In the latest edition of their ENnie-winning (and once again nominated) podcast, Ken and Robin talk room description, competing hollow earth theories, recommendations, and chaos magick.
This month, in See Page XX, pre-order Cthulhu Apocalypse for Trail of Cthulhu, find out about our ENnie nominations, get advice about using interpersonal abilities and pyramids to drive story in your games, and playtest some one-shot story games.
- Our new releases include Cthulhu Apocalypse; the KWAS edition Hideous Creatures: The Great Race of Yith, Mutant City Spies for KWAS subscribers, and Summoning Spells for 13th Age Monthly.
- In our articles Robin D. Laws tries his hand at a 1-sheet GUMSHOE entry, Kenneth Hite has a quick and dirty look at Varna, Simon interviews Pelgrane writer and GM Ruth Tillman, and Rob posts the answers to last month’s trivia challenge.
- June playtesting opportunities include two story games; play adventurers about to set off on what might be their final battle in Before the Storm, or a family with a difficult choice in Acceptable Losses.
Check out the new Page XX now!
“I think that Varna is not familiar to any of us …”
— Van Helsing
In my defense, not a lot of stuff happens in Varna. I mean, in the novel. Lots of stuff happens in Varna, including a disastrous Crusade in 1444 that killed the King of Poland and nearly killed Vlad Tepes’ brother Mircea.
But in the novel, Dracula ships his coffins to London via Herr Leutner of Varna, and then fakes out the hunters by booking a ship for Varna but going on to Galatz in Romania. Lord Godalming and co. arrive in Varna via the Orient Express, and stay at the Odessus Hotel, named after the original Greek settlement on the site. Although the hunters have identified another of Dracula’s agents in the city, a broker named Ristics, they leave him and Varna behind.
Which is what I did when I mapped out the Director’s Handbook for the Dracula Dossier. Although we put in Herr Leutner, we skipped Varna itself. I blame Dracula, master of the bait-and-switch-Black-Sea-ports. Here, in another of our continuing (and continuing) series “Things We Left Out of The Director’s Handbook for The Dracula Dossier,” is a Quick and Dirty look at Varna, the Summer Capital of Bulgaria.
Varna is Bulgaria’s third-largest city. Its Black Sea beaches and hot springs have made it a resort town since the 7th century BCE, and tourism keeps it one of the most prosperous cities in Eastern Europe. It sits below 350m terraces, at the mouth of Lake Varna, still a center of industry, shipbuilding, and chemical works. The 2 km long Asparuhov Bridge (a 46 m high suicide magnet) connects the rest of Varna with the Asparuhovo borough on the south side of the Lake.
365,000 (about the size of Tampa), swells to 600,000 during summer vacation season (much like Tampa).
Varna’s relative prosperity tends to mute its social conflicts; even the 2013 anti-austerity riots across Bulgaria remained peaceful protests in Varna. One major concern is Varna’s increasing population of undocumented foreigners, initially mostly Turks but recently Ukrainian refugees from the war. There are possibly as many as 300,000 such in the city (which would put the city’s size in summer at 900,000). About 1% of Varna’s population are Roma, almost entirely living in three impoverished ghettos (Maksuda, Rozova Dolina, and Chengene Kula).
A vigilante group of former Bulgarian marines, the Varna Seals, expelled foreign mafias in 2007-2009; some suggest this is merely to clear the lucrative tourist-and-waterfront ground for the Mutri, the Bulgarian mafia. Varna is a major transshipment point for traffickers in slaves and drugs, fueling a red-light district and party zone in resorts all along the Black Sea coast.
Monument of the Bulgarian-Soviet Friendship: Towering 110 m above the northwestern part of the city, this 11,000-tonne brutalist concrete monstrosity resembles an immense extended wing, 11-meter high bas-reliefs of Red Army soldiers facing gigantic Bulgarian maidens across a wide 305-step staircase up the side of Turna Tepe. Abandoned since the fall of Communism, it remains a haunt of graffiti artists and urban explorers drawn by the rumors of a nuclear bunker deep within the hill.
