“While America needs you, my son, you shall not die!”

— Bruce Carter I, to the Fighting Yank (Bruce Carter III), in Startling Comics #35 (Sep 1945)

A typically robust Alex Schomburg cover for the Fighting Yank

The Shield was the first, and Captain America was the greatest, but lots and lots of heroes donned the red-white-and-blue and punched Nazis in the 1940s. Many of them, having bravely seen off mad scientists, and robots, and gangsters, and the Axis powers, then vanished forever. Or somewhat vanished somewhat forever. Without the holy rites of copyright spoken over them, they rise again and again in reprint volumes and reboot attempts, some better than others. One of the best of the public-domain patriotic superheroes was also one of the longest-lived: the Fighting Yank bowed in Startling Comics #10 (Sep 1941), and headlined Startling, America’s Best Comics (sharing top billing with the Black Terror), and his own title, which ran from September 1942 until August 1949. Writer Richard E. Hughes (one of many pseudonyms of Leo Rosenblum) and artist Jon L. Blummer created the Fighting Yank for Ned Pines, publisher of Standard Comics, also known as Better Publications and eventually as Nedor Publications.

The Fighting Yank was actually a young socialite named Bruce Carter III, descended from a Revolutionary War courier named Bruce Carter (the first). Ambushed and killed by British spies while carrying dispatches for George Washington, his unfinished duty drove Bruce Carter I to rise as a ghost. That spirit showed Bruce III where to find his old cloak and tricorn hat, which had somehow become imbued with magic. When the young Carter donned the colonial garb, he gained super-strength. The cloak deflected bullets and other attacks, although like most Golden Age superheroes, the Fighting Yank could (and very often would) be knocked out by a bonk on the head. On his missions and adventures, Bruce’s ghostly ancestor spoke to him, giving him vital information about his foes’ whereabouts, and on occasion materializing to help the Yank out of a jam. Carter’s girlfriend Joan Farwell guessed his secret identity within minutes of meeting the Fighting Yank, and often helped out with investigations and by hitting Nazi agents with her car.

So in honor of the Fourth, and of things old becoming new again, here are two takes on America’s Bravest Defender and on the undying legacy of his undying legacy!

“His own face was in shadow, and he wore a wide-brimmed hat which somehow blended perfectly with the out-of-date cloak he affected; but I was subtly disquieted even before he addressed me.”

— H.P. Lovecraft, “He”

Indolent scion of wealth Bruce Carter III became obsessed with his ancestor’s portrait, studying it until he believed it spoke to him revealing the location of a magical artifact hidden away since colonial times. Sound familiar? I have previously addressed the overlap between Lovecraftian horror and the Golden Age of Comics in my Adventures Into Darkness, and feel free to peruse that tome for further leads. Or you could certainly treat the Fighting Yank as yet another pulp hero (Ned Pines happily overlapped his pulp magazine heroes with his comic heroes) of the sort I have played with previously in these pages.

But here’s an old-school Yankee who talks to ghosts, and probably ghouls, and maybe rat-things. He’s rich, and bored, and obsessed with his ancestor Edmund Carter, “who was nearly hung during the witch-trials.” Like his cousin Randolph, he comes from money and studies the occult, and sounds a lot like a certain antiquarian of Providence who likewise sometimes acted like he lived in the 18th century. In a Trail of Cthulhu campaign he might begin as a helpful (if creepy) figure, granting passage to certain locked churchyards at night, or offering the loan of his library. He just needs the Investigators to do a little favor for him once in a while, dig in a certain spot or read a certain poem under the new moon, or track down and kill a lich-hound that’s guarding a tomb where just possibly his ancestor Edmund Carter buried a certain “cloke or clout” used by the Arkham witch circle …

Bruce Carter III, Randolph’s Disreputable Cousin

Athletics 3 Firearms 4 Fleeing 6 Health 5 Scuffling 3 Weapons 3

Magic: 3; it costs him 1 point to Contact Ghost and speak with his ancestor, and 2 points to learn something unseen by him from his ancestor. In addition to any other spells he might have, Carter’s cloak transmits an unholy vitality to him from his dead ancestor, along with that sorcerer’s memories and skills. Carter can use the cloak’s pool of 36 points on any of his General abilities, including Health and Magic; the cloak recharges 4 points per hour of exposure to pitch darkness (such as the inside of a chest).

Alertness Modifier: -1 (dreamy and distracted) without the cloak; +3 with the cloak

Stealth Modifier: +0 without the cloak; +3 with the cloak

Hit Threshold: 3 (5 with the cloak)

Attacks: -2 (fist; +1 with the cloak), +1 (sword; +4 with the cloak), +1 (Colt 1902 Sporting .38 ACP semiautomatic target pistol)

Armor: The cloak protects Carter from all injuries except those aimed at his head (+2 to Hit Threshold)

 

“I told you, I’m finebetter than fine, in fact. It’s funny … I’d forgotten how much more confident a mask can make you feel.”

