

Exceptions: This is more of a special effect of ghost stories than part of a creature’s combat abilities, and you can safely ignore it unless you find telling moments when it adds to the game.

The Black Spot: A New Ability for Pirate Ghosts

The black spot: If someone has wronged a pirate ghost, either in life or after their death, a ghostly pirate crew member appears before them 1-6 months later (ideally on a dark and stormy night) and presents them with a scrap of paper marked with a black smudge. To resist the magical compulsion to accept the black spot, the target must succeed at a 16+ save. If the save is failed, the target takes the black spot. From then on, the offended pirate ghosts can teleport to the target’s location at will to attack them, and will keep coming until the target is dead.

Pirate Ghost Captain

Come now, surely ye haven’t forgotten yer old shipmates? Why, it feels like it were only yesterday we dangled at at the end of a hangman’s rope, while you went on to live all respectable and proper-like.

Double-strength 6th level wrecker [undead]

Initiative: +12

Vulnerability: holy

Phantom cutlass +13 vs. PD—40 negative energy damage

Natural even hit or miss: The ghost pirate captain can make a dead men tell no tales attack as a free action against a nearby staggered enemy.

C: Dead men tell no tales +11 vs. MD (nearby staggered enemy)—5 ongoing psychic damage (11+ save ends).

Target is hit by a dead men tell no tales attack for the second time this battle: Until the end of the battle, when the target tries to spend a recovery they have to succeed at a save (11+) first. If they fail, they haven’t used their action but can’t spend recoveries that turn.

Target is hit by a dead men tell no tales attack for the third time this battle:The save to spend a recovery is now a hard save (16+).

Target is hit for the fourth time this battle: Until the end of the battle the target cannot spend recoveries.

Ghostly: This creature has resist damage 12+ to all damage except holy damage. A ghost can move through solid objects, but can’t end its turn inside them.

Mark of the Jonah: Each enemy that has a background or One Unique Thing related to sailing or the sea that misses an attack with a natural odd roll takes a -2 penalty to all its defenses until the end of the battle.

Nastier Specials

Fear aura: While engaged with this ghost, if the target has 30 hp or fewer, it’s dazed (–4 to attack) and does not add the escalation die to its attacks.

Swarm of pirates: If there are three or more ghost pirate crew member mooks in a battle, the pirate ghost captain’s fear aura ability affects enemies with 60 hp or fewer.

AC 22

PD 19     HP 140

MD 16

 

Pirate Ghost Crew Member

Arrrrr!

6th level mook [undead]

Initiative: +9

Phantom cutlass +10 vs. PD—8 negative energy damage

Mob-based: For every separate mob of ghost pirate crew member mooks in the battle (mobs start with at least four mooks), add a +1 bonus to the ghost pirate crew member’s attacks and +2 to its damage.

Ghostly: This creature has resist damage 14+ to all damage except holy damage. A ghost can move through solid objects, but can’t end its turn inside them.

AC 21

PD 19 .      HP 18 (mook)

MD 16

Mook: Kill one ghost pirate crew member mook for every 18 damage you deal to the mob.


13th Age combines the best parts of traditional d20-rolling fantasy gaming with new story-focused rules, designed so you can run the kind of game you most want to play with your group. 13th Age gives you all the tools you need to make unique characters who are immediately embedded in the setting in important ways; quickly prepare adventures based on the PCs’ backgrounds and goals; create your own monsters; fight exciting battles; and focus on what’s always been cool and fun about fantasy adventure gaming. Purchase 13th Age in print and PDF at the Pelgrane Shop.

A 13th Age GM recently asked for advice on using Backgrounds in a modern setting. At first I didn’t see the problem—”Former circus performer” should work the same in the modern world as it does in the Dragon Empire, right?

But when I really gave it some thought, I saw the difficulty. “Former circus performer” in the Dragon Empire lets the player do loads of world-building, unconstrained by real-world facts and enhanced by the magic of the setting. Likewise, the GM has complete freedom to use that Background to create adventure and campaign hooks relevant to that character.

However, if your game is set in the modern wold it becomes more difficult, especially if you care about some degree of accuracy, and real-world believability. It’s can be even harder if that Background is connected to a region or a culture you aren’t very familiar with. What, realistically, could a modern-day character with the Background “subsistence farmer” do with it? What if they were a subsistence farmer in New England? Rural Japan? A tiny island near Madagascar? What compelling and believable adventure and campaign hooks could the GM create?

Here’s how I’d handle this.

First, remember that a GM needs to know just enough about a thing to make it believable and entertaining at the table, and no more.

Also, remember that Backgrounds, like other character creation mechanics, exist to generate fun.