Sea Garden: The oldest and largest landscaped park in Varna, begun in 1862 and expanded ever since. It currently hosts not just gardens, but fountains, greenhouses, a grove of trees planted by cosmonauts, the Varna Zoo, Varna Aquarium (including a dolphinarium), the Varna Naval Museum, a water park and amusement park, and casinos, promenades, nightclubs, and boardwalk attractions.
Varna Archaeological Museum: Just southeast of the city center in a Neo-Renaissance building, the Varna Archaeological Museum (est. 1888) holds exhibits from all periods of Bulgarian history: ancient Thracian weapons, Byzantine jewelry, and 19th century icons. Its pride and joy is the collection of pectorals, diadems, beads, and rings of the “Gold of Varna” excavated in 1972-1973 from the Varna Necropolis 4 km west of the city, and dated to ca. 4500 BCE.
- In March 2015, Dr. Valeri Yotov of the Varna Archaeological Museum excavated a “giant skeleton” buried under the Roman fortress wall of Odessus, dating to the late 4th or early 5th century CE. This ongoing excavation began near the St. Nikolay Church when workers rehabilitating the sewer system uncovered an ancient Greek pot (5th century BCE). The dig along the Odessus wall expanded into the Varna Hole, a pit dug in 1984 for the excavation of a department store but abandoned in 1989, and now used for parking.
- In 1992, a group of karate enthusiasts from the elite “Tihina” Division of the Bulgarian marines founded the TIM Group, beginning as a “security company” doing debt recovery for Bulgarian banks, and rapidly expanding into (according to the US State Department) smuggling, auto theft, prostitution, gambling, and narcotics. Since then, TIM has expanded into a maze of secretive holding companies controlling grain, airlines, fishing, oil refineries, and (according to many) Varna’s mayor and politics.
- At the western end of Lake Varna, the industrial city of Devnya is home to a tradition of vampire slayers recorded in 1888 by the Czech historian and diplomat Constantin Jirecek. These vampirdzhiya, or dzhadzhiya (who were dhampirs and often valkodlatsi or werewolves as well), carried icons through graveyards, sheepfolds, and other suspicious locations, waiting for the image to tremble. Then, they would either dig up the vampire (if material) and stake it with hawthorn and burn it, or (if in spirit form) seal it into a bottle which could be burned at leisure.
Field assignments as Ordo Veritatis operatives tend toward the short-lived. Confrontations with the beings of the Outer Dark erode mental stability over time. The organization does its best to monitor the readiness of its agents before sending them out on missions. When possible it pulls members who are no longer fit for duty into support positions as analysts, administrators, or assigning officers. If your character gets out in one piece, he may become a Mr. Verity.
Sadly, not all agents adjust well to life after the Ordo. The organization can’t afford to expend resources carefully monitoring all former agents. It cannot enforce its request that ex-personnel periodically undergo psych evaluations and report any untoward findings. Those most in need of extra help tend to be the least prepared to ask for it.
As a result, it is not unknown for retired operatives to drift back toward the occult, or slip into general debility rendering them susceptible to Esoterror influence. To date, no former agent has gone completely rogue and joined an Esoterror cell. But some wind up on the streets, muttering of impending apocalypse. Certain ODEs have long memories and keep psychic tabs on their past enemies across the membrane between realities. Their hunger for pain makes them exquisite practitioners of revenge.
On occasion, then, it may fall to active members of the group to investigate the disappearances of their predecessors. Most of the time, the missing are quickly found, having gone off the grid in response to a brief, containable personal crisis. They are ushered into counselling programs. The team detailed to find them files an unremarkable report and goes home.
However, where the ex-colleague has succumbed to psychosis and by intent or negligence has begun to abet the schemes of the Outer Dark, agents may need to not only bring the subject into permanent custody, but also take care that any evidence of supernatural activity be thoroughly scrubbed.
