Happy new year, all, and I do hope you’re enjoying your dystopian cyberpunk future! I know I am. 😐

BUT, here in the Pelgrane’s Nest, things are looking up. As of today, we have joined another future – a more positive, and community-based future – with the launch of the GUMSHOE Community program on DriveThruRPG. If you haven’t yet come across the Community Content program, it’s a way for publishers to release some IP elements like text, art and layout assets to their communities to publish new works on DriveThruRPG within that setting, and even make money from them. So now’s your opportunity to revisit those Ashen Stars drafts in your Ideas folder, and get them up there for everyone to enjoy. You can find out more about the program here, and the full details are on the GUMSHOE Community page, here.

***NEW*** Eyes of the Stone Thief 5e Compatible PDF

You’re likely familiar with Eyes of the Stone Thief, Gareth Ryder-Hanrahan’s massive campaign for 13th Age. But, did you know that the living dungeon known as the Stone Thief is so epic it cannot be confined to just one system?! With some help from Kieran Turley, Gareth’s turned the first two levels of his megadungeon masterpiece into a PDF that’s compatible with the 5th Edition of the world’s most popular roleplaying game. If you have friends who are interested in making the jump, but nervous about spending money to do so, as well as being available in our webstore, you can also pick it up in the DriveThruRPG store as a pay-what-you-want title.

***NEW*** Hideous Creatures: A Bestiary of the Cthulhu Mythos PDF

New out this month is the PDF of the enormous Hideous Creatures: A Bestiary of the Cthulhu Mythos. While a staff writer, Ken wrote a number of stand-alone PDFs giving some mythos monsters the full Trail of Cthulhu treatment, writing up adventure seeds, variations, sample clues, mythic echoes throughout history, and stats. These PDFs were each carefully researched and information-dense, and packed with such useful ideas and scenario starters that we wanted to make them available to a wider audience. We collated the fifteen of those, added seven entirely new creatures, and rounded the collection out with another nine which had never appeared in a mythos RPG before. Hideous Creatures is the ultimate bestiary not only for Trail of Cthulhu, but for any mythos RPG.

A very rough sketch map of the city of Eversink

Work in progress update: Swords of the Serpentine

Kevin’s submitted the final manuscript (yay!), and it’s currently in editing. He’s now working with cartographer and Pelgrane artist Jérôme Huguenin on the maps of Eversink, although it’s early days still – you can see Jérôme’s first draft of the Sinking City over. We’re hoping to be able to release this in time for Gen Con, with pre-orders starting in March or April. Kevin’s also working on his own adventure, and the other writers’, for The Slithering God. Oh, oops…

Breaking! The Slithering God

This just in: we’re working on a five-adventure campaign for Swords of the Serpentine. Like The Zalozhniy Quartet and The Persephone Extraction, The Slithering God will feature five linked adventures, which can be run separately, or combined into one epic campaign. Serpentine authors Kevin Kulp and Emily Dresner will be writing one adventure each, and they’ll be joined by Dracula Dossier and Persephone author Heather Albano, along with Rachael Cruz and Black Star Magic writer Sarah Saltiel. Oh, I did it again? *le sigh*

Breaking! Black Star Magic

Also brand new to our Forthcoming list is a book of magic for The Yellow King RPG. Black Star Magic will feature background material for Carcosan magic in all four YKRPG settings, and GM guidance showing you how to incorporate player-facing occult powers into your game, as well as a brand-new magical adventure for each of the four YKRPG settings. Progress has been tearing along on this thanks to an all-star writing team of Robin Laws, Gareth Ryder-Hanrahan, Sarah Saltiel and Ruth Tillman, and we’re hoping to open playtesting on this in the next See Page XX.

Work in progress update: The Yellow King RPG

And while I’m on the topic, the last remaining backer copies of the Yellow King RPG are winging their way to our wonderful Kickstarter backers, who have waited so very patiently through what has been a fulfillment process of Carcosan-level nightmares.

I say often that we at Pelgrane are incredibly lucky to have the community we do, who understand that we work hard to produce high-quality games for them, and stay with us on that journey, no matter how arduous; but it does bear repeating. A big shout-out of gratitude to the YKRPG backers, for their humour and generosity of spirit, and crossing our fingers that, now that they’re in possession of the tomes, the YKRPG curse touches them but lightly.

For those of you who’ve been waiting patiently while they waited patiently, we’ll be releasing the Yellow King RPG in the next edition of See Page XX.

Work in progress update: Mutant City Blues 2nd Edition

The final PDF has been uploaded to pre-orderers’ bookshelves now, and this is with the printers. Chinese New Year will impact the delivery date, but we’re hoping to have the books in the US and UK in April.

Work in progress update: Born Robot

Unfortunately, Robin’s conflicting commitments have put this project on semi-permanent hiatus, at least for the next two years. We’ll revisit this once his bandwidth frees up again.

Pelgranes in the Wild, January – Warpcon, Ireland

The early gaming ground of a young me, and an even younger Gareth Ryder-Hanrahan, we’ll be trialling a small booth at our home convention in Cork for the first time. This will impact our game running, game playing, and game drinking time (pp. 8-9), but it’ll be worth it to sing the epic song of the Pelgrane for our friends and neighbours.

Pelgranes in the Wild, January, cont – Contingency, UK

At the same time that Gareth and I are reminiscing, Becky will be braving the fens of East Anglia to try out a small booth at Contingency, in King’s Lynn, assisted by Pelgrane playtester Chris Romer. If you’re in the area, which seems quite central, to swing by and say hello.

Until next time…

^^ Cat

image of Google text to speech logoby Aser Tolentino

These days when a conscientious creator begins building something to share with the world, they usually take the time to reflect to at least some degree on how inclusive they have been to players, readers or casual passers-by. In the gaming world, that has meant a commendable effort to reach out to sensitivity consultants or beta readers when dealing with topics requiring background experience or technical knowledge. Unfortunately, a major barrier to the enjoyment of creators’ work can sometimes be found not in its content, but its presentation. Whether as a consequence of the tools used in layout or the aesthetic choices made during product design, publishers can create major obstacles for users who rely on assistive technology to interact with the world around them, and game masters can employ techniques that limit some players’ ability to engage with the stories they create. These accessibility challenges are not insurmountable, and when confronted, can offer opportunities for everyone to have more fun around the table.

