“I told you to keep to the paths. You wandered into the Yellow Zone.”

— No. 6 to Nadia, “The Chimes of Big Ben,” The Prisoner

Robert W. Chambers may have invented reality horror, combining Poe’s fragility of self with Bierce’s arbitrary universe and his own artistic flair, but it arguably reached its peak, ironically in a theatrical form, seventy years after Chambers opened The King in Yellow. More specifically, it peaked in seventeen plays – teleplays – that changed up Poe by leaving the narrator-protagonist as the only fixed point in a slipstream world. I speak, of course, of the greatest television series ever filmed, Patrick McGoohan’s The Prisoner.

Tell me, have you seen the Yellow Pennyfarthing?

If you haven’t watched The Prisoner, go do it right now. The constant threat to McGoohan’s Prisoner (designated No. 6 by his jailer, No. 2) is precisely the personality disintegration that follows exposure to the Play, weaponized and scientized by the Warders of the surreal Village. The Warders plant doubles, sleepers, and moles within the Village, so No. 6 never knows whom to trust. No. 2 arbitrarily manipulates and alters the Prisoner’s environment to catch him off guard or in a dilemma, forcing him to act without reliable outside information, hoping to grind down his resolve to resist. In short, No. 2 is a GM.

“The result is bad. (That the prisoner has escaped without betraying a single word of information useful to us.)”

— Robert W. Chambers, In Secret

In our brainstorming during the GUMSHOE Scenario Workshop, Robin, Gar, and I came up with the notion of a castaway on the shores of the Lake of Hali. This idea further inspired me with the notion of a Carcosan Village, and the unknown No. 6 immured therein. So how might you introduce a suitable No. 6 into your own Yellow King RPG campaign? The basic challenge is this: the more the Prisoner might know, the less he trusts the PCs to hear – and the less they should believe what he does tell them.

Perhaps the simplest version of the story involves a prisoner of The Wars, escaped from a mysterious prison camp on the northwest coast of Morocco (or was it Wales, or Lithuania?) who reaches the PCs, ostensibly his allies and fellow-countrymen. He tells them about this reality-shifting prison, and his miraculous escape – at which time, the players most likely start interrogating him as avidly as his former Warders did. How did you escape? Why did they focus their attention on you? Did you desert? Were you on a mission? What was it? A roaring, inflatable Pallid Sphere hunting their new comrade down could be proof of what he says – or proof that he’s its master, covertly using it to break their discipline. As a new enemy offensive weapon? As a test of loyalty by their superiors?

In Aftermath, the PCs uncover evidence of a Castaigne psychological prison-village in Harmony, Colorado, where Carcosan magic and arcane technology fuse to control every aspect of the inmates’ perceptions and beliefs. The PCs’ preferred faction wangles the authority to investigate it, assigning the PCs to oversee the cleanup as temporary liberation coordinators. But sadly, the prison records have been sabotaged or forged or both by the time they get there. Before they know it, the PCs have become the new Warders, and have to sort out which of the prisoners are genuine resisters, and which were the original Castaigne Warders – and who was the Carcosan representative who ran the prison-village from behind the scenes? One suspect seems very likely – if only the PCs could break him …

“Break down his sense of reality, No. 12. Once he begins to doubt his own identity, he’ll crack.”

— No. 2 to No. 6, “The Schizoid Man,” The Prisoner

Rather than set the PCs as the structural Warders, what about making them the Prisoners? On paper, it couldn’t be simpler: they go to sleep, and wake up in the Village just like No. 6 did, gassed and kidnapped and transported to a brightly-colored gulag. You could theoretically run a setup like this in any of the sequences, from a Carcosan outpost in 1895 that uses eerily futuristic 1960s technology to a weirdly retro facility in the modern day that seems to have been built by mad scientists in 1966. (In any version, you might think about having a beautiful female No. 13, as a tip of the hat to Chambers’ heroine.) The PCs might not even know the secret they must keep – that they are player characters, especially real thanks to their accidental linkage between realities. Hopefully they can distract their jailers during the community theater performance …

It probably works best of all in Aftermath or This is Normal Now. In the latter setting, they awaken in the former setting, perhaps even in their old PCs’ bodies again but with eerie knowledge of their “normal now” lives. Someone (A Castaigne holdout? An unscrupulous Guardian cell? An old villain from The Wars, somehow still alive?) has re-built or re-purposed the old Castaigne prison-village in Harmony to trawl for reality shifting life-lines and caught the PCs. They have to figure out who’s running this place, and how to get themselves sent (or send themselves) back to their proper timeline. But do their old PCs want them to succeed? Any unfinished business from the previous sequence should definitely come back to haunt them.

In Aftermath, the PCs wake up in a Castaigne-run Resort, an Beaux-Arts no-place reminiscent both of the TV series and of the Belle Epoque. Dr. 2 (“names are just labels”) informs them that the Castaigne empire never ended; they are here in the Resort to recover, so they can return to the valuable security work they were doing before their breakdown, hunting down malcontents and rebels like their PC selves. Come up with Castaigne regime figure identities eerily reminiscent of the PCs’ Aftermath selves, which the Resort attempts to fit the PCs into. Dr. 2 might be the sort of holdout or revanchist mentioned earlier, attempting to forcibly shift the whole world back onto a new Castaigne-victorious track just as Hildred and Wilde did in 1895/1920.

In either of these versions, of course, the GM could be working with one or more of the players. Especially if their PC has proven to be unreliable in previous adventures or sequences, their identity in Harmony or the Resort is fake – they are actually doubles impersonating their actual self, working with the Warders and Carcosa. Depending on the group’s appetite for suspicion and paranoia, this might comprise a series of scenarios each revealing a new double and culminating in the one true PC’s decision/breaking point, or it might just be one big adventure playing with very plastic identity that leaves just enough loose ends to justify the occasional weird callback later on in the game. Be seeing you! 


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 players with an epic journey into horror in four alternate-reality settings: Belle Epoque Paris, The Wars, Aftermath, and This Is Normal Now. Purchase The Yellow King Roleplaying Game in print and PDF at the Pelgrane Shop.

The Zone Jaune is a region in north-eastern Europe that was deemed “inhospitable to human life” in the wake of the Continental War. The widespread deployment of Carcosan ‘yellow science’, not to mention conventional artillery and chemical weapons, rendered the region – some 2,000 square kilometres of forest and former farmland – utterly hostile and unable. “Damage to properties: 100%. Damage to agriculture: 100%. Damage to reality: unmeasurable. Impossible to endure,” reads one report, written shortly after the end of the war.