Third, recall that 13th Age players and GMs work together to build out the world, and create adventures that are relevant to the characters.

Let’s say I’m running a modern-day campaign set in the United States, where the player characters are a ragtag band of wandering misfits who roam the country, get involved in some local troubles, resolve them, and then head off into the sunset. One player decides that her character, who is Chinese-American, has the Background, “Former circus performer in China”.

For the purposes of gaming at our table we could leave it at that, in which case the player occasionally says something like, “I squeeze through the bars of this jail cell using a trick I learned from the contortionist at the circus.” That’s fine!

However, if that player made the circus Background a +5, that player is telling me she wants this part of her character’s life to be an important element of the game. If it’s connected to a One Unique Thing and/or icon relationships, she might want it to be one of the things that defines the campaign.

In order to find ways to incorporate this Background into the campaign story arc. I’d ask questions like:

  • How did you come to join the circus?
  • What made that circus different from others?
  • Was it successful? Struggling?
  • How long were you in it?
  • What was your role—your job, but also your place in the society within the circus?
  • What was your relationship with the owners? The performers? Other employees?
  • When did you leave, and how?
  • Why did you leave? Was it on good terms, or bad terms? Were you able to leave freely, or did you escape?

Guided by these answers, I would do some research on circuses, especially ones in China—just enough to create compelling story hooks relevant to that character, ones that would feel believable in play.

Hmm. Wikipedia* has very little on circuses in China. Here’s what I found just now:

  • In the 1800s, a Frenchman named Louis Soullier was one of three early circus owners who introduced the circus to China. He was the first circus owner to introduce Chinese acrobatics to the European circus.
  • “Chinese variety art” is the English translation of a Chinese term which covers a wide range of acrobatic acts and other demonstrations of physical skill traditionally performed by a troupe in China. These include plate-spinning, Shaolin monks who resist projectiles thrown or fired at them, kung fu demonstrations, unicycling, balancing on balls, and contorting.
  • “Circus” refers to a Western-style circus, which may include Chinese variety art. The Chinese State Circus is a touring circus presenting these arts to European audiences.
  • Both Eastern and Western circuses have undergone a revival and transformation since the 1970s, with elaborate themed productions, often telling a story through characters which reappear throughout the show. In the Chinese State Circus, this is the figure of the legendary Monkey King.

Whoa. Wait a second. As described in the Ming dynasty novel Journey to the West, the Monkey King rebelled against the divine Jade Emperor and was imprisoned by the Buddha in a mountain. He was released 500 years later, and atoned for his crimes by protecting the monk Tang Sanzang. The Monkey King does all kinds of amazing feats—the kind you’d see in…a circus featuring Chinese variety art.

Not only do I now have some background information to work with in handling skill checks, I’ve made an important thematic connection in my head. I’m reminded that “circus performer” is more than a set of skills: it’s an archetype, an iconic outsider figure who uses skill, cleverness, unpredictability, and humor to overcome obstacles and enemies (often the forces of law and order).

Here’s what I might challenge this player character with:

  • Physical obstacles that put these skills and qualities to the test, and which resemble the sorts of challenges overcome in Chinese variety arts and circuses.
  • Enemies who are their opposite number: solid, straightforward, and serious.
  • Enemies who are their distorted mirror image: skillful, clever, and unpredictable outsiders. Maybe this includes a recurring villain, someone who’s very much like the PC but with an important difference that puts them at odds.

Maybe you’re thinking, “That’s fine for circuses, which are fun and interesting. What about the boring Background, ‘I am a former page in the United States Congress’? How do I give that depth, and find story hooks for it?”

Just as we did in the example above, you learn a bit about how it works, ask questions, and find the fun. You might find out he got the highly-coveted job of page because his late father blackmailed a senator who had ties to a powerful Mob boss. If that’s the case, you could run an adventure where the group arrives in a town to discover that the character’s father, who vanished recently, now lives there as part of a witness protection program. And guess who else just figured this out, and sent a car full of hit men?

This works for auto salvage yard owners, tax preparers, homemakers, and every sort of life path.

If a character’s Backgrounds are really just bundles of skills, summarized in a sentence, that’s okay. But if inspiration strikes, your players might be incredibly entertained when a shadowy conspiracy comes after the former tax preparer because the client he helped five years ago was a time traveler from the future, changing history one tax return at a time.

*Wikipedia is sufficient if all I’m doing is running a game for my friends. If I’m turning this into a published adventure or campaign, I’m going to do a lot of thorough research, and take steps to ensure I’m representing real-world cultures accurately and respectfully.