Unfortunately, an agent’s operational instincts may not deteriorate as rapidly as his grasp of reality. Paranoid, resourceful, often illicitly armed, your quarry may prove difficult to corner. And dangerous when you manage it. Especially if you’re racing extra-dimensional demons to get to him first.
The Esoterrorists are occult terrorists intent on tearing the fabric of the world – and you play elite investigators out to stop them. This is the game that revolutionized investigative RPGs by ensuring that players are never deprived of the crucial clues they need to move the story forward. Purchase The Esoterrorists in print and PDF at the Pelgrane Shop.
This article offers a way you can use the 13th Age Escalation Die in your GUMSHOE games.
GUMSHOE games and 13th Age manage the narrative flow of combat – the emotional upbeats and downbeats – very differently.
In all GUMSHOE games, players usually start a battle with more combat resources than when the battle is done. Each combat ability has a pool of points. Those points represent flexibility, preparedness, competence and freshness. The PCs start on a high, burn through these resources, and must get their opponents down and out of the fight quickly, or resort to another resource – their ability to flee. This is just right for games such as Night’s Black Agents, where competent Agents need to seize the initiative, give it their all, finish their foes and get the hell out of there.
In 13th Age, typically, the narrative is reversed. Players start at a relative disadvantage against their foes. In round 2, the Escalation Die makes a welcome appearance, set at 1, and all the players can add this value onto their attack rolls. Some values of the Die also trigger other benefits. Each round the die increases by 1. So the combat starts on a low with player characters fighting superior foes, reaches a point at which it could go either way, then usually turns in the favour of the player characters, just the dramatic arc you want for heroic adventurers.
Using the Escalation Die in GUMSHOE
So, if you want that 13th Age feeling in GUMSHOE, for a more pulpy, heroic arc, how can you do it? Well, that d6 can’t act as a bonus, because the steps are too big for a d6-based system. Resources in GUMSHOE are pools of points and bonuses, where they happen, are usually no more than 1. So, here is method which is resource-based but offers the same ebb and flow as 13th Age.
The Escalation Die appears in round 2, set at 1. It increases each round by 1. If all players agree, they can tap the Escalation Die at the beginning of any character’s turn and all characters refresh a combat pool, Athletics or Health by the value on the die, and the die disappears from the table. The players should describe what changes the mood of scene – a narrow-eyed glance of shared determination, inspired words, or just a well-practised, coordinated attack.
If the value on the die is 6, no agreement is required. You can’t refresh Health if it is below zero. Any excess points are removed at the end of the combat. Just as in 13th Age, you can’t increase the die if you are backing off from combat – you must take the initiative. To balance this, Game Masters will need to up the total combat ratings of baddies by 3 multiplied by the number of players. So, if you have four players, you’d distribute 12 points between the foes in a typical combat.
Do let me know if you try this and if it works for you.
In the latest episode of their explosive podcast, Ken and Robin talk Blowing Up the Movies, sports in RPGs, idea-based protagonists, and Coleridge’s utopia.
The most vivid GUMSHOE investigative abilities in play are the Interpersonal ones. They allow your characters to get information through extended dialogue with Game Master characters, requiring a touch more player skill than the Technical or Academic categories.
They also show, in the game’s imagined on-screen space, who your character is and what attitudes she brings to her interactions with others. It affects how the other players see her. So when creating your character, give some thought to what the ability you expect to use most says about her.
Figuring out what personal traits go with which interrogation tactic isn’t a complicated exercise. Here are some examples to get you thinking.
Bullshit Detector: A skeptic to the bone, you go into any situation expecting people to lie to you. The question is, which lies are reflexive, and which ones bear on the case at hand? Your caustic sensibility reveals itself in hard-boiled wisecracks.