The French government established the cordon around the Zone Jaune within a month of the ceasefire. In the years that followed, several nations bordering the zone unofficially began using the area as a dumping ground for left-over munitions and Carcosan technologies. Whole battalions of stalkers were driven into the woods and abandoned, their legs broken on steel hedgehogs (some accounts use the term ‘herded’, implying that there may be some truth to the tales of some stalkers developing a degree of self-awareness and independent action). Dragonflies and other aerial vehicles were packed with Carcosan technology and crashed deep in the zone. Darker stories tell of convoys of trucks and special trains loaded with ‘livestock’ that were driven into the Zone Jaune and left there.

Today, the Zone’s surrounded by many miles of barbed-wire fences and ditches. Entry into the Zone is forbidden; nature has been allowed to reclaim the land within, although it’s debatable which nature holds sway in that yellow wood – the French government insists that any unusual plant species are the result of toxic chemicals and not invasion from Carcosa. Farmers bordering the Zone often dig up munitions and other remains, including ‘biological matter’; these are collected by a special division of the French military, CEOM, for safe disposal. CEOM also monitors the ‘deep zone’ – there are observation towers within the forest, accessible by long roads that cut through the haunted woods.

Encounters in the Zone Jaune

  • Sacrifice Villages: Abandoned rural villages, now ruined. Some were abandoned before the war; others were evacuated when the Zone Jaune was established. Full exorcisms were carried out where feasible, but many hauntings have been logged by CEOM patrols.
  • Unexploded Munitions: The landscape of the Zone is littered with millions of tons of artillery shells, mines, dumped tanks of chemical weapons, toxic occult waste and other hazards – all hidden beneath the undergrowth. One false step can prove instantly lethal.
  • Damaged Places: Reality has suffered considerable damage here. The Zone Jaune is riddled with natural portals to other worlds – primarily Carcosa, but it’s possible to slip from one version of Earth to another if you know the right path through the woods.
  • Hunters: Nature has reclaimed the zone – it’s full of wild animals, including bears, deer, wolves and gravegrinders. Hunters and poachers slip past CEOM patrols to bag a trophy  – and Carcosan entities hunt the hunters and steal faces so they can escape the Zone undetected.
  • CEOM Patrols: On the borders, CEOM turns trespassers away with little more than a slap on the wrist. A foolish tourist or would-be hunter gets arrested, dragged off to a holding facility, and then given a fine and a lecture by a very angry officer before being released. Deeper in the woods, away from cameras and prying eyes, CEOM shoots intruders on sight.  
  • Scavengers: There’s a brisk trade in what’s euphemistically called ‘scrap metal’ from the Zone. Intact Carcosan relics and the remnants of Science Jaune grimoires are especially sought after. Scavenger teams enter the Zone disguised as hunters – or bribe CEOM guards for priority access.
  • Mustard Fog: The most infamous of the Zone’s hazards, mustard fog is a toxic stew of poison gas leeched from rotting artillery shells, mixed with lingering magic. Survivors speak of hearing hauntingly beautiful music and seeing strange lights in the fog, as if there was some enchanted ball going on just on the other side of the fog bank – just before they vomited up their liquified lungs and died. Other accounts claim to have seen huge animals like flying whales moving through the yellow mist.
  • Active Machines: Abandoned stalkers, dragonflies and other machines of war sometimes spark into life within the zone, dragging their broken metal bodies through the underbrush until whatever surge of occult energy that activated them passes once more.
  • Zone Natives:  Warspawn and other Carcosan entities can survive within the Zone, even as the influence of Carcosa fades outside.

Using the Zone Jaune

  • In The Wars: While the official Zone was only established after the war, the region that became the Zone was blasted by occult weapons when the fighting was still ongoing – and had already acquired a reputation as a lethal assignment. Units sent to the Zone never return.
    In Aftermath: Castaigne survivors in search of Carcosan energies flee overseas to France, bringing matters of international diplomacy and extradimensional extradition to the table in post-regime politics.
    Alternate Aftermaths: Instead of playing revolutionaries in a post-Castaigne New York, you’re playing the leaders of a small town on the edge of the Zone. Some of you are veterans, some are the next generation, growing up in a world where the horrors of Carcosa and the Continental War are fading memories. The town strives towards normality and a new beginning, but the scars of the war still linger – and the council must balance mundane municipal duties with supporting the needs of the local CEOM garrison.
  • The Wood Between The Worlds: The war blew holes in reality in the Zone; characters trying to slip from one reality to another – like, say, This Is Normal Now investigators trying to loop back to Paris – might travel to France and enter the woods. Just keep walking until the fog turns yellow…

 


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

“Tall, gaunt, cynical, with tragic eyes … like a man who had seen the inside of hell.”

— description of Liam Tobin by IRA mole David Neligan

Michael Collins, the George Washington of Ireland, picked a 23-year-old man named Liam Tobin to be his spymaster. If I were related to George Washington’s spymaster, I’d never stop talking about it, but I had to find out about Liam Tobin not from Pelgrane’s esteemed co-owner and managing director but on the Internet like a savage. Go figure. (According to Cat, Liam is “possibly like a sixth cousin but we haven’t really looked into it.” According to me, he was her great-great-grand-uncle. This will not be the last engaging lie I tell in this column.) Born in Cork in 1895, Liam Tobin joined the Easter Rising in 1916, where he first caught Collins’ eye. The British commuted his death sentence to life imprisonment, then released him with many other revolutionaries in 1917.

Liam Tobin, hero from a line of heroes

Thoroughly radicalized, Tobin rose through the IRA’s inner circle: Dublin Brigade intelligence officer, then intelligence officer for Munster in 1918 (under the cover of an insurance agency in Cork), then IRA Deputy Director for Intelligence in January 1919. Like Washington, Collins remained his own director of intelligence; Tobin basically served as his right hand. Based at 3 Crow Street in Dublin above a print shop within 200 yards of Dublin Castle, the British headquarters in Ireland, Tobin’s operation rapidly built up a database (with photos) of British Army, G Division (the intelligence unit of the Dublin Metropolitan Police), and Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC, or “Black and Tans”) officers, mostly using OSINT such as newspaper society pages, the London Gazette (which reported officers’ postings, including “special assignments” to Ireland), and Who’s Who. Tobin recruited doormen and telephone operators in all Dublin hotels, allowing the IRA to track comings and goings as well as listen in on British comms. One of Tobin’s agents got access to Dublin Castle personnel records, supplying photographs and dossiers of every typist and clerk who worked for the British, allowing the IRA to recruit and suborn agents in place throughout the occupation government.