13th Age combines the best parts of traditional d20-rolling fantasy gaming with new story-focused rules, designed so you can run the kind of game you most want to play with your group. 13th Age gives you all the tools you need to make unique characters who are immediately embedded in the setting in important ways; quickly prepare adventures based on the PCs’ backgrounds and goals; create your own monsters; fight exciting battles; and focus on what’s always been cool and fun about fantasy adventure gaming. Purchase 13th Age in print and PDF at the Pelgrane Shop.

Sebastian Münster’s sea monster chart (1544)

The Iron Sea: this is fine.

The Dragon Empire’s potential for rich stories and adventures isn’t even close to being exhausted—its various regions are left half-finished so GMs and players can have fun filling in the blanks, but we envision it being culturally, ethnically, economically, agriculturally, culinarily, and religiously diverse. Approaching a town on the sunny southern coast you might find gently-sloping green hills, olive groves, wheat fields, and vineyards bursting with grapes. Venture into town and you may come across a busy market with stalls selling food with complex spices, a temple to the sea gods, and an amphitheater that dates back to the age of the Wizard King. Head northwest to Foothold, and you might find tall forests, lumber camps, craggy mountains with dwarven mines, fur traders, rugged fortifications, offerings to placate the dark gods, and hearty stews.

Nevertheless! Some have asked us what lies beyond the map of the Dragon Empire. What place does it occupy in the larger world? For that, I’ll direct you to the Book of Ages and its description of the Age of Corsairs, when the Dragon Empire opened maritime trade routes with other lands beyond the Iron Sea, and the pirates who prayed on this shipping grew strong enough to challenge the Empire.

Here are some of the details of that age from the Book of Ages (which also includes new PC races, monsters, and magic items). Feel free to make the 13th Age an age of sail and trade in your campaign, or have the PCs be the first brave explorers who discover—or rediscover—lands beyond the Dragon Empire. If sail and trade with the outside world are common, the major change to the default setting will be that the Iron Sea’s storms and monsters either haven’t yet made the sea impassable, or have been subdued by one of more icons.

An Age of Sail and Trade

Adventurers and explorers have discovered new lands beyond the Empire, and trade ships now sail through the Koru Straits and out into the Iron Sea!

The wizards of Horizon have developed magical forms of navigation using celestial beacons that enable ships to cross the deeps. This is a marvelous time, especially for the merchants of Highrock and Glitterhaegen who benefit most from this growth in trade. However, dissatisfaction grows in other parts of the Empire, and would-be pirates—aided by ambitious black and green dragons—have built their own ships and begun raiding the trading vessels along the coast. 

Alternate Icons

The icons of the Age of Corsairs reflected the spirit of that age. If you wish, you can replace any of the default icons of the 13th Age with one of the icons below, or merge them. For example, you could replace the Prince of Shadows with the Captain of Corsairs; but you could also decide that the young Orc Lord felt the lure of the sea, and is now a pirate king!

The Captain of Corsairs is the great rival of the Emperor. There have been many different Captains—some were bloodthirsty, brutal thieves, but others were clever diplomats and wise rulers. The Captains rule from the great port city of the Harbor of Gulls.

The Explorer is a famed adventurer who travels the world. She will vanish from the Empire for many years at a time, then return with fabulous treasures and tales of distant lands. Sometimes, she travels by ship; on other occasions, she sets off on foot or through one of the Archmage’s experimental portals. (Other modes of transport employed by the Explorer on occasion: kidnapped by derro, tied to a roc, flung by a catapult, flung by a giant, flung by a giant catapult [along with her twenty companions and their horses], stowed away on a flying castle, eaten by the Stone Thief ).

The Merchant Princess‘ wealth is said to rival even that of the Dwarf King. Her trading fleets sail out of Glitterhaegen and Highrock, and return laden with gold and silver from distant lands. Money buys power, and the influence of the Princess easily eclipses that of the Archmage and the Great Gold Wyrm in the imperial court.

The Serpent is a green dragon whose power is second only to his ambition; he desires to become the new Green, upgrading the Three to the Four and obtaining the strength and respect (and treasure hoard) due to one of the great dragons. He has allied with the Captain of Corsairs to bring down his rivals, and some suspect he has bewitched the High Druid.

The King Below is the ruler of the sahuagin. Under the coral crown and bloody banner of the king, the freshwater sahuagin of the Fangs join with their salt-water cousins in a war against the surface. At times the Captain of Corsairs has been able to ally with the sea-folk, but for the most part, the sahuagin recognize no difference between one ship crammed with prospective slavemeat and another.