Impersonate: A natural mimic and deceiver, you enjoy pulling the wool over others’ eyes. You observe people well enough to pretend to be them. A slickness and love of surfaces pervades your dealings with others.
Inspiration: A true idealist, you believe not only in your own principles, but in the capacity of others to rise to become their best selves.
Interrogation: You value the authority you earned from an official role as cop or law enforcement official. With that comes a taste for respect—a thing you expect, but dole out to others only reluctantly.
Intimidation: You bully your way to victory. You may be physically imposing, emotionally intense, or both. The first question you ask yourself in a new interaction is: how do I seize dominance here?
Negotiation: You see life as a series of transactions. You take pains to put on the kindly face of the reassuring questioner, but that’s all part of the wheeling and dealing. What does the other person want, you ask yourself in a new situation. How little can I give him to get it?
Reassurance: You project a kindly demeanor, and get what you want out of people through kindness and empathy. You start encounters asking yourself what everybody needs.
This isn’t an exhaustive list of all Interpersonal abilities in the GUMSHOE SRD, or the only possible treatment of the ones described here. But it will get you started as you wonder which of them warrants the spotlight of a 2 or 3 build point investment.
GUMSHOE is the groundbreaking investigative roleplaying system by Robin D. Laws that shifts the focus of play away from finding clues (or worse, not finding them), and toward interpreting clues, solving mysteries and moving the action forward. GUMSHOE powers many Pelgrane Press games, including Trail of Cthulhu, Night’s Black Agents, Esoterrorists, Ashen Stars, Mutant City Blues and Fear Itself. Learn more about how to run GUMSHOE games, and download the GUMSHOE System Reference Document to make your own GUMSHOE products under the Open Gaming License or the Creative Commons 3.0 Attribution Unported License.
In the latest episode of their electrifying podcast, Ken and Robin talk pacing for new players, fraternal order side degrees and an Oklahoma City book raid.
In DramaSystem players both work together as co-authors to build a story, yet also compete as characters in pursuit of their unmet emotional needs. By requiring you to call scenes featuring other characters who don’t necessarily want to give you what you seek, it bends you toward conflict. But if you’re used to a more traditional game in which you all work together to solve an external problem, like the mysteries at the heart of GUMSHOE, your group reflexively pulls together. Albeit with a little bickering as you plan solutions to problems, for spice and contrast. As players we have good reason not to want to get too harsh with each other: that goes against our social instincts.
That’s one of the main reasons why DramaSystem keeps a GM in the mix. When you’re in the GM’s chair, your task will often be to break up the group as it moves toward harmony. YouR primary weapon here are the externally pressuring plot developments found in each Series Pitch under the “Tightening the Screws” header. When the group gets too cozy and too lovey-dovey, pick a shift in their underlying situation that will again pull them apart.
Not coincidentally, this mirrors the flow of ensemble-cast TV shows. You can find the best example of this in the sitcom “Community.” The title tells you what you need to know. Again and again, a new situation shifts the equilibrium of its key setting, Greendale Community College. This pulls members of the core study group apart. Usually one or two of the characters is inspired by the shift to pursue an emotional need that trumps collective harmony. This leads to comic disaster, and the eternal, heartfelt realization that the group matters more than the individual. The group drifts apart, then reasserts itself.
A couple of cast members, chiefly Chang and Dean Pelton, orbit the group without being part of it, often generating or amplifying the conflicts that pull at the threads of group unity.
DramaSystem main casts organically tend to mirror this pattern, with a tightly knit if internally fraught key group, and one or two outliers. Many scenes revolve around efforts to bring the outlier more fully into the fold.
In my own group I’ve noticed that certain players gravitate to the outlier role and others to the harmonizer. This goes far beyond Hillfolk, repeating itself in more traditional procedural games as well. If you spot this in your own play, you might experiment by making a pact with your counterpart to step outside your comfort zone and switch roles next time.
In the latest episode of their multi-talented podcast, Ken and Robin talk alignment, recent television, and Elias Ashmole.