Tobin did more than manage information gathering. One of only six men in the whole intelligence command (until it expanded in July 1920), he also ran agents in the field, identified and fingered British spies, and occasionally hands-on renditioned and killed targets when needed. In October 1919, Collins sent him to London for two weeks to case security for the British Cabinet: Tobin reluctantly decided assassinating the entirety of His Majesty’s Government was too hard. Tobin led the squad that grabbed Alan Bell, president of the Irish Banks Court (investigating IRA funding) off the tram to work and gunned him down on the morning of March 26, 1920.

That squad was part of “The Squad,” the IRA’s wet works division. IRA training commander (and CO of the Dublin Brigade, who first recruited Tobin back in 1917) Dick McKee hand-picked “The Twelve Apostles” (engaging lie note: there were almost certainly more than a dozen men in the Squad) in September 1919 to execute British officers, spies, and collaborators. The Squad reported to Tobin, although only Collins could order an execution. By March 1920, the Squad were full-time assassins, using a cabinet-making shop on Abbey Street as a front and home base. The British response to the Squad was to recruit their own team of specialized infiltrators in January 1920, the “Cairo Gang.”

So-called either from their previous service with Army Intelligence in Cairo during WWI, or from their Dublin hangout the Café Cairo at 59 Grafton Street, the Cairo Gang were officially the Dublin District Special Branch, or D-Branch. (Engaging lie note: Few of them provably had any connection to Egypt, and the term “Cairo Gang” first appears in print in 1958. They were probably just called “the special gang.”) Doggedly, they pursued the IRA command, especially Collins and Tobin; Tobin posed as an informer (using a different name) and got inside their decision loop. But not too far inside: the Cairo Gang raided Vaughn’s Hotel on November 13, 1920 while the IRA leadership were meeting there, and only iron control (and sloppy British prep work) let Tobin and Collins bluff their way out of the arrest.

Collins’ response: ordering simultaneous hits on the 20 top British assets in Dublin, including most of the known Cairo Gang. At 9:00 a.m. on “Bloody Sunday,” November 21 1920, ten teams of a dozen men each struck their targets. (Engaging lie note: About a quarter of the teams didn’t show up, and over half the targets escaped.) Seven intelligence operatives died on Bloody Sunday, along with three RIC Auxiliaries working security, two British Army court-martial officers, and two seemingly uninvolved former British officers. The Black and Tans retaliated that afternoon with a massacre at a soccer match, killing 14 and wounding 68. Although “Bloody Sunday” didn’t quite decapitate the Cairo Gang, like the Tet Offensive it scored a massive propaganda victory.

In January 1921, the British recruited a new team of Irish Unionists from the provinces (“Tudor’s Tigers,” also known as the Igoe Gang after their leader Eugene Igoe of Galway) who knew their local IRA men on sight, and sent them on hunt-and-kill missions. Tobin spent most of the next six months playing a game of cat-and-also-cat with the Igoe Gang until the Truce in July 1921 ended the war. Collins brought Tobin along on the intelligence staff of the Irish treaty delegation in October 1921, promoting him to Major-General in the Irish Army. Tobin may or may not have masterminded the “off-book” killing of arch-Unionist British General Henry Wilson in June 1922; he briefly ran the Irish CID and served as Director of Intelligence for Ireland until his political opponents sidelined him in January 1923. After leading a failed mutiny against those opponents in March 1924, he resigned his commission and ran a car-hire service until 1931. He helped organize the Irish Hospitals’ Sweepstake, and then ran security for the Irish legislature from 1940 to 1959. He died, covered in glory and redeemed in honor, in Dublin on April 30, 1963.

Sunday Yellow Sunday

“One day or other some of these people will assassinate you.”

— Hildred Castaigne to Mr. Wilde, “The Repairer of Reputations”

If you look in the history books, especially the excellent Michael Collins’ Intelligence War by Michael Foy, you read that Tobin didn’t plan Bloody Sunday. Under Collins’ overall leadership, Tobin’s deputy Frank Thornton provided the intel while Dick McKee planned the strategy with Squad killer Charlie Dalton as tactical head. So narrow was the IRA margin that McKee was actually captured and interrogated early in the morning of November 21, and “shot while trying to escape” by the RIC that afternoon. Foy claims that Tobin had a “nervous breakdown” and was “on rest” that day.

So what was Tobin actually doing? Maybe tying off the loose ends from the late-July 1920 Denys Barry case in Kilderry in Westmeath, or shutting down the British intelligence vampire-research farm at Dun Dreach-Fhola in County Kerry (DH, pp. 235-236), or investigating porcine anomalies and time drifts at a house on the borderland of County Galway past Ardrahan. Any of those incidents might have caused his alleged “nervous breakdown.” Or maybe the “nervous trouble” was a cover for something else, something he couldn’t even tell Collins.

IRA mole David Neligan’s memoir claims that he met with Tobin at the Gaiety Theatre the night before Bloody Sunday to be briefed on the targets, which sounds like Tobin was very much involved in planning. Intriguingly, that night the Gaiety was mounting a 1914 play by Michael Morton, called The Yellow Ticket. Okay, that’s another engaging lie: The Yellow Ticket was in rehearsals then and didn’t open until December 1; the show actually running at the Gaiety on November 20 was the 1914 American version (by Harry B. Smith) of the operetta The Lilac Domino, based on the original 1912 German version by Charles Cuvillier. The Lilac Domino takes place at a masked ball in France and concerns a series of mysterious courtships somehow demarcated by dice. Cuvillier probably knew Robert W. Chambers in Paris, I note idly.

Another idle note: Among those killed on Bloody Sunday was one Leonard Aidan (nee William) Wilde, born 1891 in Reading to one Richard Wilde, who vanishes from the records almost immediately. Before the War, Wilde spent time in New York City (possibly teaching Spanish), and as a divinity student. He enlisted in the Staffordshire Rifles in 1915 and served as a second lieutenant until discharged for shell shock, upon which time he changed his middle name to Aidan. Becoming Vice-Consul in Barcelona in December 1916, he carried out a number of intelligence-type tasks, including investigating a monastery in Montserrat suspected of hosting a German radio transmitter. Discharged for running up debts in 1917, he nevertheless courted a rich American woman, Frances Rabbitts, whose pull got the happy couple a February 1919 wedding in Notre Dame in Paris, blessed by the Cardinal Archbishop in person. The Wildes returned to Spain, where amid some kind of chicanery Wilde emerged without a wife (she sailed to New York in June 1919) but with a “consular protection certificate” issued by the Foreign Office.