— Carol Carter, the new Fighting Yank, in Terra Obscura v1 #5 (Dec 2003) by Alan Moore and Peter Hogan

Bryce’s father, Bruce Carter IV, moved to Ohio from Granger, Massachusetts, in 1980 and never really talked about his family at all. This didn’t really bother his youngest daughter Bryce, who pursued a career as an architectural photographer (with a sideline in crime novel writing) until she got the ghost flu and started having dreams about an ancestor in Revolutionary War times. She went to Granger and looked around her grandfather’s old house, and found a cloak and hat — ideal for cosplay! — and thought she’d exorcised the ghost … until she got the ghost flu a second time (very unusual! One in a million, they said!) and developed powers. The therapists claimed she had “multiple personality disorder” (which even she knew was pseudoscientific claptrap) brought on by the ghost flu, and the geneticist from the University claimed she had some long-dormant recessive gene that triggered two sets of powers depending on her endocrine levels.

Bryce isn’t sure what to believe, because it sure seems like her ancestor Bruce Carter tells her things (or is it her subconscious putting together her prodigious research) and saves her life when she needs it. And since she’s moved to your Mutant City Blues campaign city, she needs it more and more. Cops can’t do it all for you, and she’s not sure she trusts them to use their powers fairly for everyone. And as her ancestor points out, it’s every American’s duty to fight injustice and help out their neighbor. (This writeup leaves Bryce’s politics aside from police reform vague, but in your campaign they should be whatever version most tends to annoy your PCs.) To the police, she’s a vigilante, and to corrupt cops, she’s frighteningly good at finding where the bodies are buried.

Bryce Carter, the Fighting Yank

Architecture, Bullshit Detector, Charm, Criminology, History, Intimidation, Photography, Popular Culture, Research

Athletics 8 Composure 6 Driving 5 Firearms 6 Health 8 Infiltration 6 Scuffling 12 Sense Trouble 10 Surveillance 5

*Flight 4 *Illusion 2 Kinetic Energy Dispersal 6 Strength 10 *Telekinesis 18

Powers marked with an asterisk (*) are associated with Bryce’s alternate personality, “Bruce Carter the First” and only emerge under great stress: to save her life or that of someone she knows. She only uses her Illusion power to (unconsciously?) project an image of Bruce Carter’s “ghost.”


Mutant City Blues 2nd Edition is an investigative science fiction roleplaying game originally written by Robin D. Laws, and developed and extended by Gareth-Ryder Hanrahan, where members of the elite Heightened Crime Investigation Unit solve crimes involving the city’s mutant community. Purchase Mutant City Blues in print and PDF at the Pelgrane Shop.

April 30th rolls ‘round again, season of doors and frightful manifestations. You may know it as Walpurgisnacht, the Witches’ Sabbath – at least according to poor Walter Gilman, the ill-fated protagonist of Dreams in the Witch House.

Now he was praying because the Witches’ Sabbath was drawing near. May-Eve was Walpurgis-Night, when hell’s blackest evil roamed the earth and all the slaves of Satan gathered for nameless rites and deeds. It was always a very bad time in Arkham, even though the fine folks up in Miskatonic Avenue and High and Saltonstall Streets pretended to know nothing about it. There would be bad doings—and a child or two would probably be missing. Joe knew about such things, for his grandmother in the old country had heard tales from her grandmother. It was wise to pray and count one’s beads at this season.

It’s certainly a potent date in Mythos terms, a time when the Old Ones are uncomfortably close at hand, a night for rituals and bonfires. In Germany, for example, it’s Hexennacht, and one’s supposed to dress as a witch and make noises to keep real witches and evil spirits away. Old Keziah Mason isn’t the only one abroad that night – Wilbur Whateley and his brother were conceived on the night of April 30th, and it’s also one of the two nights when the folk of Innsmouth were obliged to offer sacrifices to their Deep One allies, or so Zadok Allen tells us. Perhaps other entities can also use the doors of Walpurgnisnacht to move between the spheres – it’s in May that Professor Peaslee is taken by the Great Race of Yith, and he begins to have cogent dreams about his abduction in the same month a few years later.

A few other Lovecraftian dates:

  • February 2nd – The Feast of the Presentation, also known as Candlemas, “which the folk of Dunwich observe by another name”. It’s the date of Wilbur Whateley’s birth; also the Roman feast of Lupercalia, with its associations of fertility and beasts.
  • February 28th – The anniversary of the rise of R’lyeh in 1925. Presumably, as the orbit of the Earth around the sun brings our world back to roughly the same star-configuration, it might be possible for Great Cthulhu’s call to be heard more clearly on this auspicious date.
  • August 1st – Lammas Night, a festival celebrating the harvest. Also the night on which old Wizard Whateley passed away. Did he linger long enough to find some door into the outer sphere, where the whippoorwills couldn’t catch him?
  • October 31st – All Hallows’ Eve: Obviously, lots of spooky connections here. Notably in the Mythos, it’s the other date that the Innsmouth sacrifices are made. Wilbur Whateley makes cryptic expeditions into the hills on this date, too.
  • December 21st – Yuletide, “Yuletide, that men call Christmas though they know in their hearts it is older than Bethlehem and Babylon, older than Memphis and mankind,” as The Festival puts it.