Why We Need it:

When people consider accessibility in their projects, the immediate concern becomes the difficulty when balanced against the necessity. I am a visually impaired attorney, podcaster, game master, and game designer. Every one of these roles has prompted a sighted person to ask, “How do you do that?” The answer is that for every action that is performed visually, there is usually a non-visual analog. It might require the use of other senses, expensive equipment, or technological trickery, but there’s almost always a way. And when it comes down to it, there must be a way. There are millions of legally blind and totally blind people in the United States. As an assistive technology instructor, I’ve encountered in the last month alone, people who have lost sight because of diabetes, gunshot wounds, welding accidents, cancer, congenital glaucoma, and blunt trauma. It’s often said that disability is unique as a protected class because it is one you can join at any time. When that happens though, there are tools available to allow people to learn how to do more than they realized was possible without perfect sight, and more things come into reach with every passing day.

The possibilities of assistive technology and rehabilitation training notwithstanding, much of what is possible for a person with a visual impairment relies on basic considerations by those responsible for creating and presenting content online or in the real world. We’re going to talk about a few examples, but for more tips and tricks, I would recommend these references from Fay Onyx and Jacob Wood, two game designers who have made advocating for greater accessibility part of their design philosophies. Adobe has also created more general guidance on PDF accessibility for users of their products. As an introduction to the whys and hows of integrating accessibility into your workflow however, we’ll talk about a few practices you may want to evaluate when putting your game together.

Tools of the Trade:

It might be helpful to understand the kinds of tools people with a visual impairment use to access your products. The list below is nowhere near comprehensive and is limited by my level of technical understanding, but should provide an idea of the capabilities available.

Screen Readers: A screen reader is a piece of software that intercepts all content displayed on the screen, parses the text and reads it to the user. In doing so, it creates an intermediate layer or buffer through which the user interacts with the computer’s interface using keyboard shortcuts. Basically, it recalls where all controls and other elements are located and when the user tabs to a link, button or the like and presses enter, the screen reader performs an equivalent action at what should be the correct location. It works surprisingly well…most of the time. While screen readers can provide information about graphics, they are largely reliant on content creators for meaningful input, e.g. a description of a picture. Screen readers can also provide details about text attributes, but generally do not do so by default: imagine if the narrator of the new book you downloaded from Audible told you every time a word was in italics.

Screen Magnifiers: It does what it says on the tin, but also a fair bit more. Magnifiers can apply filters to change colors, contrast, cursor shapes and other visual characteristics to make screens easier to read or less painful to look at. Often it’s screen magnifier users who are the most encumbered by denser and/or more intricate layouts and backgrounds.

Book Reader Hardware or Software: Many people with print disabilities employ reading software to handle longer text that would require too much time or concentration to access visually. Basically, imagine the Kindle app on steroids and speaking to you in a not quite human voice and you get the idea. Most of these products use optical character recognition (OCR) which allows the user to strip the text stream from a PDF and read it aloud, using tagged elements such as headings, pages and paragraphs as landmarks for easy navigation.The utility of these readers varies greatly depending on how well the source material was formatted. 

It’s Not What You Said, But How You Said It:

One of the greatest challenges in game design is efficiently and comprehensively conveying information to readers of varying degrees of sophistication. Whether you’re designing character background generators or vehicle combat options, how you lay out information for the reader can make a huge difference in how they perceive it or how it is interpreted by assistive technology. It perhaps bears repeating that information should never be conveyed through color alone, as different kinds of colorblindness will limit the ability of many readers to differentiate between a variety of colors. Beyond that however, one should be cautious when employing icons or other graphics to denote any information such as rules variations, damage types, dice to be rolled, or other details. Screen readers and reading software parsing files for text will disregard graphics, meaning that any context will be lost for anyone relying on such technologies. Likewise, when working with publishing software like InDesign, linking text boxes so that they follow the intended reading order can avoid detours through flavor text and optional rules while reading about character creation. Lastly, tables should have their column and row headers tagged so that screen readers will provide that added context for users moving across cells: was that 15 its clip size or its weight?

The Visual Noise:

When interacting with a document or website using a screen magnifier, decorative visual elements can pose serious challenges to visually impaired readers. Background images, particularly when they reduce contrast with foreground text, can make it difficult to distinguish signal from noise. A useful workaround for many in this predicament has been to read from the printer-friendly or eReader versions of books provided by some thoughtful publishers. For those interested in a more elegant solution, creating multiple layers within a PDF document to allow for the toggling of background images and other decorative elements can make for a terrific compromise. That said, maintaining the highest level of contrast that conforms to your design aesthetic is always desirable, as it ensures the most people can enjoy the game as you envisioned it.

What We Like to (Metaphorically) See:

There are a number of little touches that can transform a game book from a tolerable experience to a truly enjoyable one. As I mentioned above, book reading software often relies upon tagged elements such as headings to provide navigational landmarks for easy movement through a document. Tagging titles and sidebars as well as other key portions of text with headings that conform to a logical hierarchy can make exploring and referring to a rule book infinitely more manageable, especially when under time pressure. And while a properly linked and bookmarked PDF is a true joy to read, an ePub or MOBI file can add an extra level of functionality as headings and bookmarks retain a great deal more precision in these formats than is commonly found in PDFs. And of course, though it is exceedingly rare to find, actual descriptions of art in alt text or actual long description attributes can be hugely impactful when you unexpectedly encounter it in someone’s work. On a more practical note, quick start rules or rules references can be of incalculable value as they can be printed out in large print or embossed in Braille without using up a ream of paper.