So yes, he could have been a spy. He could have even been in New York running a reputation-repairing blackmail operation in April 1920. He was 5’8″, and did admittedly have both his ears, along with a reputation as an eccentric and “a foreign appearance.” In August 1920 he moved into the Palace Court Hotel in London, the former home of Oscar Wilde and Aubrey Beardsley, for more Yellow Decade juju. On November 3, 1920 he checked into Room 22 (or 14) of the Gresham Hotel in Dublin on no clear business. And on November 20, thirteen IRA assassins (including one man with “a huge hammer”) led by Patrick Moran burst into that hotel. Section commander James Foley later listed one of the kill team as “Michael Noone,” who has no other record I can find. Tobin used false names regularly … perhaps including Michael “No One”?

According to the IRA after-action report, Wilde was in the hallway. Mistaking the IRA gunmen for British police, he identified himself as “Alan Wilde, British Intelligence Officer, just back from Spain.” Michael Kilkelly and two (unnamed) others shot Wilde in the head and leg, killing him. The manager of the Gresham Hotel found the body on the floor of his room, soaked in blood. After resigning his commission in 1924, Tobin runs his car-hire service from behind the Gresham Hotel, perhaps keeping an eye on any lingering fluctuations in reality and sending trusted former Squad comrades to investigate strange Signs throughout the 1920s and 1930s. So what do we know for sure, and what can we engagingly lie about? We know that in the “Castaigne” timeline, Mr. Wilde was killed by a cat. And in our timeline, Mr. Wilde just might have been killed by a Tobin.


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

A column about roleplaying

by Robin D. Laws

Now that lots of you have had the chance to check it out, either in its original run on Twitch or now on YouTube, I thought you might enjoy a look behind the scenes at my process for preparing and running “Mr. Wilde’s Wild Halloween.”

These notes won’t make much sense until you check it out; it’s the Halloween game of The Yellow King Roleplaying Game I ran for Misha Bushyager, Sharang Biswas, Ruth Tillman, Wade Rockett and Pelgrane magnifico Cat Tobin. It takes place in the game’s contemporary setting, This is Normal Now.

The premise for the scenario began with the desire to do something on Halloween. This led me to the thought of setting it at a Halloween party, with the players wearing their characters’ costumes.

Rather than use characters’ Freaking Weird Moments to draw them into the horror, I found reality horror inspiration in each costume.

Misha’s desire to be an Empress of Evil implied a group of would-be minions overly willing to perform horrible acts in her name—thus, the Larrys.

Cat’s flapper gear led me to invent the scenario’s central mystery. It provided an opportunity to invoke on a classic Gothic trope: the painting of an identical predecessor.

I knew that a weird scientist would hook directly into the scenario as it developed but didn’t immediately see an introductory moment. Eventually I hit on the idea of a desirable fellow party goer needing repairs to a robot costume. Sharang, it turned out, was way ahead of me, suggesting the very thing I’d hoped—a desire to meet up with someone his character was crushing on. This was a huge gift to me, as you can’t always count on tabletop roleplayers to want to bring a love interest into the mix.

My solo scene for Ruth was less about her costume than an opportunity to hang out with her favorite YKRPG character, the Dream Clown. (Her Black Star Magic scenario features this children’s TV host from the Aftermath reality.) She wound up springboarding that possibility sideways into another bit, the memories of the creepy imagined childhood staircase.

Finally, Wade’s idea that his character, James, would be half-assing his outfit led to the inevitable idea that his real costume, that of the King in Yellow, would be waiting for him at the party.

Splitting the characters up into solo scenes ensures a fair share of onstage time and narrative importance for each participant—a solution to a common problem of one-shots, where you don’t get a second session to give a neglected player more spotlight.

Having sketched these out, I worked out a backstory connected to the Robert W. Chambers story “The Mask.” You’ll find that at the end of this piece.

Then I backed up to the introduction. I wanted to start with matters already in motion, but not so abruptly that we couldn’t introduce the characters to each other and the audience. Here are my bullet points for the opening:

  • How are You Getting There?
  • Character Sheets and Rules Basics
  • Your Group Dynamic
  • What are You Hoping Happens at the Party?

Unlike a typical one-shot, this was a performance for an audience, where we wanted to fold in some system tutorial. In the end, it wasn’t that much different from what would happen at a convention table.

Just as in one-shots I run in Belle Époque Paris, I started with the opportunity for characters to encounter the evening’s horrors in an altered state. This shows off general ability tests and the Shock and Injury card system, and dovetails with the overarching theme of reality slippage.

The phantom Bugatti, visible to anyone receiving a Shock card, reenacts the accidental death of the woman in the portrait who looks like Cat’s flapper. This set up a direction not taken, in which the group finds out about her doppelganger’s death by researching the figure in the portrait, and then heads outside to get more information from the ghost.

(If no one had failed their tests, I would have given the vision of the Bugatti to the lowest successful scorers.)

From there you can see the scenario play out my sketched-out solo scenes, then reconverge the characters to commiserate, problem-solve, and investigate their way to the basement and the final confrontation.

Along the way you see my drop in a few of my fave moves:

  • the chance to make a deal with the devil
  • with the Larrys and their dance, an image that is funny yet increasingly horrible
  • an affable, matter-of-fact primary antagonist

Any scenario needs more possible paths than the players wind up taking. Otherwise you’re just ushering them through your plan, and not letting them help build the storyline. In a one-shot I’m happy to throw weird stuff at the players until they start looking for information. There is less clue-seeking here than you’d see if you eavesdropped on my home group—but our sessions tend to devote two or three sessions to each mystery. Here you see the players ignore all mention of a library in order to keep the story moving with the information they have on hand. Thankfully I had a bad guy willing to monologue the absolutely key parts to them during the climax.

The moment when everyone feels weird but no one takes a card was set up to have some of the PCs physically transforming into the costumes, as happens to GMCs at the party. This arguably happens to two of the characters anyhow, so it’s hardly a lost opportunity. Here are the cards that would have gone to characters who failed:

In an ongoing game I wouldn’t escalate the weirdness so quickly, instead doing more of a slow burn. I certainly wouldn’t kill off one of the players for having to leave early in the session! However Sharang’s brilliant characterization prior to his demise at a preset time fit the plot so thoroughly you might suspect us of colluding in advance.

But it wasn’t planned at all. I can prove that by showing you the rest of my notes. You’ll see lots of elements I had ready but weren’t needed.