Lands Beyond

Book of Ages lists 13 lands that might exist beyond the storms and ship-eating monsters—though if you prefer, they could be reachable by land travel. Here are some samples:

Far Eld: A grim, rainy land of small, grim, damp villages and grimmer, damper fishermen. Lots of monks, hermits and druids. Eld’s not entirely in this world—parts of it phase in and out of some faerie realm, and only the locals know when these gates open and close.

The Edgelands: The atoll of the Edgelands surrounds a huge hellhole. It’s a barter town, a devil’s market where traders can buy goods from the infernal realms in exchange for coin and souls.

The Archipelago: Like the Dragon Empire, the lands of the Archipelago have their own icons. Here, there are a hundred minor icons, each one ruling a different island. Over time, the islands have come to reflect the nature and desires of their rulers, so each one is radically different to its neighbors across the straits.

Fortuna: In Fortuna, magic items rule. Humans are seen as soulless meat golems unless ensouled by the vibrant spirits of magic, and are only considered really alive when loaded down with enough items to have their ‘animal instincts’ overridden (in other words, more magic items than one’s level allows). Fortuna’s awash with magic items, but they’re not for sale—taking them is a crime tantamount to kidnapping.

Eiswyn: Eiswyn is a glacial realm of ice and snow, of barbarians and furry monsters. The ruins of an ancient civilization lie frozen in the glacier, so when the barbarians aren’t off raiding warmer lands in the summer, they spend their winters cutting into the ice to excavate treasures and dangers from a past age.

Get the Book of Ages by Gareth Ryder-Hanrahan here.


13th Age combines the best parts of traditional d20-rolling fantasy gaming with new story-focused rules, designed so you can run the kind of game you most want to play with your group. 13th Age gives you all the tools you need to make unique characters who are immediately embedded in the setting in important ways; quickly prepare adventures based on the PCs’ backgrounds and goals; create your own monsters; fight exciting battles; and focus on what’s always been cool and fun about fantasy adventure gaming. Purchase 13th Age in print and PDF at the Pelgrane Shop.

A column about roleplaying

by Robin D. Laws

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The Fall of DELTA GREEN adapts DELTA GREEN: THE ROLE-PLAYING GAME to the GUMSHOE investigative roleplaying system, opening the files on a lost decade of anti-Mythos operations: the 1960s. Players take on the role of DELTA GREEN operatives, assets, and friendlies. Hunt Deep Ones beneath the Atlantic, shut down dangerous artists in San Francisco, and delve into the heart of Vietnam’s darkness. Purchase The Fall of DELTA GREEN in print and PDF at the Pelgrane Shop.

When I asked the 13th Age Facebook group what they’d like me to write about in this month’s column, the first response was, “Sword & Sorcery for 13th Age! Some ideas for tweaks, reductions and hacking.” My initial reaction was, “No freaking way can I turn a game specifically designed to emulate the heroic fantasy genre into a game that emulates the swords & sorcery genre without a LOT of work.” But my brain just wouldn’t let it go. How would I approach such a project if I limited myself purely to tweaks, reductions, and (minimal) hacking?

And so, that’s the topic of this month’s 13th Sage. These are some ideas on how I as a GM would approach such a campaign, based on my experience with the genre. Others might do it differently, and better.

Let’s go!

Wait, what’s swords & sorcery?

Not familiar with S&S? These design guidelines for Swords of the Serpentine do a good job of capturing the essence of the genre. The classic works of fiction you’ll want to refer to are the Conan and Kull stories by Robert E. Howard, the Fafhrd & Gray Mouser stories by Fritz Leiber, and the Elric of Melnibone stories by Michael Moorcock.

Customize the Dragon Empire and its icons

Given the nature of the challenge, I think setting the campaign anywhere except the Dragon Empire is cheating. I went back to the Book of Ages for ideas on how to make it feel more like a setting for swords & sorcery adventures. Here are some versions of the Dragon Empire it inspired for me:

  • A single, powerful sorcerer-king reigns over a dark Empire composed of small kingdoms and a handful of city-states.
  • Long ago, a deathless sorcerer commanding an army of the living dead conquered half the Dragon Empire. Until they reach Champion tier, characters will go on adventures in the kingdoms of the living, outside of this realm. A lot of bad guys in this campaign would be necromancers, sorcerers seeking to live forever, death priests, and maybe a vampire or two.
  • Under a weak Emperor, the Seven Cities grow in power, splitting the Empire into seven squabbling city-states.
  • A highly cosmopolitan and powerful Dragon Empire opens maritime trade routes with other lands, and pirates band together to prey on this shipping—growing strong enough to challenge the Empire.