 

Festivals in Your Games

Tying events to a particular anniversary can be a handy trick in a Trail of Cthulhu scenario. The classic is “the cult’s summoning ritual can only be performed on Lammas Night” or whatever seasonally appropriate date you prefer, giving the investigators a hard deadline – if they don’t thwart the cult before then, the world is doomed. Another option is to use a festival as the inciting event for the scenario – if the killings start on May 2nd, then maybe something crept through into our reality when the veil was thin on Walpurgnisnacht, and now it’s up to the investigators to track it down. You can also use a seasonal ‘window’ for a survival-horror game, where the challenge is simply escaping the monster until the date changes and the stars are no longer right. Maybe a bunch of investigators in the wilderness run into Ithaqua on the Yuletide, and need to survive until dawn on December 22nd. Astronomy or Occult Studies can clue investigators in to the celestial connotations of a date.

Finally, don’t neglect obscure festivals and feast-days as inspiration. The Wikipedia page for a particular day is a great tool for bisociation – for example, a quick scroll of the April 30th page gives us both Operation MINCEMEAT and St. Adjutor, the patron saint of boaters and the drowned. What else did the Seraph dump in the sea on Walpurgisnacht? In whose name did she make offerings?


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

claw demonBoth Trail of Cthulhu and Fear Itself feature protagonists who are comparatively (or cosmically!) feeble compared to the foes they encounter. By no coincidence whatsoever, both games also incorporate the Fleeing ability, an ability that’s used only for running away.

To make Fleeing a bit more complex and combat-like, here are some optional expanded Fleeing rules, drawing on the Thriller Chases of Night’s Black Agents.

Escape or Capture

The aim of a chase is to win three contests in a row. If a runner gets three wins in a row, that character has escaped. If the runner loses three rounds of the contest in a row, the pursuer catches up with that the runner. The pursuer rolls once and compares their result to all the runners, so it’s possible for one runner to succeed and another to lose in any given round (and for one runner to rack up three successes and get clear!)

To avoid having contests drag on too long, if the monster has 0 Athletics or Aberrance left, assume it gives up unless it’s one win away from catching a runner.

If A Runner Wins A Round

Whenever a Runner wins a round, they get to pick one of the following benefits.

  • Gain Some Distance: The runner gets a +1 bonus to their next roll in the chase.
  • Help Another Runner: Another runner gets a +1 bonus to their next roll in the chase.
  • Create an Obstacle: Make an Athletics or Mechanics test. Next round, if the monster’s result is lower than the result of this test, then the round counts as a win for the purposes of determining escape only. The runners don’t get to pick a benefit next round if they win.
  • Hide! Instead of continuing to run, a runner can Hide and hope the monster doesn’t find them. It’s a Hide (or Stealth) test, Difficulty 6, modified by the monster’s Awareness modifier.
  • Take A Breather: Refresh 2 points of Fleeing or Athletics.
  • Shoot! If the runner’s got a ranged weapon, they can take a snap-shot at the pursuer. (Stopping to make a melee attack is tantamount to ending the chase.)
  • Split Up! The runners go in different directions. The pursuer can only chase one of them – but gets a +1 bonus to all its rolls for the rest of the chase against that quarry.

If A Pursuer Wins A Round

If the Pursuer beats any of the Runners, it gets to do one of the following actions.

  • Swipe: The monster gets close enough to make a Scuffling attack on the runner. The runner gets a +2 bonus to their Hit Threshold.
  • Trip: The monster nearly grabs the runner, making them stumble. The runner’s got a -2 penalty to their next roll in the chase.
  • Scare: The monster pops up right on top of the runner, jump scaring them. The runner must make a 3-point Stability check.

If it beats all the runners, it gets to pick one of the following:

  • It’s Gaining On Us! For the rest of the chase, the monster gets a +1 bonus to all its chase rolls.
  • We Can’t Get Out This Way! Reset all the runners to 0 wins in a row.

 

The modern age began with Enlightenment, and Enlightenment exposed the darkness.

The time is the 18th century, and the place is Britain – a land just discovering new sciences and creating new technologies. But these new sciences discover mind-shattering truths; the age of the Earth, the impermanence of living species, the sheer scale of the universe. And beyond these truths, of course, is the Mythos.

“The greater is the circle of light, the greater is the boundary of the darkness by which it is confined.”

– Joseph Priestley, Lunar Society member

But when the new sciences of the age unsettle the minds of the nation and unleash dark forces, the governing classes may not handle it well. They are wedded to old ways and old lies. Investigators seeking to deal with terrible new discoveries and ancient insanities need a different sort of sponsor.