Putting It Into Action:

The most accessible game book in the world won’t do anyone a bit of good if the people running it don’t translate that inclusive spirit into practices at the table. The thing to remember in this context, like with all other considerations, is to maximize fun. Several publishers and online groups have begun working on large print and high visibility character sheets. Braille readers may have the ability to load materials onto Braille displays or print them using embossers if provided sufficient notice. Offering players the opportunity to request accommodations, in private and particularly ahead of time, can clearly convey your openness to working with them. Discussing resources you might have, or could get, would also be a good step when someone appears unsure what might be helpful, but the player should be allowed to explain what they could use to the extent they are comfortable. Entire books have been written on the subject of reasonable accommodation, so this is a topic that will involve some variation from one group to another. Simply being able to have the conversation in a supportive and proactive way can make all the difference in making a player feel welcome and included.

Conclusion:

I have had the privilege of playing some incredible games with truly amazing people. The tabletop hobby includes such a huge community of brilliant, creative, funny and kind people. Advances in technology and changes to the way people think about including and expanding their audience have made it so much easier to participate. I can wait to see what we come up with next together.

 


Among other things, Aser Tolentino is an assistive technology instructor, accessibility consultant, licensed attorney, podcaster, and aspiring game designer. He is a co-founder of The Redacted Files Podcast Network and Peculiar Books. His role-playing aesthetics tend toward investigative horror, military science fiction, and historical adventuring. Diagnosed with glaucoma at birth, he explores the world with his wife Megan and guide dog Dixie, and can regularly be found shouting into the void on Twitter.

Just before Christmas, I finished off the first part of my home campaign of THE YELLOW KING. We’re running it at a fairly fast pace (we’re alternating sessions with Warhammer in deference to the sensibilities of players who want to hit things with swords), and with only a limited number of sessions, I based virtually all the adventures around the player’s Deuced Peculiar Things.

It’s useful to my mind to think of YELLOW KING scenario planning as a grid. Along the top, you’ve got the array of Carcosan characters and tropes – The King, his Daughters, the play, the Yellow Sign, Castaigne, Mr. Wilde, black stars, madness – and any elements from the current sequence (Parisian political and artistic intrigue, the Continental War, the overthrow of the Castaign regime etc). Along the side, you’ve got the prompts provided by your players as Deuced Peculiar Things. You dig for horror and mystery where those lines cross.

So, my players gave me:

  • Chester: I met an enchanting man in a bar, we shared a night of passion, but I woke up in bed to discover I was lying next to a woman, who left without a word.
  • Sillerton: I dreamed I was at a strange party in a chateau outside Paris; when I investigated, I learned that the chateau burned down many years ago.
  • Ada: My brother Theo has vanished and no-one else – not even my other brother Chester – remembers he ever existed.
  • Reggie: My cat had a litter of kittens, but they came out as this ghastly congealed mass of conjoined bodies and limbs, a sort of feline centipede.
  • Dorian: I saw L’Inconnue de la Seine, and chased her into an entrance to the catacombs.

While I could have started with any of these, I picked Reggie and his cat-monster for two reasons. First, it’s the most immediate problem – three of the others are weird encounters, and Theo’s been missing for some time (and felt more like a long-running plot than a trigger event), whereas Reggie’s catipede was right there (well, right there in a bag, as they hammered it to death very quickly). Second, cats give me a link right to Mr. Wilde from the Repairer of Reputations (the mania he had for keeping that cat and teasing her until she flew at his face like a demon, was certainly eccentric. I never could understand why he kept the creature, nor what pleasure he found in shutting himself up in his room with this surly, vicious beast.”)

Carcosan Hybrids

So, what’s the crossing point? What Carcosan element might Reggie’s cat intersect with. A flip through the Paris book gave me the matagot (p. 159), a supernatural Carcosan spy in the shape of a cat. Maybe Reggie’s pet cat mated with a Carcosan entity, and that spawned the malformed catipede?

That worked – and instantly gave me a horrible consequence to play with. If mating with a Carcosan entity creates some sort of hideous hybrid… and Chester slept with a mysterious shapeshifter…

But if I was going to make hybrids a big part of the plot, I needed a reason for them to exist. The cat might be a random encounter, but why would some Carcosan courtier take the time to sleep with Chester? I went with the concept of anchors in our reality, which let me bring in the dreadful play and foreshadow stuff that’ll come up in the Aftermath sequence. So, Carcosa needs to get its hooks into reality. It starts with the infiltration of a concept, a malign thought – the play. As the play corrupts reality, it allows the establishment of stronger anchors, allowing Carcosan entities to cross over physically. They then create even stronger anchors, bootstrapping an invasion.

Living Statues

Dorian’s encounter with the mysterious inconnue connected to this plot too. L’Inconnue died in the 1880s, so she must have been a ghost, an illusion or some other supernatural weirdness. I decided to loop in both the art world and another of Chamber’s tales, the Mask. If there’s a mysterious fluid that turns flesh to stone, then maybe the same fluid could turn stone to flesh. The girl with the familiar face was a statue brought to life using Carcosan chemistry. Why? Because these living statues were the middle-stage anchor – host bodies of pseudo-flesh used like space-suits by Carcosan nobles in the period before they could manifest in all their glory.

The Cult of the Yellow Sign

So, there was still a gap in my cosmology – if the existence of the play in a given reality corrupts it enough for Carcosan weirdness to filter in, and if Carcosan weirdness gets worse as the King’s court establishes stronger anchors and invades, where did the play come from in the first place? I still had two Deuced Peculiar Things to play with – the vanished brother, and the mysterious party.

I came up with a sketched-out occult society who experimented with telepathy, spiritualism and other weirdness, the Society Jaune, who accidentally made contact with the King and saw the Yellow Sign. Theo fell into the clutches of survivors of this cult, and wrote the play after exposure to the Sign. A twist of temporal weirdness through Carcosa let me shove Theo out of linear time and back to the burning of the cult chateau during the Siege of Paris.

The View From The Cheap Seats

Obviously, slotting Deuced Peculiar Thing A into Carcosan Motif Y is only part of the adventure-design. Just because I knew that, say, a crazed sculptor was creating statues and bringing them to life in the catacombs didn’t mean I had a full adventure ready to go. All this technique gave me was a set of Alien Truths to build adventures around. However, keeping everything strongly connected to the players’ Deuced Peculiar Things and the most significant bits of the Yellow King Mythos let me give the players a whistlestop tour of Dread Carcosa while giving satisfying answers to all their Deuced Peculiar prompts.