Boris Yvain (1872 – 1895)

American born sculptor and chemist, parents French and Russian, died in Paris 1895

Gennady Yvain (1877 – 1941)

His brother, establishes Dragoncourt Chemicals, develops a line of preservatives (based on papers discovered in his late brother’s possessions)

Builds observatory as connection to the Hyades, crucial in developing new formulae, built in 1924

Jack Yvain (1900 – 1984)

his son, astronomer and, from the 1940s on, computer programmer

with the help of Carcosa uploaded his consciousness into mainframe at the observatory before his death

upgrades over the years have allowed him to live in increasingly comfortable servers, but he wants bodies, and with the alignment of the Hyades on October 31st he’s going to possess the bodies of multiple revelers

sure for that to work they have to mutate into monstrous versions of their costumes but hey you get embodied with the tech you have

Colette Nicolas (1902 – 1924)

Jack’s fiancee, flees the observatory after beholding the alignment of the Hyades, killed in one-car collision

distant relation of famous Lumiere brothers

at time of her death, her Lesley Gibson portrait is already in progress, it is completed and hung in the observatory in 1926

Jack has dalliances but never marries or has children, declaring the observatory his heir

Lesley Gibson (1874 – 1945)

American born painter, heir to the Gibson Shale quarry fortune

student in Paris at École des Beaux-Arts 1895-1894, friend of Boris Yvain

paints portrait of Colette Nicolas in 1923

Camille Lau – Chairman of the Yvain Observatory Foundation – she answers to Jack’s consciousness in exchange for prophetic stock tips; believes his cover story that the Halloween party is a much-needed fundraiser after the pandemic closures (which it is, but also mass possession) – dressed in stylish party dress with subtle cat ear headband

Ruben Suarez – party promoter; has a weird feeling but knows nothing; dressed as Mr. Wilde


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

Four Hallowe’en Horrors for the Yellow King RPG

(Photo by Rick Monteiro on Unsplash)

 

The Ugly Americans (Paris)

Hallowe’en is an American tradition – well, mostly derived from immigrants from the United Kingdom, but America added a lot of sugar and exported it back. Certainly, it’s not a French tradition – the French celebrate La Toussaint, All Saint’s Day, on November 1st.

But you’re American students in Paris – if you can’t be obnoxiously loud and tacky tonight, then something’s terribly wrong with reality.

So, the characters go on an absinthe-and-candy-fuelled bender across Parisian pubs and cafes, dressed in unlikely costumes. Obviously, they have to call in on the Montmartre Cabaret (du Néant, and de l’Enfir – Paris, p. 100), They pick up a couple of other revellers along the way. As the party wears on, with drunken Halloween games and superstitions, they end up in a bar around three in the morning, and someone in the party suggests they have to tell ghost stories. Everyone in the group must tell a ghost story.

Someone else in the party – some masked stranger they picked up en route – also tells a story. A haunting, surreal tale about a city of masked revellers, troubled by a masked stranger, and the coming of the King in Yellow.

The next morning – All Saint’s Day –  while fighting through handovers, the characters realise the following:

  • Something’s horribly wrong with the world. They can feel it in their bones, in their skulls. There’s a yellowish cast to everything.
  • None of them can recall how that stranger joined their company last night. One of their French introduced him to them… but they can’t recall exactly who or when. Finding out how they met that masked stranger is an ongoing mystery to be solved.
  • The stories each of them told have become their Deuced Peculiar Things.

 

Trick or Treat (The Wars)

October 31st, 1949. Your squad’s fighting in the Continental War. An enemy prisoner – any rumours that he’s a sorcerer are nonsense, of course – escaped from the facility where he was being interrogated, and has taken refuge in a nearby village. All routes leading out of the village have been secured, so he must be hiding in one of the houses – he’s probably holding some of the locals hostage, and forcing them to hide him. Your squad’s orders are to go house to house, searching each homestead in turn, until you find the escaped sorcerer. Correction – escaped prisoner. Not a sorcerer. He certainly has not conjured Carcosan entities, and the village is not a series of set-piece traps and nightmarish tableaus.

To navigate the village and find their quarry, the squad must deal with each house in turn, solve whatever Carcosan peril or weird encounter awaits them there, and follow a series of clues to discover where the escaped sorcerer is hiding.

Knock on each door in turn, and pray that a trick is the worst fate that awaits you…

 

Dress Up In You (Aftermath)

You’re all tired and traumatised by the events of the revolution; you need time to heal. One of the characters has a relative who lives out in a small town; they’ve got a big house, with space for all of you to stay. You can hang out in the countryside for a few weeks, take a break from the twin stresses of monster-hunting and politics.

Outside, the town’s getting ready for Halloween. Some small places like this came through the Castaigne years better than the big cities. It was easier to hide, out here. Fewer eyes. As twilight draws in, you see the town’s kids putting on their costumes. A lot of Dream Clowns, like always, but… yuck, some of them are dressed as Regime entities. Explosionists, Argus, Sphyxes, Carcosan visitors. Little siblings tagging along with their big brothers and sisters, dressed as cute Cancer Bags with legs.

Then… from downstairs, the sound of breaking glass. The house is under attack. Those aren’t costumes any more – the kids have been transformed into a cavalcade of horrors.

Some lingering supernatural threat (a Castaigne sorcerer, hiding out? A Carcosan tripwire? A spasm of fading magic) has made the make-believe horrors of the past real again. How to the characters escape the town and find the source of the transformation when they can’t kill the innocent children beneath the masks?

 

Your Face Will Stick Like That (This Is Normal Now)

The fun new gimmick this Halloween is a live face-swap app. You run it, and it swaps your face on video for that of your friend, or a cartoon character, or a celebrity. This Halloween, they’ve added a bunch of spooky faces – witches and vampires and goblins and… ew, that’s tasteless. There’s a Famous Serial Killers tab – Dahmer, Bundy, Jack the Ripper… and that freaky guy who killed those kids last year, the Halloween Stalker. They never caught him, did they? Anyway, don’t click on that.

Uh-oh. It was swapped your face anyway. And it’s swapped it in real life. Suddenly, you look like the infamous uncaught serial killer. Not on video. Physically.

How do you get your real face back? Does the killer have your face now? Or is this some sick joke where you’ve got to kill someone to earn your face back? And why is the logo of the app developer this weird yellow squiggle that you swear you’ve seen before?

Oh god – that was the doorbell. There are kids here, trick or treating! Quick, pull on a mask so they don’t recognise you – no, him! The Halloween Stalker! Get rid of the kids – NOT LIKE THAT – and then call your friends from the café, because you’re going to need help figuring out what’s going on!

 


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

A flapper, an astronaut, a ghoul, a weird scientist, and an empress of evil walk into a Halloween party… and mind-bending reality horror ensues!

Join us on the Pelgrane Press Twitch channel on October 31st at 8 PM EDT / 5PM PDT for a very This is Normal Now Pumpkin Spice session of The Yellow King Roleplaying Game.

Starring Sharang Biswas, Misha Bushyager, Wade Rockett, Ruth Tillman, and Cat Tobin and GMed by YKRPG designer Robin D. Laws.