Speaking of which, one could create a decent array of swords & sorcery icons by picking and choosing icons from various ages in Book of Ages. I strongly suspect swords & sorcery doesn’t lend itself well to a setting populated by 13 demigodlike icons. I’d limit myself to seven, looking to the 7 Icon Campaign PDF for inspiration and ideas. I would also give them names instead of just titles.

If non-human sentient species are rare or non-existent in this campaign, you might reskin the non-human icons as humans that fill the same archetypal role. For example, the Orc Lord could become “Krahsh-Thukult, Warlord of the East” and the Elf Queen “Elidyr, Queen of Lost Lemuria”. A standard in swords & sorcery is that power, especially magical power, is innately dangerous and corrupting. As a result, only one or two icons might be heroic. Most will be ambiguous or villainous, and all of them are a hazard to adventurers’ health. (Just consider how much trouble allegedly friendly gods and wizards cause Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser.)

There’s considerable cross-pollination between swords & sorcery and Weird Fiction, and two immensely talented designers have proposed a Dragon Empire where the icons are drawn from the writings of Clark Ashton Smith and H.P. Lovecraft. If you’re interested in taking 13th Age in a swords & sorcery direction, definitely read Kenneth Hite’s article “Call of Chicago: Re-skinning, Genre-Drifting, and Triskaidekasizing” and Ruth Kitchin Tillman’s Eldritch Icons project.

PCs are always, or almost always, humans

Demi-human player characters will probably be rare (or even non-existent), so I’d use the mechanic of human cultural traits found in 13th Age Glorantha to make human PCs more varied.

I might frame demi-humans as being from a certain land. For example, gnomes could be “the people of distant [NAME], who are small of stature and skilled at confounding their enemies in battle.” Elves might be reskinned to be the last remnant of an ancient, mighty civilization that sank beneath the waves, living in seclusion in small numbers and practically a myth now. (See also how Fritz Leiber handles the ghouls of Nehwon. They’re basically human, except for their invisible flesh.)

I’d like to say that there can only be one demi-human PC at most in a group, but I’m not sure how I’d enforce that without feeling like a jerk. So I might disallow them until we’ve been playing for a while, have a better feel for the setting, and want to try something different.

Eliminate or heavily restrict magic-using classes

The use of magic (“sorcery”) is rare in this setting. This is contrary to how most RPGs in the D&D family tree handle magic, so we should figure out an interesting reason for it. Whatever the reason, sorcery in such a campaign will be innately dangerous, unnatural, and corrupting. Here are a few reasons sorcery might be rare in a swords & sorcery 13th Age campaign, several of which could be combined:

  • Sorcery is forbidden by Imperial edict, for any number of very good reasons. (But also because it threatens Imperial power.)
  • Sorcery causes harm (physical, mental, and/or spiritual) to the sorcerer. See the bit about the price of magic below.
  • Sorcery somehow causes harm to the world in the sorcerer’s vicinity. Maybe it’s instantaneous, and one or more living things takes damage or sickens or becomes corrupted. Maybe it’s an effect over time, so that the area around a sorcerer’s lair gradually becomes a corrupted, diseased, underpopulated wasteland.
  • Sorcery is the creation of an ancient, malevolent, intelligent species and is thus taboo. Good candidates include evil dragons, rakshasas, serpent people
  • Sorcerous power comes from a mighty patron, who will require a terrible price. Dragon Empire icons in the 13th Age who would make good patrons include the Three, the Diabolist, a reskinned Elf Queen in villainous or ambiguous mode, and a reskinned Archmage in villainous or ambiguous mode. We might also include a revised, sinister, Prince of Shadows.

There are no clerics, paladins, or wizards. Rangers won’t cast spells, unless perhaps they have limited access to some kind of nature-themed sorcery (such as the ice magic known to the women in Fafhrd’s clan in The Snow Women.) Druids might work, but their magic would be, again, sinister and dangerous. See how Ken and Ruth handle druids and the deep woods in their articles linked above.

If there are any magic-using PC classes in this campaign, they’d probably be the necromancer from 13 True Ways, and the demonologist from  Book of Demons. These are deeply flawed and unpleasant people who are clearly meddling in things best left alone by mortals. It seems weird not to use a class literally named “sorcerer” in a swords & sorcery game, but the spells from that class honestly don’t feel like the type of magic I see in what’s commonly considered S&S fiction.

Magic: summoning, items, backgrounds, and rituals?

Sorcerers in this genre rarely cast what we think of as “spells” in fantasy RPGs. But summoning a giant serpent, or a fire elemental? Entirely appropriate. Summoning is central to the aforementioned demonologist and necromancer classes; but we could also say, “no magic-using classes, period” and make summoning available to any PC who’s willing to pay the price. You’ll want to use 13 True Ways, Book of Demons, Summoning Spells, and Sorcerer Summoning.