The Wars start next week. Check back in a few months to see how that turns out…

A previous article outlined an alternate campaign frame for Ashen Stars. Here’s a worked example. (The inspiration for this example, by the way, came from an episode of 99% Invisible about the Great Bitter Lake Association.)

In the Ashen Stars setting, ships travel fast-than-light along translight corridors. The largest starships – massive industrial supercarriers, mobile refineries, and bulk cargo freighters – are too large to pass through some corridors. At the height of the Combine’s reach, titanic tachyonic buttresses artificially widened the corridors, allowing these great ships to move through otherwise impassable routes.

Then came the war. The buttresses were prime targets for Mohilar raiders, and many were destroyed.

In the wild space of the Bleed, the destruction of the C97-Kraken buttress trapped a fleet of a dozen megaships in the Gallereid system. Rebuilding the buttress is definitely on the Combine’s to-do list, but it won’t happen for years. In the meantime, the fleet is stuck. It’s cheaper for the megacorps to pay for security and a skeleton crew to monitor the trapped ships than it is to transfer the cargos to smaller ships. So, the Gallereid fleet waits there in deep space, slowly succumbing to entropy, their hulls turning yellow as sulphur particles from the nearby volcanic moon accrete…

What’s The Scope?

The action’s centred on the ‘Yellow Fleet’ of stranded metaships
, with occasional jaunts to the moons of Gallerus. The ships include:

  • Kullervos: A severely damaged Combine warship, on her way back to be decommissioned and scrapped. A skeleton crew of loyal Cybes consider her their home.
  • Blue Haven: During the war, the Combine world of Azura was evacuated aboard the Blue Haven. Before they could reach the Combine, the ship got stuck here. The passengers have long since been decamped to other worlds, including the Gallereid moons, but the Blue Haven is still full of personal items and equipment salvaged from Azura.
  • Northwind: A mining ship, full of valuable ores and mining equipment.
  • Costaguana: Northwind’s sister ship – a mobile refinery.

 Key nearby locations include

  • Bitterness: The hellish volcano moon the fleet orbits.
  • New Azura: A mining world. Before the war, the Northwind and Costaguana chewed up most of New Azura, turning it into a wasteland; now, many of the refugees from the Blue Haven have been moved there, into the mining tunnels.
  • Gallereid Prime: The most habitable of the moons, home to a Bleedist settlement.

Why Here?

The Lasers are here to protect the Yellow Fleet from thieves, raiders, quarrelling crews and other threats.

Who Are The Factions?

Key factions:

  • BVS Incorporated: The corporation responsible for managing and maintaining the fleet, while they wait for the replacement Tachyon Buttress to be installed.
  • Scrubbers: The underpaid, bored, and increasingly troublesome crew of techs responsible for maintaining, effectively, 15 giant space cities.
  • Monks of the Yellow Oracle: Eccentric monastic nu-faith that many of the scrubbers have joined. They claim to be able to see the future in the sulphur clouds.
  • Cybes: The cyborg crew of the Kullervos, who object to their homeship being decommissioned. Some want to purchase the ship, and have become mercenaries to earn some extra credits.
  • Gallereid Bleedists: Denizens of Gallereid Prime, who don’t want the tachyon buttress built – they want to be mostly cut off from the Combine.
  • Azurans: Refugees settled on the blasted moon of New Azura; they claim ownership of the cargo of

Who Are The Criminals?

  • Gallereid Organised Crime: Gallereid Prime’s the home of the local crime syndicate, the Kch-Tkh-dominated Hive Lords. They don’t appreciate having a bunch of Lasers hanging around on the other side of the gas giant.
  • Cargo Ticks: Low-grade raiders who break into the hulls of the freighters using reconfigured mining ships and steal cargo. They work closely with criminal elements among the scrubbers.

Who Are The Faces?

  • BVS Incorporated: Mik Reiser, corporate executive. Ambitious, eager to get out of this dead-end assignment. Conceals slimy amoral core beneath a mask of earnest concern for the safety of those heroic scrubbers.
  • Scrubbers: Kima Adros, leader of the scrubber crew on the Costaguana. Torn by doubts about the Combine.
  • Monks of the Yellow Oracle: Abbot Zhar, cryptic robed figure, rumoured to be a Vas Mal.
  • Cybes: Commander Navzero, the leader of the Cybes who claim the warship. Navzero’s literally built itself into the ship, permanently wiring its core systems into the networks of the Kullervos.
  • Gallereid Bleedists: Alten Brase, the mayor of Gallereid Prime. In a relationship with Kima Adros. He’s also aided by Vogik, a shady Tavak enforcer who’s the law on Prime.
  • Azurans: Lady Io Sunwater, the representative of the exiles from Azura.
  • Gallereid Organised Crime: Run by the Durugh Ishuk – a long-time foe of Vogik.
  • Cargo Ticks: One notorious tick is “Lucky” Lar, who’s so incompetent a thief that he’s turned informant for the Lasers.

What’s New?

During the war, the convoy of megaships was in the process of entering the translight corridor when the Mohiliar blew up the Gallereid tachyon buttress. The lead ship, the mighty Thunderchild, was in transit when the buttress collapsed, and was assumed destroyed 10 years ago.

Well, the Thunderchild just dropped out of translight. No life signs, minimal power, lots of damage. It’s possible that she’s been bouncing around in translight for years, in the unstable hyperspace outside the corridor, and precipitated back into lowshift space by chance – but the odds against that are millions to one.

It looks like the Yellow Fleet’s about to gain a new and mysterious addition… once the lasers have confirmed there’s nothing dangerous on board that vast megafreighter…

What’s The Station?