Meet the Lunar Society, a dining club of natural philosophers, industrialists, and radical intellectuals, the embodiment of the Enlightenment. They have wealth, knowledge, and principles, so when they or their friends stumble across evils needing to be contained, who better to organise a response?

Boundary of the Darkness is an 18th century campaign frame for Trail of Cthulhu by Phil Masters, and includes:

  • An introduction to 18th century Britain, and the many revolutions, dark secrets, and conflicts of the age.
  • Biographical notes on Lunar Society members and other useful GMCs, including some of Britain’s greatest doctors, natural philosophers, and engineers.
  • Character creation notes, including new and revised Occupations and Abilities.
  • Period equipment and weapons.
  • An introduction to troupe play in Trail of Cthulhu.
  • Notes on how to use a wide variety of Mythos monsters in play, and also ideas for non-Mythos adventures in service to the Lunar Society.
  • An introductory scenario – “A Spirit Out of Time”, in which the PCs receive just a hint of what the Age of Discovery might uncover.

So buckle on a brace of pistols, and make ready to carry Enlightenment to the very boundary of the darkness!

Status: In development

“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.

“He had lately become a devotee of the William Mortensen school of photography. Mortensen, of course, is the leading exponent of fantasy in photography; his monstrosities and grotesques are widely known.”

— Robert Bloch, “The Sorcerer’s Jewel” (1939)

William H. Mortensen, the “leading exponent of fantasy in photography,” was born in Park City, Utah in 1897 to Danish immigrants. In high school he caught the drawing bug from his art teacher, James Taylor Harwood, who attended the Académie Julian (1888-1890) and the Beaux-Arts (1890-1892) in Paris, his time at those schools overlapping as it happens with Robert W. Chambers.

Drafted into and released from the Army in 1918, Mortensen stayed in New York to study at the Art Students League in New York City under George Bridgman (another Chambers overlap, at the Beaux-Arts from 1883-1889). He left art school on an impulsive trip to Greece in 1920, returned broke, and after a year teaching art himself in Salt Lake City moved to Hollywood in 1921 as a chaperon for his 14-year-old fellow Utahan Fay Wray.

Incubus, by William Mortensen (1925). Model unknown, but probably not a dimensional shambler

While keeping Fay out of trouble and getting her into pictures, he worked with the directors King Vidor and Ferdinand Pinney Earle as a matte painter, and then on costume design with Cecil B. DeMille on his Ten Commandments (1923) then (as his photography business expanded) as a still photographer on King of Kings (1927). He designed masks for and learned makeup from Lon Chaney, Sr., with whom he worked on Mr. Wu (1927) and West of Zanzibar (1928).

Following a scandal exacerbated by Fay Wray’s mother, a brief dalliance with Jean Harlow, and the not-unrelated destruction of his marriage he leaves Hollywood for Laguna Beach in 1931. There he opens the Mortensen School of Photography, marries one of his longtime models Myrdith Monaghan in 1933, and breeds Persian Blue cats. Even at that remove, he retains his cachet with Hollywood: his 1941 photograph of aspiring actress Martha Vickers gets her a contract at RKO without a screen test. His Hollywood photographs regularly appear in Vanity Fair and Colliers, he writes a column for LA Weekly, he mounts exhibitions as far away as London.

In the 1930s, Mortensen reigns as the king of the “Pictorialist” school of photography, pioneering techniques of photo-manipulation with lenses and razors to create bizarre and impossible images, and defending his principles in books like Monsters & Madonnas (1934) and The Command to Look (1937). His success with the grotesque and unreal sparks the hatred of Ansel Adams and the “Purist” photographers of the f.64 movement. Adams despises Mortensen and everything he stands for: wishing him dead in print, calling him “the Devil” and “the Anti-Christ.”

Perhaps Adams fixates on those terms thanks to Mortensen’s series of photographs depicting witches, demons, and monsters. Mortensen begins what he calls his “Pictorial History of Witchcraft and Demonology” around 1926, continuing it through at least 1935. He consults with his friend the occultist Manly P. Hall on the topic, freely borrowing from Hall’s library of 20,000 mystical tomes. At some point in the late 1930s he suddenly stops creating grotesques, switching almost entirely to nudes and rural workers (sometimes clad in Renaissance garb) as his subjects. At least a third of the approximately 150 images he created for his witchcraft and demonology series have disappeared.

The Shadows From the Shutter

“That is why the beings cannot be photographed on the ordinary camera films and plates of our known universe, even though our eyes can see them. With proper knowledge, however, any good chemist could make a photographic emulsion which would record their images.”