A lot of “sorcery” in this type of fiction relies on what we call “consumable magic items” in the game. I’d make potions, oils, and runes readily available to heroes who know where to find such things. Just…don’t ask who made them, or how.

Want to be able to close a door, blow out a candle, or perform some other normal, minor action using magic? Maybe spend points in a Background called something like “Minor magic” and make a skill roll using Int or Cha.

Want to create a fog that hides your fleet of warships? A storm that lashes your enemy’s forces? A fire that consumes a village? That sounds like ritual magic, something that takes time and costs you something significant. This might only be available to a magic-using class, or it could be available to any PC who has the right knowledge or resources (an ancient scroll, forbidden tome, enchanted amulet, etc.)

Set a terrible price for sorcery

I’ve been talking about prices and costs, so let’s address what that could look like. If it’s a mechanical cost, a PC might spend recoveries or take damage in order to perform minor sorcery—or maybe there’s a chance one of the other PC’s in the group will take the loss. Major workings might require the permanent loss of recoveries or hit points. We could instead impose a narrative cost. For example, the demon you petition for help will take something important from you sometime in the future. Maybe a PC doesn’t know what the price will be, only that it’s something unpleasant and cumulative. The GM could keep track of a PC’s use of sorcery, then at an opportune time, have something awful happen such as an attack hitting an ally  instead.

As mentioned earlier, this also lends itself to an externalized cost: using sorcery hurts other people, and the natural world. Perhaps sorcerers have the choice to either pay the cost themselves or have others pay it, and most of them prefer the second option. I recommend checking out the Corruption rules in Swords of the Serpentine for details on this approach. (That game includes a useful Effect of Corruption on Locations table.)

Another take on the cost of magic worth considering in an “all, or most, magic is summoning magic” approach is an increased likelihood that whatever they summon into the world will break free of their control and do something extremely bad. This could be handled mechanically by hacking the dismissal rules, or narratively by letting summoners know that the more they summon creatures, the more likely it becomes that I, the GM, will decide it’s time to pay the piper.

Make magic items dangerous

I’ve talked about consumable magic items, but what about true magic items, such as magical weapons, cloaks, amulets, and so on? My suggestion: they are all cursed. Every one of them. They’re quite powerful, more powerful than the non-cursed items presented in the books; but they will screw you over somehow. Just ask Elric. Cursed items are introduced to the game in 13 True Ways, and Loot Harder contains several (like the Wizard’s Skull) that would be fantastic for a swords & sorcery game.

I’d give  true magic items a major curse, and let the characters know about the curse along with the item’s powers. That way, they will have to make an interesting choice: take the item and become more powerful, but suffer the effects of the curse? Or reject cursed sorcery, and trust in steel and their wits?

Monsters: natural, unnatural, and aberrant

Who will out heroes fight? I’m thinking that they’ll most often be challenged by foes I’d categorize as “natural”, and less frequently by foes I’d call “unnatural”. Rarest of all are foes I’ll call “aberrant”. Here’s what that looks like:

Natural: “normal” creatures such as humans, apes, wolves, bears, and boars. Especially large and tough animals will usually fall into this category.

Unnatural: creatures such as degenerate beast-men, skeletons, zombies, ghouls, serpent people, and animals that are supernaturally large and deadly or strangely-behaved (see Leiber’s sword-wielding squid in “When the Sea-King’s Away”) due to sorcery or demonic influence. Also, most sorcerers, necromancers, evil priests, and frenzied cultists.

Aberrant: these will probably be the foes PCs face in the climactic battle of the adventure—the sorcerer, priest or necromancer whose power has made them inhuman; the tentacled horror in the forbidden ruins; the giant serpent in the temple’s inner sanctum; the mechanical warrior from a long-ago age. To ensure the element of surprise, I might use the 13th Age DIY rules to convert a lot of monsters from Hideous Creatures: A Bestiary of the Cthulhu Mythos into unnatural or aberrant foes.

For me, the battles in a typical swords & sorcery 13th Age adventure would probably progress in this order: the heroes fight natural foes first, then progress to unnatural foes, and finally face off against aberrant enemies.

That’s all I can think of off the top of my head! I’m sure this column will lead to a lot of discussion in the various 13th Age groups, forums, and subreddits, and I look forward to seeing your ideas.