A chunk of one of the Yellow Fleet ships, given over to the lasers. The players get to pick which wreck is home…

Possible Cases

  • Kima Adros warns that Thunderchild is going to fall into Gallerus’ gravity well unless secured – but she can’t get the ship’s engines restarted until the Lasers clear the engineering section of mysterious translight predators that feed on fear.
  • A smuggler is murdered on New Azura. He dealt in relics from the Blue Haven, selling personal items back to the Azurans. How did he steal that cargo – and why was it worth killing over? What ancient secret from Azura was hidden in those trinket?
  • A tip-off warns the Lasers that notorious Bleedist terrorist Azo Hoop is in-system, and is rumoured to be planning to obtain weapons from the warship Kullervos. Is Hoop working with the Bleedist sympathisers on Gallereid Prime, or the Cargo Ticks – or has he gone straight to the Cybes? Or is the rumour a plan to distract and discredit the Lasers in the eyes of the other residents of Gallerus?

The 2nd edition of the Esoterrorists includes the Station Duty campaign frame, in which a Esoterrorist team is placed on long-term assignment to a particular small town for an ongoing investigation instead of the usual mystery-of-the-week. That approach also works in Ashen Stars. (The obvious worked example: Star Trek: Deep Space Nine swapped out the ‘planet of the week’ structure of the original series and The Next Generation for an ongoing plot involving Bajor, the Cardassians, and the wormhole aliens.)

Key questions to be answered, either by the GM or collaboratively with the players:

What’s The Scope?

Is this a single planet? A single star system? A group of systems? You could do as small a single city, or as wide as a whole cluster or outzone – maybe the station’s located at a crossroads in space where multiple translight corridors intersect.

Why Here?

Why does this place justify a permanent Laser presence? Is it strategically important – a choke point, maybe, at the mouth of a wormhole, er, translight corridor? Is it especially lawless, a pirate haunt that must be patrolled? Is there some vital industry here that must be protected? Is it a new government outpost that’s trying to return Combine order to the chaotic Bleed? Maybe this was the site of a major battle in the Mohiliar war, and there’s a scrapyard of wrecked warships here – or researchers investigating the doomsday weapons used by the mysterious enemy.

Who Are The Factions?

You need at least four or five major groups. What alien races are present? (At least some should be the same species as some of your more unusual player characters.) What major corporations? Nufaiths? Planetary governments? What are their attitudes towards the player characters and towards each other? Ensure there’s at least one conflict between every faction, even if they’d normally be closely aligned.

Possible factions include all the major Combine people (Human, Cybe, Durugh, Balla, Kch-thk, Tavak, and maaaaybe Vas Mal), plus the new peoples from Accretion Disk (boisterous Cloddhucks, drifting Hydrossi, corpse-stealing Icti, radioactive Ndoalites, fiery Raconids or shapeshifting Verpids); the various Nufaiths and Synthcultures, and the various political ideologies (Bleedist, Atomist, Combinism, Mercantilism, Empiricism and Racial Separatism).

Who Are The Criminals?

It’s a game about space cops, so stick in some space criminals. Having at least one established organised crime outfit (smugglers, illegal cyber-dealers, etc) and one bunch of space pirates or thieves is an absolute minimum. Which factions have ties to crime?

Who Are The Faces?

For each faction, come up with at least individual representative to give the players someone to talk to. Texture these characters by giving them a point of disagreement (possibly hidden, to be discovered by later investigation) with their own faction, and a connection to one of the other factions.

Also create a major location or headquarters for that faction, if one isn’t obvious already.

What’s New?

In addition to the arrival of the lasers, include some recent disruption to the status quo. This disruption might be something that lasts for the whole campaign (“the Combine’s returned to this sector”) or a plot arc that lasts for a few adventures (“space plague!”). Disrupting the status quo from the start lets the player characters become part of whatever new equilibrium is eventually established.

What’s The Station?

Is it a custom-built station? A derelict ship? A surface building? A moon colony? An old Combine military outpost?

The player characters still need a spaceship, as per the regular rules.

 Wire Up The Arcs

The final step is to plug the player characters into the web of factions and plots. In a station duty campaign, there’s much more scope for long-running plots, so integrate player character arcs into the setting. If a player’s arc is “find my missing sister”, her disappearance must be closely connected to one of the factions or some location (maybe she vanished into that wormhole). If it’s “prove my worth”, then the character might become the leader or chosen, er, emissary of one of the factions.

In my home campaign, our heroes found themselves transported back in time to the rebellion against the Wizard King—though as they discovered later, they were actually trapped in a living dungeon’s memories of that era. These were some of the foes they encountered: brutal enforcers of the Wizard King’s rule.

It’s possible these miscreants will show up in a future 13th Age supplement. If so, I’ll be interested to see what turn into after a proper development pass. But when I ran them they were fun and challenging to fight!

Note that the Wizard King knight’s defense against non-spell attacks is a hack of the Pearl Legion’s destined not to die ability from Book of Ages. I liked the idea of the Wizard King’s elite knights being nearly unbeatable except by magic. Destined not to die lent itself well to that idea.

Building battles: As befits troops in service to the world’s most powerful wizard, a squad operating in a hostile area typically includes a coursing manticore (from the 13th Age Bestiary) or some other fearsome magical monster for extra intimidation and firepower.

 

Wizard King Grunt

If it weren’t obvious already, the poor equipment issued to these wretches makes it clear that their primary function in battle is to get in the way of attacks.

7th level mook [humanoid]

Initiative: +7

Government issue spear +12 vs. AC18 damage

Natural 1-5: The spear breaks and is unusable for the rest of the battle. Replace with fists, I guess?.

Fists, I guess? +12 vs. AC6 damage

R: Government issue crossbow +12 vs. AC18 damage

Natural 1-5: The crossbow breaks and is unusable for the rest of the battle

AC 23

PD 21                HP 27 (mook)

MD 17

 

Wizard King Stormtrooper

They aren’t too bright, and they aren’t very good shots, but their loyalty to the Wizard King is absolute.

7th level troop [humanoid]

Initiative: +9

Standard issue broadsword +12 vs. AC28 damage

R: Standard issue wand +10 vs. AC20 damage

R: Suppressing fire +12 vs. PD (1d4 nearby or far away targets)target is stuck until the beginning of the Wizard King stormtrooper’s next turn.