— H.P. Lovecraft, “The Whisperer in Darkness”

Adams’ enmity, and changing public tastes, eventually drove Mortensen into obscurity and penury. On August 12, 1965, William Mortensen dies of a nosocomial infection in the La Jolla hospital while undergoing treatment for leukemia. Myrdith sends a file of his negatives, prints, and scrapbooks to small time Hollywood publisher O. Howard Lucy (b. 1900?); he publishes botched editions of Monsters & Madonnas and The Command to Look in 1967.

And at some point, DELTA GREEN hears rumors about “The Last Mortensens,” a series of pictures briefly offered to collectors in the late 1950s. Supposedly the culmination of his “History of Witchcraft and Demonology,” taken in 1937 or thereabouts, they depict his most grotesque images yet: thoroughly alien shapes and beings in stark silver-gelatin prints. Perhaps a dead occultist (stumbled over or produced in the course of a previous investigation) has one print, and his eager letters point to more out there.

The Agents head for California, to interview Myrdith: she claims she only got half the material back from Lucy. Lucy says he gave it to his photographer partner Jacques de Langre (b. 1925), a lecturer on alternative healing and enthusiast for the magical powers of salt. De Langre claims he returned everything to Myrdith’s “intermediary,” who may never have existed. Manly P. Hall (b. 1901), an increasingly grumpy and neglected guru in Los Feliz, happily discusses Mortensen’s theories and learning but likely has no lead on a missing folio.

The Agents might also look up Mortensen’s old friend, model, and collaborator on his books, the former stage actor and director George Dunham, currently living in Corona del Mar. Or they might be attracted to the rumor that San Francisco magician and publicity hound Anton LaVey uses insights from The Command to Look to develop the “lesser magic” and psychological manipulation core to his new Church of Satan. (LaVey dedicates the 1969 edition of The Satanic Bible to, among others, “William Mortensen, who looked … and saw.”)

Another lead (via the dead occultist or a LaVey hanger-on) points to another interesting Mortensen collector: the psychic investigator Hereward Carrington (1880-1958). When the Agents go to his home in L.A., they discover that his widow Marie keeps Carrington’s immense collection of journals and photographs intact as an archive. Has it been robbed? Who can tell? What other secrets does it hold?

Perhaps it holds the patchy records of Carrington’s work with a band of Investigators in the late 1930s who selflessly rescued renowned photographer William Mortensen from the hideous Things he had unwittingly called up with the angles and alchemies of his lenses and emulsions. Shaken, he resolves to abandon grotesquerie and return to Myrdith. But, bitter and impoverished twenty years later, he made one last set of prints for a few rich and eminent collectors …

Fall of DELTA GREEN Handlers can riff on “From Beyond,” “The Trap,” and “The Whisperer in Darkness,” and on the images of monsters retained in glass in “The Unnamable,” for that prequel Trail of Cthulhu adventure. Did Mortensen learn these hypergeometric techniques in Greece, and Carcosan ratios from Chambers’ friends? Did he find unnatural clues in Manly Hall’s library, or in a Hollywood horrorist’s drunken rant? This works even better if you ask the players to describe the photos when their Agents find them in the 1960s (“oh, it’s a boiling sphere covered in eyes”). Then, in the 1930s, their Investigators have to face those unnamable models from their own imagination – and save Mortensen from them.


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

The following articles originally appeared on an earlier iteration of See Page XX in June 2008.

In this issue Robin D Laws discusses the use of genre conceits in Mutant City Blues, we have more music from James Semple, and a second interview by Luke Crane. This issue sees the return of Mystic Moo – learn how to get your fondest wishes, with cosmic ordering. I was very pleased with the results of the last poll – our readership is higher than I expected – so I’ve included another one, with a peculiar question. Your feedback really helps.

The following articles originally appeared on an earlier iteration of See Page XX in February 2008. 

Tools, toys and transport are the theme for this issue of Page XX. Robin D Laws discusses the use of music to end scenes in GUMSHOE games, and James Semple provides some stings for Trail of Cthulhu. Jamie Maclaren says the fidgeting and playing with toys at the gaming table isn’t all bad, and Simon Carryer closes his excellent series for Trail of Cthulhu GMs with an article on the majestic liners and tramp steamers of the thirties. For Mutant City Blues, we present interview with Dr Lucius Quade, the world’s premier scientist in anamorphology, the study of mutant powers (toys for gamers, at least).

Contents

This post originally appeared on DyingEarth.com between 2004 and 2007.

A column on roleplaying

by Robin D. Laws

[Ed.This was originally an internal design document, but it should come in useful for anyone interested in GUMSEHOE background creation.]

The GUMSHOE system departs from standard RPG design practice in a couple of significant ways. Neither of the two extant rules manuscripts, Esoterrorists and Fear Itself, expends much precious space explaining the theory behind these choices. To design rules add-ons for GUMSHOE, though, you have to think in the way the system demands. This document shows you how think GUMSHOE.