Produced by Noah Lloyd; flyer by Dean Engelhardt.

Bring your own spoo-oo-o-ooky shooters.

WRISTBAND REQUIRED FOR READMITTANCE.

Watch part 1 now on our YouTube channel!

One of the strange joys of a Yellow King campaign, with its quadripartite structure, is that you can be certain for months in advance what’s going to happen. That’s a rare gamemastering luxury; in other games, you can roughly guess where the campaign is going, but you can’t be sure. Maybe your Night’s Black Agents agents will be in the Carpathian mountains on the trail of Dracula in six month’s time, but knowing player characters, it’s just as likely they’ll be trying to organise a coup in a small South American country or something equally absurd. In The Yellow King, you know that your Parisian artists are going to become soldiers in a surreal European war, then traumatised freedom fighters trying to rebuild the country, then parallel-universe ordinary people about to come in contact with alien forces for the first time.

The bigger the gap between prophecy and payoff, the greater the chance that the chaotic nature of roleplaying games will ruin your planned set-piece. Key player characters might get killed, the campaign might go in another direction entirely, or the mood of the campaign might no longer fit the vision. In most games, the only solutions are to use heavy-handed railroading or make the visions so vague they apply in any situation. The Yellow King makes things much easier; you can tailor the starting situation of a new sequence so it leads naturally into the prophesy. That means you can drop hints – visions, prophecies, flash-forwards – into one sequence that pay off in another, and be sure of executing them successfully.

Visions Of That Rugose Thing Really Tied The Campaign Together, Man

Foreshadowing and prophecy work like call-backs and echoes; just as having a Wars character find a piece of artwork made by a Paris character links the two sequences, a flashforward from The Wars to This Is Normal Now connects those two parts of the campaign. The connections don’t have to be especially significant or meaningful in themselves – the point is to amp up the weirdness and claustrophobia, and make the players feel like the campaign sequences are all part of a single alien experience. Foreshadowing just for the sake of being strange and shadowy is a perfectly acceptable technique in this campaign.

Some Suggestions

  • In Paris, the artists come into possession of a painting called The Ambush that depicts a fantastical future battlefield, where giant walking war machines rain death upon footsoldiers. The painting shows a small squad about to be attacked by an unseen foe; the squad are all distracted by the stalker in front of them, so they don’t notice the foe behind them. When you create characters for The Wars, you specify that the player characters are close to the front lines; it’s easy then to find ways to get them onto the battlefield, in the same situation depicted in the painting.
  • Also in Paris, one of the characters comes into contact with Carcosa and is saved from madness by a mysterious explosion that destroys part of the alien city. Later, in Aftermath, the characters there plant a bomb atop a Carcosan gate; the explosion blasts through the portal to the far side.
  • During The Wars, the player characters run into a traveller who insists the war is over – it ended two years ago, in 1945. Europe’s at peace now, at least until the Soviets and the Americans start fighting. The traveller’s clearly from the timeline of This Is Normal Now. Later, when you move onto that sequence, the slacker player characters find the traveller’s diary, and read of a previous brush with strangeness.
  • Also during The Wars, the characters recover surveillance photographs from an enemy dragonfly. Mixed in with the photos of troop detachments and supply lines are a set of images of a strange futuristic city (the present-day setting of This Is Normal Now). The surveillance flights seem to focus on a coffee shop. Later, when you create characters for This Is Normal Now, you declare that the characters all favour a particular local coffee place,
  • In Aftermath, while going through surveillance reports recovered from the ruins of the Castaigne regime’s secret police, the characters find a bizarre transcript of a telephone call. One of the participants is clearly a Carcosan agent of some sort; the other participant’s speech is transcribed only as [INCOMPREHENSIBLE BUZZING]. Later, during This Is Normal Now, one of the player characters gets a phone call – you use the Carcosan agent transcript as your script, and let the player respond to the Carcosan’s rantings and ravings as they wish.
  • Alternatively, during Aftermath, the characters find a corpse in a disused suicide booth – but the victim wasn’t killed by the booth. During This Is Normal Now, one of the player characters’ friends vanishes, and their body is never found…

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

“My shadowy visage, grey with grief,
In sunken waters walled with sand,
I see — where all mine ancient land
Lies yellow like an autumn leaf.”

— Clark Ashton Smith, “The Kingdom of Shadows”

Robin has staked out Paris with his customary élan, and Robert Chambers has toured us through Brittany, but there’s at least one more stretch of French countryside redolent with time-slips, dangerous romances, and werewolves. I speak of course of Auvergne, nestled atop the Massif Central, a volcanic upthrust covered even in 1895 with forests as deep as they were two thousand years ago when the Arverni arrived from the east.

Chromolithograph of Tournoël Castle, c. 1895

Even in 1895, the railways connect only the bigger towns: Vichy (pop. 12,300) in the north, St.-Etienne (pop. 133,400) in the southeast, Aurillac (pop. 16,500) in the southwest, Clermont-Ferrand (pop. 51,000) in the Allier valley in the middle. Although Michelin’s tire plant in Clermont-Ferrand and Thiers’ knife factories bring outside investment, art students in The Yellow King RPG know the region primarily as a source of mineral water, charcuterie, cheese, and a very affordable vin gris. (Americans might appreciate Chavaniac-Lafayette, named for its most famous son, in the forested southeast.) It hasn’t been really fashionable for painters since Theodore Rousseau and the Romantics two generations ago — although a few Barbizon school devotees still chase the region’s ineffable dapple of trees and mountains. The rich and the elderly take the cure in springs at Vichy and Mont-Dome; nothing could be less au courant.

People

Edgar Degas, 61 (1834-1917; Paris p. 117)

In August 1895, Degas takes the water cure at Mont-Dore. While here, he continues to practice photography, including experimenting with moonlit exposures using “panchromatic plates.” He may bring the characters along as assistants, or they may hear of strange yellow streaks appearing in his images — Degas writes home to Paris complaining of his many spoiled prints and negatives.

Armand Guillaumin, 54 (1841-1927)

An o.g. Impressionist and friend of Pissarro and Cézanne, Guillaumin wins the lottery in 1891. He quits his job at the railway and retires to Creuse, just west of Auvergne, to become the center of the Crozant School in that town. He paints in Auvergne in 1895, as might other Crozantistes such as Maurice Leloir, 41 (1853-1940) who avidly researches and photographs ancient and medieval costumes; and the occult-minded Swedish lithographer and painter Allan Österlind, 39 (1855-1938) who embraces Spiritism while on an island off Brittany in 1886.