Limited use: Only usable when not engaged with an enemy.

Weak-minded: Wizard King stormtroopers are trained to obey those in authority without question, leaving them with a lower than normal Mental Defense.

AC 20

PD 21                HP 100

MD 10

 

Wizard King Captain

Drawn from the ranks of the lesser nobility, the Wizard King gives them access to a fragment of arcane power that makes them and the troops they lead more deadly as the battle rages on.

7th level leader [humanoid]

Initiative: +12

Officer’s longsword +12 vs. AC28 damage, and each nearby Wizard King stormtrooper deals +5 damage with its next attack this battle that hits.

R: Officer’s wand +12 vs. AC28 damage

Defend me! Once per battle when an attack reduces the Wizard King captain to half its hit points or fewer, any Wizard King grunts and Wizard King stormtroopers in the battle may move toward the Wizard King captain as a free action, popping free if they are engaged.

For the Wizard King! The Wizard King captain adds the Escalation Die to their attacks up to a maximum bonus of +3. In addition, Wizard King stormtroopers in the battle add the Escalation Die to their attacks to a maximum bonus of +2.

AC 23

PD 17                HP 108

MD 21

 

Wizard King Knight

In return for their eternal loyalty, the Wizard King made his paladins almost impossible to kill by normal means. They roam the kingdom on their warhorses, performing great and terrible deeds that all may know and fear his name.

8th level wrecker [humanoid]

Initiative: +13

Foe-scattering sword +13 vs. AC—38 damage

Natural even hit: If the Wizard King knight is mounted, its warhorse makes a foe-scattering strike attack as a free action.

[special trigger] Foe-scattering strike +13 vs. AC (all enemies engaged with the Wizard King knight)18 damage, and the target pops free

R: King-given wand +13 vs. AC38 damage of a random energy type (1d4):

  1. Cold
  2. Fire
  3. Lightning
  4. Thunder

For the Wizard King! The Wizard King knight adds the Escalation Die to their attacks.

No earthly weapon can kill me: If a non-spell attack that hits the Wizard King knight would reduce it to 0 hit points, that attack misses instead. The knight still takes non-spell miss damage, and can be killed by non-spell miss damage. Spell attacks kill the knight normally.

AC 24

PD 22                HP 144

MD 18

 

Countess Magdalena the Duelist

The countess is the most feared swordfighter in the kingdom. “The Duelist” is what they call her to her face—behind her back, in whispers, they call her “the Decapitator”. She hears them whisper, and she smiles.

8th level spoiler [humanoid]

Initiative: +15

Unerring blade +14 vs. AC40 damage

Natural 16+: The target is also vulnerable (crit range expands by 2, to 18+)

R: Fire opal ring +12 vs. PD (1d3 + 1 nearby creatures in a group)—30 fire damage, and 10 ongoing fire damage

Natural even hit: The target takes 20 ongoing fire damage instead of 10

Miss: 15 fire damage, and 5 ongoing fire damage

Limited use: 2/battle

R: Sapphire ring +12 vs. PD (2 attacks)—30 cold damage

Natural 16+: The target is stuck and takes 10 ongoing cold damage

Limited use: 2/battle.

C: Terrifying demonstration +13 vs. MD—The countess gains a fear aura against the target until the end of the battle

[special trigger] Fear aura: While engaged with the countess, if the target has 48 hp or fewer, it’s dazed (–4 attack) and does not add the escalation die to its attacks.

The more foes, the merrier: Enemies engaged with the countess at the end of their turn take damage equal to 5 times the escalation die (0-5-10-15-25-30) if they have not taken damage since the end of their last turn.

You’re too easily distracted: The countess has a +2 bonus to disengage checks.

The secret of the ring: When the countess drops to 0 hp, her body dies but her life force lives on inside the gemstone in her fire opal ring. There, she awaits the day when the Wizard King calls her forth and grants her a new, undying body.

AC 24

PD 18      HP 144

MD 22

 

Lunar wand icon by  under CC BY 3.0


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.

In the world of Mutant City Blues, there’s a single origin for mutant powers:  a mysterious virus called the ghost flu caused approximately 1% of the population to develop incredible abilities. In most campaigns, the ghost flu’s just part of the background, putting the focus on regular criminal investigations flavoured with tasty mutant weirdness.

However, if you want to push the mutant mystery to the forefront, here are four alternate origins for mutant powers. All these origins leave the signature Quade Diagram unchanged, but offer an additional line of investigation.

Mutagenic Meteor

Ten years ago, a meteorite broke up as it approached Earth. Portions of the meteorite fell through the atmosphere (other portions are still in orbit, and expected to pass close to Earth in a few years…) Much of the planet was bathed in dust; larger chunks of alien rock crash-landed more-or-less intact. People exposed to the dust developed mutant powers. Some of the fragments were collected and studied, but others have ended up on the black market. Snorting ground meteorite dust can trigger mutant powers; larger chunks have been fashioned into jewellery or tools, and are rumoured to boost mutant abilities to astounding levels or warp reality in other, stranger ways.

Investigating dust dealers and mutant-rock incidents are part of the remit of the Heightened Crimes Unit. Mutant City was hit especially hard by meteor fallout; they’re still finding meteor rocks in backyards and parks after all these years. And finding one of those rocks can literally change your life…

The Outsiders

The abductions began 10 years ago. About 1% of the population got beamed up by flying saucers (or stolen by the fairies, or folded into a higher dimension by hyper-beings). Those abducted sometimes developed mutant powers; others came back transformed in other ways, or were returned apparently unchanged. The military tried to intervene, but the aliens possess hypertechnology far beyond anything humanity can muster – and while the aliens’ intent may not be benign, it’s not overtly hostile either. These days, the abductions are just part of background weirdness – everyone knows someone who’s been abducted, and it’s common enough that ‘alien abduction’ is accepted without question as a reason for taking a sick day.