Tediously Obligatory Disclaimer

Before we start, please note that just because GUMSHOE makes a certain game design choice doesn’t mean that we’re saying that all games should be this way, or that these design choices are objectively better than others in all cases. They’re right for GUMSHOE. It is meant to perform a specific job. Other games built to achieve other ends might arise from completely opposite principles to be ineffably awesome. A crunchy, rules-driven, determinative, simulationist, integrated game could rock. It is not this game, though.

Design Watchwords

The design watchwords for GUMSHOE are:

  • Emulation of narrative structure (not simulation of imaginary reality)
  • Technique (not rules)
  • Simplicity (not crunchiness)
  • Modularity (not necessarily integration)

Emulation: The ultimate goal of GUMSHOE is to foster play that feels like a mystery novel, TV procedural, or occult adventure comic. Precisely what’s being emulated differs from kit to kit. The first question when designing a rule is: “How would this happen in the source material?” Supplementary questions include: “What structural effect do scenes involving this have on the story? What effect are they meant to have on the audience?” The logic is literary and structural, not literal or reality-oriented. If you design a rules add-on and its result is to encourage behavior or activities that characters in this sort of investigative fiction never engage in, you’ve gone off track, substituting extrapolative logic for dramatic logic. Do not attempt to introduce more verisimilitude than the source material requires.

Also, respect the power of clichés. Sometimes they are required to allow the machinery of genre plotting to work. Many players engage in roleplaying to get up close and personal with their genre expectations. A new spin on a tired trope can be fun, but if your add-on allows only a revisionist take on the material you’re emulating, you’ve created something eccentrically limited. Sometimes it might be appropriate to be self-aware and ironic about the clichés that come with your territory—in a Scream-type scenario, for example. More often you’ll want to find ways to make clichés feel fresh and powerful again.

Because we’re emulating narrative structures, not simulating an imaginary reality, scenarios should not call on GMs to make random determinations for anything that matters. Don’t tell us that the guards will react violently if they roll X and peacefully if they roll Y. Tell us that the guards will react violently under condition X or peacefully under condition Y. Better yet, make these two conditions dependent on player choices or the use of their general abilities. Give us decision trees for GMC actions and reactions, depending on how the PCs change the situation. (General notes on GMC plans and motivations might be preferable in many cases.)

Theoretically there is an investigative sub-genre which, to emulate properly, requires you to ignore any of the other pieces of advice given in this document. If so, do it—but be clear that your deviations from the norm address only that sub-genre.

Simplicity: When designing a new rule, challenge yourself to find the simplest possible expression of it. The urge to complicate is powerful, but must be resisted. Avoid crunchiness creep. Other games put rules front and center during the play experience, and that can be cool, too. But here we want the rules to get out of the way of the GM and players. Episodes of rules use should happen quickly, and take up only a small percentage of any given game session. Just because a rule is cool, doesn’t mean that it is necessary. A rule is never an end in and of itself; if it doesn’t justify itself, it’s so much mental smog.

Technique: The best way to keep a rule simple is to have no rule at all. A technique is a structured way of playing, for GMs and/or players, into which numbers and die rolling do not enter. The flashback concept from Fear Itself is a prime example of a technique. It shapes play in a distinctive way and refers to a narrative technique players will know from fictional sources. It is purely a novel way to perform interactive scenes, without a mechanical reward or consequence.

Another example of technique would be the stereotypes from Fear Itself. Where another game would realize its desired archetypes by giving them rules properties—making them templates for character creation, directly determining your game statistics—this is a simple list that you can take or leave. It is a springboard for player creativity. Again, it gets the players thinking about the source material, but leaves them free to realize them in whatever way, and to whatever degree, they want.

Modularity: First edition AD&D is a modular rules system; sub-systems operate independently of one another. No particular effort is made to make PCs and monsters conform to the same scale and list of capabilities. When Gary and company needed a new rule, they thought, “how do I make this work?”

Third edition D&D is an integrated design; all of the rules systems interrelate. When the designers came to each rules subset, they asked themselves, “How do I make this work in a way that’s congruent with the rest of the system?”

Design integration is considered an important goal for state-of-the-art crunchy games. Integrated rules are aesthetically satisfying and ought to be easier to learn and remember.

GUMSHOE is a modular system, with a twist. Where you can maintain congruence with the existing rules and still emulate the source material, you should do so. However, emulation takes precedence over congruence. The key example here is the way that the game handles abilities completely differently, depending on their relationship to narrative structure. Investigative abilities work one way; general abilities use a completely system.

Aesthetic neatness never takes precedence over function. Note how in GH some of the Psychic abilities use the Investigative mechanics, and others use the General. Again, this depends on their story role: whether they are used to gather information, or to handle threats. In the first case, failure is not permitted. In the second, it is.

There are also actions that use different abilities (and rules sub-systems) depending on their narrative consequences. In GH, you might use Investigative Procedures to find a hidden item that provides information, or Sense Trouble to find one that endangers you. In Esoterrorists, you’d use Explosive Devices to find a bomb whose placement doesn’t threaten you, but does provide a clue. If its primary purpose in the narrative was to threaten you, you’d use Surveillance instead.