13th Age combines the best parts of traditional d20-rolling fantasy gaming with new story-focused rules, designed so you can run the kind of game you most want to play with your group. 13th Age gives you all the tools you need to make unique characters who are immediately embedded in the setting in important ways; quickly prepare adventures based on the PCs’ backgrounds and goals; create your own monsters; fight exciting battles; and focus on what’s always been cool and fun about fantasy adventure gaming. Purchase 13th Age in print and PDF at the Pelgrane Shop.

I just finished the final pass on the “page XX” references for Shards of the Broken Sky. Some designers dislike this type of finicky work, but I sort of love it. Partly it’s a great moment in the lifecycle of a book—it’s actually about to be finished! Partly you get to take a last look at things; and when you’re working with a great layout artist like Jen McCleary, it’s a calm look at things that are very much where they should be.

So a couple days later, I’m thinking about the finished adventure and asking myself: what isn’t in Shards that could have been? My first thought is that it would be interesting to think about how specific character classes could find special uses or unique stories in a Shards campaign. We generally don’t tailor elements of our adventures to individual classes; from a design perspective it’s usually better to avoid spending too much time on ideas that only apply to some characters. But a quick blog post is just about right!

Shards was first conceived of before 13 True Ways was released, so the default adventuring group at the time consisted of classes from the core book. Here are some ideas for how players whose characters’ classes come from 13TW might experience the adventure differently.

  • Chaos Mage: There is a whole lot of chaos in Shards of the Broken Sky. So much chaos that a chaos mage player character is either going to feel supremely at home OR feel a bit resentful that the world has barged in and taken over their party trick. Maybe this will be a chance for the chaos mage to develop in a new direction, towards taming some of the weirdness-from-on-high that fell to earth with Vantage.
  • Commander: For an early approach to the post-Fall chaos, a commander PC might be the imperial legionnaire who is ostensibly next in command after the disaster. But with no soldiers to command and a catastrophe in progress, maybe an adventuring party of misfits will do!
  • Druid: If I ever play in a Shards campaign, I’m going to play a druid with the Terrain Caster talent; and then I’m going to have SO MUCH FUN with the smashed and scattered terrain across Redfield Valley.
  • Monk: None of the big secrets in Shards directly relate to the monk class or its themes, so if I were running it with a monk character in the group, I’d start by changing that. In this campaign, the secret of the death/disappearance/status of the Grand Master of Flowers can be found in Redfields.
  • Necromancer: Unlike the monk, the necromancer gets LOTS of love in Shards. Indirect love, in the sense that the valley is full of ancient quasi-living battlefields, but that’s love a necromancer understands. 
  • The Occultist: Vantage falls, the Occultist rises from the wreckage. 

13th Age combines the best parts of traditional d20-rolling fantasy gaming with new story-focused rules, designed so you can run the kind of game you most want to play with your group. Created by Rob Heinsoo and Jonathan Tweet, 13th Age gives you all the tools you need to make unique characters who are immediately embedded in the setting in important ways; quickly prepare adventures based on the PCs’ backgrounds and goals; create your own monsters; fight exciting battles; and focus on what’s always been cool and fun about fantasy adventure gaming. Purchase 13th Age in print and PDF at the Pelgrane Shop.

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.

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.

Some of the most powerful roleplaying experiences I’ve ever had have come from running DramaSystem games. Starting with the Hillfolk roleplaying game, and continuing with Blood on the Snow and Series Pitch of the Month, DramaSystem offers a wealth of setting options for players to inhabit, and create compelling stories of interpersonal conflict and emotional drama. You might choose to play in 1930s Shanghai, a steam-powered flying city, a post-scarcity future of art and murder, a magical alternate-history Russia…even humanity’s universal unconscious.

However, DramaSystem is primarily designed for campaign play. What if you want to run a game at a convention? The challenges are significant. You have limited time to create an engaging story; you probably don’t know your players (and they probably don’t know each other); and it’s entirely possible they signed up for your session, not because they’re dying to play emotionally-charged dramatic scenes with strangers, but because they had time to kill and the setting sounded interesting.

Here are some tips that I, and other GMs and players, have learned during convention play.

Tell the players up front that this game is about character conflict, and player conflict

The most challenging DramaSystem game I’ve ever run was the one in which the players were too darn nice. Nobody wanted to be a jerk, so they never made strong demands, never used drama tokens to take away someone else’s narrative power, and never withheld anything that was asked of them.

Emphasize again and again that this is a game about interpersonal drama, conflict, and powerful emotions. Beyond that, make sure your players understand that DramaSystem is a game of player antagonism. Unlike other games they’re used to, they won’t be cooperating against some outside threat, or working together to achieve some external goal. They’ll be trying to get each others’ characters to grant emotional concessions—things like love, respect, forgiveness, friendship. Things those characters don’t want to concede.