The Heightened Crimes Unit is responsible for following up on reports of abductions, and monitoring recent abductees to determine if they develop mutant abilities. HCU’s also tasked with investigating UFO sightings and other alien activity. Whatever the aliens are up to, they seem to be increasing the scale of their experiments in recent months.

Project HELIOS

Experiments in genetic enhancement of humanity began during the cold war; both the USA and the Soviet bloc carried out experiments to create super-soldiers. Their greatest success was Project HELIOS – a retrovirus that unlocked incredible powers. Only a handful of test subjects survived the HELIOS procedure, and the whole experiment was conducted in the greatest secrecy…

… until an augmented, airborne version of the HELIOS virus was released in the Hartsfield-Jackson airport in what’s now called simply the Incident. The virus rapidly spread all over the world, causing an outbreak of mutant powers. Unlike the military version, HELIOS2 caused few casualties. A year to the day after the Incident, a mysterious group called the Ascended claimed responsibility for the augmented virus, and declared that mutants would soon control the world.

There have been several other, localised, HELIOS outbreaks in the years since the Incident; these are referred to as HELIOS3, HELIOS4 and so on. These local outbreaks all caused powers restricted to a particular part of the Quade Diagram; while some credit the Ascended with these outbreaks, the official line is that they were caused by mutated versions of HELIOS2.

Wild rumours that might be true:

  • One of the original HELIOS subjects developed either super-intelligence or the ability to control viruses, and was responsible for the Incident.
  • The Ascended are a global network of mutants, plotting to overthrow society and usher in a mutant-dominate era.
  • The Ascended are a psychological operation, designed to turn ordinary people against mutants and justify oppression.

Mutant Vector

Taking a leaf from Greg Stolze’s Progenitor, in this setting, mutant powers are contagious. The first mutant was created by the Ghost Flu, as usual, but everyone after that developed their powers after being exposed to the powers of another mutant. Get hit by a lightning blast, and maybe you’ll develop your own lighting powers. Or superspeed. Or a totally unrelated power, although in general acquired powers tend to be closely related to the triggering power on the Quade Diagram. More likely, you’ll get third-degree electrical burns. Power transfer isn’t guaranteed – it’s a 1% chance per mutant ability point spent on the power use, or a flat 1% for Pushed investigative abilities. If you fail to develop powers on first exposure, you probably never will.

This has created ‘dynasties’ of mutant powers – many of the mutants in Mutant City, for example were created by fallout from an early terrorist bombing by a Self-Detonating man. Tracking ‘promiscuous’ mutants can help solve cases; if four victims of a con artist all develop mutant powers, you’re dealing with a mutant crook.

 

 

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We’re on the road a lot during convention season, and the convenience of having our whole range of games on one device makes PDFs hard to beat for frequent travellers. With that in mind, we’re releasing a brand new Leyla Khan PDF adventure, The Best of Intentions, for Night’s Black Agents: Solo Ops, along with the PDF of the long-awaited sandbox 13th Age campaign, Shards of the Broken Sky.

New Releases

Articles

13th Age

By Conrad Kinch 

I was a seven year old Kinch when I got my first gaming book. It was “Redcoats & Minutemen: The American War of Independence” by Jon Sutherland, a choose-your-own adventure book from a little-known series called Real Life Gamebooks. My parents thought fantasy was a bit frivolous, but the 18th century was alright, and while I eventually managed to snag a copy of Dungeons & Dragons for my birthday, I spent a good six months rushing about North America in my imagination (and a tricorne hat). Despite my best efforts, the Americans always seemed to win – but God knows I tried. But my love for “real world” roleplaying was born. Since then I’ve run games in the Old West, the Napoleonic Wars, Prohibition Era America, 1970s London, the Second World War, 11th century England and 17th century France, amongst others.

The years have not withered, nor the years condemned our worlds infinite variety.

There’s a lot to be said for playing in the “real world”. There is an internet full of free source material available, the players will already be familiar with the basics and while not everyone knows what an ork sounds like, most folk know a French person when they hear one.

My top tips for Game Masters wishing to dip a toe into historical roleplaying are as follows:

Talk the talk

Roleplaying games are mostly aural experiences. Some groups use figures and props, but mostly we hear RPGs. We experience them through words and play them by speaking and listening.  It’s no accident that many successful roleplaying games have a specialist lexicon of their own. By using different words, we are transported into a different world.  Some RPGs manage this really well, Vampire: The Masquerade for example, while others like Shadowrun are less successful. I never knew anyone who could say “Chummer” with a straight face – but this will vary from group to group. Bookhounds of London hits a nice balance by using mostly standard English, but having specialist slang for particular aspects of bookselling. Delta Green has a plethora of secret agent idioms, but you don’t need to master them all in one go.

Names and forms of address are a good way to start, particularly if you’re playing a game set in a more formal milieu.

For example, up until relatively late in the 20th century, most middle class people did not use first names at work, but referred to each other by surnames. Using a first name was a way of indicating friendship or intimacy and would only be used by family and close friends. Using this as a clue in an investigative game would be a great way to cement the convention in players minds and make them aware of it.

Start small, introduce a couple of words or phrases in each session and let the players get familiar with them before adding any more. The trick is to think of period words (and historical content more generally) as a seasoning, a little goes a long way. Listening to Shakespearean actor Ben Crystal’s rendition of Hamlet in Shakespearean English with original pronunciation is an extraordinary experience, but you couldn’t play a game like that.  You should aim to introduce just enough period diction to give the flavour of the time without the game bogging down.

Decide exactly how much history you want

The Three Musketeers (1973) is a historical film, but so is Master and Commander (2003) and Braveheart (1995). But they are very different kinds of films and while each is satisfying in their own way, they make different use their historical settings. Braveheart, for example, plays fast and loose with the history to craft an enjoyable revenge story, while Master and Commander tells a much more grounded narrative.

No more than when you choose to run a fantasy or science fiction game, you should have a clear idea of tone and type of game you want to run. More importantly, so should your players, and they should be on board with the idea. This gives everyone an understanding of how much the setting is going to be a factor in play. I think I’d quite like to play a Pendragon game in the style of Monty Python (or the joyful nonsense of A Knight’s Tale), but I would make sure that the players knew what they were getting into.