Reassurance (gaining information) and Shrink (healing psychic damage) provide another example. Similar according to real-world logic, very different when you look at narrative effect—and therefore treated with different mechanics.

Another split: PCs are treated differently than supporting characters. GMCs need general abilities but aren’t actively investigating mysteries and don’t need investigative abilities. In most genres, important antagonists don’t need Stability scores — though text defining their areas of knowledge and mental states could be very useful.

These distinctions can be counterintuitive, so don’t introduce them for their own sake. When necessary, though, swallow your aesthetic qualms and embrace them.

When designing new rules, the configuration of other rules is important but is not a starting point for your thought process. If you need to devise drowning rules, don’t start by looking at the falling rules and extrapolating from there. Ask yourself how drowning works in the material you’re emulating and go from there. You’ll want to eventually look at the falling rules to see how they match up, and if a previous designer followed the same assumptions you did. If they solved the same problem you tackled in a more elegant way, then go back and tinker. If your solution works better for your situation, stick with it.

As you design new kits, modularity may inspire you to swap out portions of the core rules for something that works better for the material you’re emulating. Trail Of Cthulhu might require a different way of tackling Stability. Many other theoretically possible investigative kits, from Scooby Doo to Agatha Christie, would dispense with it altogether.

GUMSHOE is meant to be a tool kit, from which GMs can mix and match add-on rules to create the settings they want. Encourage this mind-set by indicating what other sorts of investigative games your add-on might be good for. Be clear which add-ons are suitable only for your sub-genre, and which ones have broader applications.

Anti-Rules

When attempting to design systems that facilitate the GMs and emulate narrative structure, you may find it useful to consider creating an anti-rule.

Even gamers who think they know otherwise will over-rely on any rule you put in a game book. Any Call of Cthulhu player will tell you that a good GM doesn’t make you roll for the really important clues. Yet when we play a conventional investigative game of any type, we do have the players roll for clues all the time, because the rules provide for it. Like a gun on the table in the first act of a play, if you introduce a rule, it’s going to go off. GMs who know better will use it anyhow, out of reflex. GMs who don’t know better will cause countless hours of bad entertainment.

An anti-rule is a rule that exists purely to prevent the GM and players from doing this. It looks like a rule and walks like a rule, but really its main function is psychological. It gives gamers the comfortable feeling that there’s a rule guiding their behavior, giving them permission to engage in organically creative play. Like a rule, it provides structure, but unlike a rule, it doesn’t determine what happens in play.

The investigative rules of GUMSHOE are a prime example. The entire rules structure exists to prevent you from rolling against an ability to get a clue. It’s a rule to tell you you don’t need rules. The point-spending for evocative but nonessential clues adds a comfortable and satisfying gamey element to the experience. It allows you to use a rule now and again, but safely, so that the rules don’t get in the way and spoil everything.

Scenario Note: GMCs Making Rolls

Something I should have thought about sooner: whenever possible, it’s best to take situations in which a supporting character makes a roll and turn it around to one where the PCs make a roll against a difficulty. [Ed: We call this approach “player-facing.”]

It’s not so much an issue in combat and physical situations, where both PCs and GMCs typically have about enough points to last through one confrontation. But in situations like perception, PCs and GMCs are not really congruent. PCs have to space out their point spending through an entire adventure. GMCs are usually there for only a scene or two, and so can spend huge chunks of points on a roll. Having the GM making this tactical decision for them suddenly puts her in an adversarial situation that doesn’t really gibe with the spirit of the game.

In some cases you won’t be able to get around it, but whenever possible, turn these situations around. Instead of having the GMC roll Sense Trouble to see through an impersonation, set out a condition which, if the player makes the wrong choice, triggers her suspicions. Instead of having the GMC roll to search the PCs and find weapons, have the PCs make an Infiltrate roll to hide them so well the frisker doesn’t find them. This is not only fairer to the players but makes them more active participants in their own adventures.

Thought Process

In conclusion, when confronted with a rules problem, ask yourself the following questions, in the following order:

  • How does it work in the source material?
  • Is there a way to do it as a technique, and not a rule?
  • If I need a rule (or anti-rule), how simple can I make it?

Having already worked out the narrative consequences of the action I’m trying to model, have other designers already tackled similar problems in a way I’ll find instructive?

Do I label it as a universal add-on, or specific to this sub-genre?

The following article originally appeared in an earlier iteration of See Page XX in September 2008.

A column on roleplaying by Robin D. Laws

Pipe and Believability

A while back on the Yog-Sothoth forum dedicated to Trail Of Cthulhu a discussion arose from that game’s suggestion that players be permitted to select their exotic languages during play. As online debates are wont to do, the discussion crossed wires from a couple of separate issues. Fortunately for me, it did so in an illuminating way that serves as a springboard for this month’s column.