Auguste and Louis Lumière, 34 and 32 (1862-1954 and 1864-1948)

In 1895, the Lumière brothers of Lyon experiment with their new motion picture camera, and with color photography, before triumphantly debuting their movies in Paris that December. History does not record whether they venture into Auvergne for some nature shoots that summer, or why they abruptly abandoned motion pictures and refused to sell their camera to other film-makers.

Auguste Michel-Lévy, 51 (1844-1911)

Geologist, Inspector of Mines, and director of the Geological Survey of France, Michel-Lévy develops the interference color chart, using birefringence of cross-polarized light to identify minerals. In 1895 he studies extinct volcanoes in Auvergne; minerals from the region such as amesite and pargasite both display as yellow in cross-polarized light. (A newly discovered mineral, lawsonite, also displays as yellow; it first appears in 1895 in Marin County, California and soon after in Brittany.)

Émile Munier, 55 (1840-1895)

A great friend of Bougereau with many American clients, Munier has painted in the Auvergne since 1886. His Academic paintings increasingly depict angels and cupids, possibly an attempt to domesticate Carcosan figures he perceives — he dies of cerebral congestion in Paris on June 29. His death might be what points the group to the Auvergne influx — or perhaps he makes an abrupt “recovery” and returns to Auvergne a changed man.

Felix Thiollier, 53 (1842-1914)

After making his fortune in ribbon manufacturing in St.-Etienne, Thiollier retires at 35 to take photographs in the Auvergne. He lives in a former Hospitaller commandery in Verrieres; his many interests include Celtic archaeology and medieval art. Perhaps he notices towers or hillsides changing in his photographs, or sees carnivorous toads labeled SADOGUI in an illuminated manuscript.

Other artists painting in the Auvergne in 1895 include the painters Adolphe Appian, 75 (1819-1898) and Victor Charreton, 31 (1864-1936), both based in Lyon. If you’re looking for some meddling kids, you have your choice of the odious, spoiled Pierre Laval, 12 (1883-1945) in Chateldone near Vichy, and the mystical Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, 14 (1881-1955) home for the summer at Orcines near Clermont-Ferrand from studying mathematics at a Jesuit college. At a remove, two native Auvergnois might send home a useful or terrifying discovery: the diplomat Henri Pognon, 42 (1853-1921) unearths Aramaic manuscripts and Assyrian tablets while consul in Baghdad and Aleppo; and the engineer Nicole Auguste Pomel, 74 (1821-1898) excavates giant rhinoceri in Algeria that remind him of the woolly rhinoceros that roamed Auvergne in the Ice Age.

The Occult

Characters looking for the Rosicrucians and other occult societies should look to Lyon (pop. 450,000), 165 km east of Clermont-Ferrand and several hours journey by train around the black-forested Monts du Madeleine between them. Rich and sociable, Lyon boasts several flourishing, bickering secret societies, tracing themselves back to Cagliostro, Saint-Martin, or even Agrippa. The AGLA society, if it exists as anything more than an old printers’ guild, claims all three as members.

Though Aurillac produced a sorcerer Pope (Sylvester II) who read mysterious Arabic books, Auvergne doesn’t hold with such citified occult fripperies. The Auvergnois hold to the Old Ways. Here, the Druids outlasted the Romans, and country folk still follow old customs at standing stones and deep wells — lighting fires to Grannus, singing to Pan, leaving offerings to Sadoqua.

A Rendezvous in Auvergne

Sadoqua, or Sadogui as the inquisitors referred to him while hunting the stubborn witch- and werewolf-cults of Auvergne, may have been a local version of Sucellus, a god of wine, or the name under which the Arverni and Averones worshiped “Gallic Mercury,” a shape-shifting god of prophecy. Under those names or another, he sees Carcosan energies fracturing reality, and presses his bat-like ears and toad-like tongue to the cracks. Clearly the multiplicity of images — of rocks under cross-polarized light, of anomalous photographs, of paintings iterating the same dark valleys for decades — speak both to Carcosan unreality and to Sadoqua’s plasticity.

Is the sudden phylloxera outbreak in Auvergne’s vineyards a Carcosan strike at Sadoqua’s vintage? (The blight had avoided Auvergne until 1895.) Can the AGLA cult tempt the players with a quest for the lost monastery library of Abbot Hilaire, broken up after the Revolution but rumored to contain a book of Hyperborean rituals that can re-make an un-made world? Does Carcosa manifest here through the seductive world of Sylaire, visible in lenses that have read the birefringence of Druidic menhirs or the gargoyles atop Notre-Dame du Port in Clermont-Ferrand? Do the lamias and succubae that lurk in Auvergne’s ruins serve Cassilda or Sadoqua? Or is Carcosa actually Cykranosh, sacred planet of Tsathoggua? When the players emerge, will the maps have changed: Le Puy become Ximes, Clermont-Ferrand become Vyônes, the Allier flows as the Isoile, the sparkling water labeled Ylourgne instead of Vichy, St.-Etienne now St.-Azédarac, and Auvergne rejoicing once more in its true name of Averoigne?

 


 

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

This music inspired by, and composed for, The Yellow King Roleplaying Game is included free as a digital download with The Yellow King RPG, and separately from the link below. The Yellow King Suite covers each of the four different settings. In addition, it presents a theme for The Yellow King RPG, and music for the doomed, lost city of Carcosa. Each setting required different instrumentation and arrangements; however, the influence of the Yellow King is evident in all of them, uniting them all as a cohesive suite.

Perfect to accompany your Yellow King RPG – or any other reality horror RPG – sessions, or to enjoy over a glass of absinthe.
 
Listen to a sample here:

 

The King In Yellow

The strange descending chromatic melody reminds me of something from a carnival or street music. While the violin grabs your attention initially soon you hear the rest of the strings, clarinet, glockenspiel and even boys choir for that otherworldy sound.

Belle Epoque

A lazy chord progression on the piano starts this gentle dreamlike sequence. Roxane’s beautiful cello breezes effortlessly across the harmonies telling a tale of opulence and ease but also perhaps ennui and decadence.

The Aftermath

An almost hypnotic pattern on the harp echoes the rhythms of the Yellow King as this unsettling piece of music suggests danger, desolation and loneliness.

The War

The music here is very obviously martial with strident rhythms, snares, piccolos and heavy brass. Even here the sinister presence of the Yellow King is heard.

This Is Normal Now

Reality shifts around you but you keep just telling yourself this is normal now. Dance on and enjoy yourself and try to ignore those strange voices and screams you hear. Just keep on dancing!

Carcosa

Poor doomed, lost Carcosa! I felt that the city needed a dramatic and tragic piece with an almost operatic quality. The music shifts constantly, never sitting comfortably in one key but often returning to the same 3 different musical ideas.