Don’t nit-pick

Pointing out the flaws in someone else’s work is easy, and sometimes fun, too.  There are whole YouTube channels devoted to filleting historical films on the basis of historical accuracy, but it’s a lousy basis for a roleplaying game. The GM should make an effort to do the reading and know the setting well, but there’s little to be gained from nitpicking people who are playing a game to be entertained. All it does is break the immersion in the game and make people feel foolish. There is a time and a place for “Well, actually…” type comments, but they should relate to the core activities of the game.

For example, I ran a game set in a British army regiment in Portugal during Sir John Moore’s expedition of 1809. Climbing the greasy pole of promotion, which was mostly (but not exclusively) by purchase at the time, was a key part of the game. The players were given the regulations and were expected to know about them in detail because jockeying for position was a core part of the game.  Picking a player up on a point of promotion would be perfectly legitimate, but having a go at one for talking about his father smoking cigars (which were relatively unknown in Ireland at the time) would not be.

If it’s a small point and not germane to the main business of the game, there’s little reason to make a fuss. Far better to keep the game rolling. Also, if you don’t have an immediate answer for a question and there isn’t a compelling reason to say no, you should go with whatever answer best serves your game.  For example, I have no idea if Elizabethan gentlemen had “stag do’s” (bachelor parties for our American cousins), but the question came up during a game set in London in 1599. I had no idea and I couldn’t find a quick answer, so I said yes.  The evening of roleplaying that followed was delightful.

A roleplaying session is an effervescent thing that exists collectively between the GM and the players.  It can lose momentum and die very easily, so be careful about shutting down players ideas unnecessarily. The alternative is also true, if a player comes across a particular nugget of historical information that’s interesting, you should do your best to incorporate it into the game. Anything that drags players deeper into the game and makes them more invested in the setting is a good thing.

The aim should be to create an enjoyable collaborative experience, rather than deliver a history lesson. Resist the temptation to make your friends feel small by showing off your knowledge of Georgian table manners and focus on delivering something that has period feel, even if some of the details are off.

Little & Often

One of the most effective ways I’ve found to immerse players in a historical setting is to use multiple avenues of approach. Have some film and TV recommendations ready for your players. Photographs, period drawings and paintings can quickly create a sense of place and time without too much work on the GM’s part. Music from the period is generally only a YouTube search away. If you can keep creating and reinforcing that sense of time and place in small ways, eventually you won’t have to work so hard to do it. A few words will put your group in the mood.

Over time, I’ve found that it’s worth focusing on a few small details and using those to suggest the rest of the setting. Three is a good number.

For example, in a game set in the USSR during the Second World War, we made much of the fact that Red Army soldiers weren’t issued socks, but were given foot wraps (long strips of cloth wrapped around the foot). It’s best if the details you focus on can be used by players to some advantage. In our game, foot wraps were used to make a makeshift ropes to bind and gag an unfortunate prisoner. The fact that captured German army socks were much prized became a running joke in the game. I think it also gave the players some idea of the relative material deprivation their characters were living in.

Running a good historical roleplaying game is just like running a good roleplaying game of any sort. So long as you concentrate on the players and keep the story moving, you’ll do just fine. May you always toast the correct Monarch, remember to call your best friend Watson rather than John when others are present and know your Jacobites from your Jacobins.

Happy historical roleplaying.


Conrad Kinch (@aquestingvole) is a poor hand with a sabre and an only passable pistol shot. He is fondly remembered by all those who have never lent him money. He lives in Dublin.  His novel “The Fox Wife’s Tail” is available now.

The number one critique of GUMSHOE among those who have little or no experience of the system is that the investigative rules turn the scenario into a railroad, where the players blindly follow a predetermined series of clues – which, being an erudite regular reader of Page XX, you know is not true. Hot on its heels, though, is another complaint you may encounter with new players – that the point-spending aspect of general abilities means that there’s little difference between a supremely skilled character and an amateur over an extended fight.

If I’m a super-lethal spy, the best sniper in the world with a mighty 15 in Firearms, then that probably gives me at most five guaranteed hits (spending 3 points per attack, plus my die roll against a Hit Threshold of 4) – possibly fewer if the bad guys have cover or other advantages. After I spend all my points, I’m rolling a plain d6 for my attacks, just like the schlub next to me who has only a single point of Firearms.

Three arguments for the current rules:

  • You Don’t Need That Many Successes: In most general abilities, you rarely need to succeed multiple times in an adventure. One or two guaranteed successes in Stealth, Mechanics, Preparedness or Driving is often more than enough to overcome any challenge. Most General Abilities only get called once per session at most. This argument does fall down a little when it comes to combat abilities, but for most abilities, a higher pool does model the effect of higher competence.
  • You Can Refresh: Especially in games that allow refreshes in the middle of the action (Night’s Black Agents and moves like Technothriller Monologue, Timewatch and Stitches), a player can take action to get points back. Having the sniper have to spend a round describing how they move to get to a better firing position is more fun than yet another round of “I shoot, I hit”. Forcing the characters to rest and refresh to get their abilities back pushes the game towards a nice rhythm and gives a sense of time passing.
  • It’s More Interesting: Players tend to have higher pools than most of their opponents, so switching to a different ability is often an option. Out of Firearms? Grab a knife and start swinging with Weapons. Out of Driving in a chase scene? Then ditch the car and start parkouring with Athletics. Out of Preparedness? Start improvising with Mechanics.

However, if a prospective player remains obstinate, one compromise is to give a flat +1 bonus to all tests involving a general ability if a character has a rating of 8 or more in that ability. So, if you’ve got Firearms 8 or more, you get a +1 bonus to all Firearms rolls. That gives the super-experienced, super-competent gunman a permanent edge over the barely trained goon, but doesn’t distort the regular GUMSHOE point-spending mechanic too much, so the characters will still need to make spends, seek out refreshes and so on.

This added rule can be added straight into most GUMSHOE games; for games that already offer 8-rating cherries like Night’s Black Agents, offer the flat bonus as an alternative cherry.

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