As with any discussion of “on the fly” character generation, there were some basics to get out of the way: the character is not learning to speak Chinese or to fly a hang-glider on the spot, but is only now revealing heretofore unseen elements of his backstory. In fiction—well-written fiction, anyway—most important character revelations occur on the fly. You don’t start out a novel with detailed biographies of the characters and then have them start doing things. Instead, character is revealed through action. We learn that the Nightflyer is a mechanical genius because we see him jury-rig an explosive device from spare parts found in the disused factory the bad guys use as their hideout. We see that Professor Argonaut is an expert in Etruscan archaeology in a scene where he addresses a rapt audience of fellow academics at the Royal Society.

Sometimes, in a technique modern screenwriters refer to as “laying pipe”, a character trait is set up with an offhand reference, then brought fully into play later in the story. The unexpected pugilism of weedy romantic poet Osbert Macaulay may be set up with an offhand reference many pages before he fights off the burly cultist at the altar of Ra. The more improbable-seeming the ability, the more likely it is that the author will want to lay pipe beforehand. Osbert’s fisticuffs play against type, and seem too convenient if pulled out of a hat exactly when needed. It must be introduced to us in stages to win our acceptance. On the other hand, given his established class and educational background, Osbert’s intimate knowledge of the streets of Rome requires little in the way of additional credibility support—and thus can be dropped on the reader during the scene at hand.

The forum discussion tackled the question of believability through a familiar roleplaying lens: is it realistic for a given character, say a beat cop, to read an ancient Chinese script? Really it’s no more credible for a beat cop to possess an obscure academic ability if the player says so before the story begins than if the ability pops up in play. But it can feel like a breach of the fictional reality.

For one thing, the player is picking the trait to gain a momentary advantage, no doubt because he’s come up against a situation requiring it. As audience members, the GM and other players can see behind the curtain, making the story contrivance stand out.

The traditional model, in which we pick all of our characters’ abilities before play begins, functions as an equivalent of laying pipe. As weird as it might be that a New York flatfoot can interpret the oracle script of the Shang dynasty, at least we knew about it beforehand.

The difference between preparatory exposition in fiction and the abilities listed on a character sheet is that a roleplaying character is often filled with information that never pays off. You may decide that your character is an expert scuba diver, but if the GM’s adventures never get you underwater, it never actualizes itself in play. An improvisational GM, seeing that entry on your character sheet, will try her best to get you mucking about the coral reefs in search of lost archaeological wonders. However, with six different character sheets, all filled with dangling hints of this nature, she may not be able to work all of them into the series narrative before it wraps. What the “on the fly” method seems to lack in believability, it gains in utility. If there’s no underwater action, your preselected ability sits on your character sheet like a dead pixel. If permitted to opportunistically pick X number of abilities as you go, you can guarantee that each of them will move the story forward at least once.

Whether limited to picking your languages in Trail Of Cthulhu, or as open-ended as the on-the-fly method in HeroQuest, this approach does challenge GMs accustomed to thinking of themselves as gatekeepers of realism. The oral tradition of roleplaying as handed down from the halcyon days of Lake Geneva encourages us to police the entreaties of our players, shutting down anything that seems grabby or unlikely. And sure, you don’t want to give out a +5 vorpal sword just for the asking. Especially in a Cthulhu game. That makes no sense.

But seriously folks, this mindset can backfire against us if we allow the decision tree to start with the realism question. Believability is important—you don’t want to shatter that illusion of reality that allows the group to engage with the story—but can be attended to later in the process. Far better to start the decision tree with a different question: “Is it interesting?”

Here interesting is defined moving the story onwards, to a plot branch where the player(s) get to make a meaningful choice. Let’s say the information written in oracle bone script moves the group toward a scene in which they confront the main bad guy and are forced to choose between self-preservation and saving the world. It’s a shame to keep that off the table (or spend another hour establishing a convoluted workaround to get to the same place) because you’re using realism as your starting point.

Instead, use it as your end point. If you decide that it would be more interesting to allow the beat cop to read Shang dynasty characters, then enter into a brief dialogue with the player to find a believable justification for it.

Be interesting, then make it real.

Sometimes you’ll fail to find an answer that preserves the reality level of your series, and then you’ll be stuck with the less interesting choice. More often, though, when you start out assuming you can find a way, you and the players will do so. We roleplayers are a clever bunch.

This is not to say that it is invariably interesting to say yes to your players. A player suggestion that shuts down interesting scenes or choices—like a super-weapon that allows them to cut through their opposition effortlessly—inverts the decision tree. Instead of finding any believable solution that allows you to say yes to the players, you’re looking for a realistic reason to keep them challenged. But in both cases, the question to allow or disallow starts with story values and only then moves on to issues of verisimilitude.

A realistic story is worth nothing if it consists of one boring choice after another. That’s true whether you’re writing a novel or running a roleplaying session.


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

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