Offer a manageable number of roles and dramatic poles

My series pitch The Secret of Warlock Mountain lists more than 20 possible roles the players could take in the game, from “ship’s captain” to “dream-haunted oracle”. You can certainly let the players choose from a long list, but I like to take six to eight roles and create very simple playbooks for them. (To see examples, download the playbooks for Hillfolk and Secret of Warlock Mountain on the DramaSystem Resources page.) This helps avoid players becoming paralyzed by too many choices, and also helps me run the game—I know that a given convention game of Warlock Mountain will involve some configuration of Captain, Doctor, Scientist, Elder, Comic Relief, Teenager, Criminal, and Soldier. This gives me a good idea of what kinds of relationships and stories I’ll be facilitating as the GM.

Likewise, there are a vast number of dramatic poles that a player character might have. I like to fill in each playbook with three dramatic poles per character—the players can either choose from those options, or come up with their own.

Max out the number of “I want from them/they want from me” relationships

DramaSystem character generation normally continues until every character is the object of at least two other characters’ wants. This is fine! However, I’ve found that it can enhance play at a convention to keep going around the table until every character wants something from every other character, and is the object of a want from every other character.

This approach gives players more flexibility, because now every character is a potential source of drama (and drama tokens) for every other character. Callers feel more freedom to include anyone they wish in a scene, because no character is “wasted” due to a lack of dramatic conflict with the other participants. It also gives every player something interesting to do in every scene: nobody is there in a purely supporting role.

Ignore or minimize the procedural rules

Whatever the setting, DramaSystem game sessions should stay laser-focused on the tensions and conflicts within a small, tightly-knit group of player characters. These characters might at some point fight orcs, sabotage a bridge, or plan a daring heist; but all of that is just background to their drama.

The goal of a convention game is to show your players a good time, and give them a sense of what makes the game fun and distinctive. With DramaSystem, that’s collaborative storytelling, player-vs-player conflict, and the drama token economy—not the rare instances where characters engage in procedural scenes.

You can keep the session drama-focused by ignoring or minimizing the game’s procedural rules. Instead, encourage the players to handle procedural scenes as dramatic scenes. Maybe their group of soldiers is trying to break out of a World War II prison camp, but what’s really going on in that scene is the boiling tension between the wealthy Bostonian Lt Thorndike and Sgt O’Malley, whose father was murdered by Thorndike’s uncle. You can give such scenes a procedural feel by asking questions and introducing threats. (“Up ahead you see something you didn’t expect, that will make the escape harder. What is is? How do you deal with it?”)

Other options include:

  1. Using the 13th Age RPG montage mechanic, where every player has the opportunity to narrate a challenge and a solution.
  2. Using one of the stripped-down procedural resolution methods.

Nurture the drama token economy

Drama tokens are the currency of DramaSystem. Make sure the players understand that an important part of the game is amassing enough tokens that their character has the power to influence what happens in the story. With enough tokens, their character can crash scenes where they aren’t wanted, duck out of scenes they don’t want to be in, force other player characters to do what they want, and resist being forced. This game is working when drama tokens are changing hands, passing from one player to another. If the players don’t push each other or resist being pushed, that won’t happen, and the game will remain drama-free and un-fun.

Every dramatic scene ends with an exchange of one or more drama tokens. If the petition is willingly granted, the granter earns a drama token—from the petitioner if he has one, or from the kitty if not. If the granter refuses, the petitioner gains the token— from the granter if she has one, or from the kitty if not.

In a convention game, I recommend letting players take drama tokens from the kitty for a longer period of time than you would in a campaign session. If, early in the game, Joan grants Jeff’s petition, and Jeff has a token, ask Joan to take her token from the kitty instead of from Jeff. This method increases the number of tokens in play more quickly, which heightens the suspense and raises the stakes. Pointing out to the group that a couple of players have two or three tokens in front of them causes everyone to realize that those characters now have more narrative power than the others. This creates an incentive for the other players to make difficult concessions or challenging demands, so they can take tokens away from those players and use them to push their own agendas.

Remember that the GM calls scenes too

It’s easy to get so caught up in the story the players are creating that you forget the GM takes a turn as well! You can use your scene to tighten the screws, or bring together characters who haven’t yet played out a dramatic scene. You can also mix things up by bringing characters together in a different combination than previously—if the rebellious daughter is never alone in a scene with her mother, throw them together in a stressful situation, and see what happens.

Further reading

Want more tips? Blood on the Snow includes a chapter of advice on running DramaSystem one-shots, including agreeing on a story outline beforehand, and stronger GM control over the narrative.

Good luck running your next DramaSystem con game, and have fun!

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