The Yellow King Suite is included free as a digital download with The Yellow King RPG, and separately from the link below.

Buy the YKRPG Suite MP3s now

In the present COVID-19 crisis, many of us, myself included, have canceled our in-person roleplaying sessions to comply with social distancing or shelter-in-place public health regimes across the world.

This Thursday, after a hiatus, I’ll be switching my in-person game to remote. (I’ve just started “Canadian Shield”, an extremely variant Fall of Delta Green series.)

As more tips and tricks for remote play come up I’ll share them with you here on the Pelgrane site. Let’s get started, though, with what I’ve learned during previous forays into online tabletop.

1. Use the platform you already know.

Everyone who has already racked up extensive remote play experience expresses a preference for a particular combo of tools for video conferencing and the virtual play space.

For video, Discord, Zoom, Google Hangouts and to a lesser extent Skype all have their adherents. Each brings its own set of pluses and minuses. In the end your choice of video app may depend on the quirks of each player’s device setup. You may wind up shuffling through a bunch of them before you find the one that happens to function for your entire group.

As far as play spaces go, Roll20 already has resources for 13th Age and GUMSHOE. We’ve just added DramaSystem.

If you’re already familiar with a video conferencing app and/or virtual tabletop, skip the learning curve and use that. It works; don’t fix it.

2. If you haven’t done this before, I prefer Google Hangouts and Slack.

Google Hangouts hasn’t let me down yet. It’s free, and pretty seamlessly handles switching to the person currently speaking. That’s the most important feature of a video app for game play and it does it well. Google has announced that they’re ending this service soon, but if I understand their PR correctly, what they’re actually doing is rebranding their video chat to sound more business-friendly. Google can hook you on a service and then whip it out from under you like a rug, but I’m guessing that we’re safe when this one changes to its new incarnation. I wouldn’t bet on that happening according to its original timetable, either.

For GUMSHOE and DramaSystem, I use as my virtual tabletop a tool not remotely designed for that, the group project messaging platform, Slack. It is a platform I use for other purposes every day and know how to use. I already use it for face-to-face when running The Yellow King Roleplaying Game, having found it the best solution for serving electronic Shock and Injury Cards. When teaching that system I upload a card image to the game’s main channel so everyone can feel its horror. I also drop the cards to each player, in our private message inbox. When they discard cards, I delete them from the private message inbox, so that it contains only the cards currently held.

Maps, images, and other handouts I upload to the main channel as well.

Slack’s advantage over its competitors in its category lies in its ease of use. A newbie can immediately figure out its simple and intuitive interface.

I’d use Slack for any game that relies primarily on dialogue and description, which describes both GUMSHOE and DramaSystem.

In fact I’d probably use it to run 13th Age. I don’t use a battlemap when running that in person, so wouldn’t bother with one in remote play either.

A game that does require a tactical map will naturally push you toward one of the purpose built virtual tabletops. These all have to handle D&D and Pathfinder. If you’re playing a game of that crunchiness online you’ve bought into the extra handling cost.

3. Leave in the Socializing.

Especially now, much of the point of an online game is to feel the connectedness we might ordinarily seek out around a table, at a con, or in a game cafe. The formality of the online experience might tempt you to cut right away to the case. You may know each other less well, or not at all, if playing online. Even so, give everybody time to chat a bit before getting started.

4. Expect a shorter session.

Though this varies for every group, in general the online meeting format promotes an efficiency you may find yourself envying when you return to face-to-face. Video conferencing requires participants to be conscious of who has the floor at any given moment. It reduces crosstalk and kibitzing. People used to conducting real meetings on video tend to step up to help guide the discussion and move toward problem-solving. The software does a good bit of your traffic management as GM for you.

For this reason you’ll find that remote play eats up story faster than a leisurely in-person session. The pace of any given episode more closely resembles the tighter concentration typical of a con game group that has found its rhythm. Your group will likely decide what to do faster, and then go and do it with fewer side tangents, than they would at your regular home table.

When this happens, you may find yourself wondering if you shouldn’t add more plot to keep your ending further away from your beginning. Instead, embrace this as the dynamic operating as it should. If it takes you three hours to hit five or six solid scenes, where in person it would take four, that’s a good thing.

5. Expect a more taxing session.

In addition to respecting the pace your session wants to have, you should aim for shorter sessions because the experience of gaming remotely takes more out of you, and each of your players, than face-to-face will.

Many of you will be sitting in less comfortable chairs than you’re used to being in. Those with home offices may already have been in those chairs for an entire work day already.

The concentration required to pay attention to people on video conferencing taxes the brain more than face-to-face. You’re trying to assimilate the same amount of communication from one another with fewer cues to work with. This tires any group, physically and mentally. Expect that and pace your game accordingly.

When you see a time-consuming setpiece sequence coming up, check the clock to see if you’ll be able to do it full justice given these constraints. Never be reluctant to knock off early and leave folks wanting more next time you all join up.

6: For Slack, use the Dicebot app.

To return to a platform-specific point, the Dicebot Slack app allows any participant to roll dice right in the channel. It easily does the d6 plus spend modifier for GUMSHOE. It inherently reminds players to announce their pool point spends before rolling, another neat advantage over physical dice.

Speaking of games that scorn the battlemap, Dicebot also handles the more complicated positive d6 + negative d6 + modifier roll seen in Feng Shui.

7. Whatever the platform, use a dice app if you players can possibly be coaxed into it.

Some players need that tactile dice-touching fix. I wouldn’t force online rolling on them, but having rolls take place visually in front of everyone does enhance their emotional impact by allowing everyone to see and react to the results.

Dice provide suspense . A die roller, in whatever platform, shares that edge of the seat moment when you see who succeeds and who’s about to take a Shock card.

8. Use a shared Google Doc for note-taking.

Since they’re all on a device anyhow, encourage your players to contribute to the group chronicle by setting up a shared Google Doc. Gussy it up with a graphic touch or two to build tone and theme.

9. Keep online versions of character sheets.

You’d think players won’t lose paper character sheets if they’re not leaving the house, but of course we misplace stuff in our own places all the time.

For GUMSHOE, the highly recommended Black Book app does all of the work of keeping online character sheets for you. It has just extended its trial period for player accounts.

Absent a specific tool, keep updated character sheets in a Dropbox folder or, for games where characters are simple as they are in DramaSystem, in a Google Sheet. I’ve done this for my “Canadian Shield” game.

Stay tuned for more tips. I look forward to the day when I can update this post to remove references to the pandemic as a current event. Until then, stay safe and, as much as you possibly can, the hell inside.

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