In the latest episode of their lemur-concealing podcast, Ken and Robin talk about survival horror, Maxwell Knight, scary dolls and Paracelsus.
In Hillfolk the GM acts as the custodian of the overall narrative. You mostly do this when calling your own scenes. You use these to heighten tensions, add new fresh developments, and picking up previous ones that got dropped along the way.
Less evidently, you can also intervene during player scenes. This requires utmost subtlety. Be careful that you’re not trying to impose your storyline on the group. Focus on making the emergent story sharper.
I mostly intervene to hint to players that they need to get to the point of the scene, or that the point of the scene has been reached and it’s time to wrap it up.
Recently a new instance of subtle GM contribution came up in our long-running game using the Alma Mater Magica series pitch.
Hard-living Professor of Troll Studies Einar (played by Justin Mohareb) was taking a verbal shellacking from resentful librarian Ann Snooks (Rachel Kahn.) She came at him by accusing him of being no fun any more since he’d stopped drinking. As Justin responded, I could see that he’d momentarily forgotten a telling bit of emotional history. With 28 sessions and counting, there’s a lot of that history to remember, so no shame there. But had this been a written scene in a TV episode, you could be sure that the writers would have had Einar point out that it had been Ann who pushed Einar to quit drinking in the first place. That’s the sort of delicious irony you can’t just leave on the table.
So I stage-whispered that to Justin and he made that his next verbal parry.
My prompt didn’t require him to insert it but he did because why wouldn’t he?
Presumably another player could also have pitched that in from the peanut gallery. As a careful watcher you as GM are more likely to spot an unexploited moment like that.
I take very skeletal notes on each episode, which help me to recall stuff like this. Some of it needs explicating in the pre-action recaps I give at the start of each session. It’s more the paying attention to the note-taking than the notes themselves that make this happen.
I wouldn’t advise looking for memory prompts to give the players. But when the perfect instance arises, consider it part of the DramaSystem GM’s toolkit.
Hillfolk is a game of high-stakes interpersonal conflict by acclaimed designer Robin D. Laws. Using its DramaSystem rules, you and your friends can weave enthralling sagas of Iron Age tribes, Regency socialites, border town drug kingpins, a troubled crime family, posthuman cyberpunks and more. Purchase Hillfolk and its companion volume Blood in the Snow at the Pelgrane Shop.
In the latest episode of their life-giving podcast, Ken and Robin talk photosynthetic aliens, cartographic books, lightning round and nukes on Mars.
by Becky Annison
It all started with Fiasco, a game by Jason Morningstar. Until then I’d loved and played many traditional games but nothing like Fiasco. It had no GM, required no pre-game prep and everyone created bits of the world and story. I’d never see anything like it before!
The idea of no prep and no GM was intriguing for a busy lawyer also studying for a Masters degree. Could I still have a satisfying gaming experience without hours of prep?
But as intriguing as it was, something troubled me. I struggled to imagine how a short game with no prep could reach the depths of emotional engagement I loved about traditional campaign play. Could I really get deep into a character in a game like this? This was the inspiration I needed to take me from player, GM and occasional LARP writer to RPG designer. If a short, prepless yet deeply emotional game did not exist (to my limited knowledge!) then I would simply have to write it. I was skeptical at the time – was what I wanted even possible?
The first hurdle was simple. Fiasco was designed for a completely different style of game. It is tragic-comedy, over-the-top and at times, farcical – just like the Cohen Brothers films on which it is based. A more serious topic, a therapy setting where players create troubled and hurting people would be a short cut for a deeper experience of character.
But then came the challenge. It is difficult for one individual to carry the weight of improvising all the material external to the player characters in any game e.g. the background, story, world building and non-player characters. A GM falling to improvise with sufficient speed, certainty and consistency damages the player’s ability to suspend disbelief and emotional buy-in to the world created. This is why traditional style games (game with a GM who directs all details of the world and story) tend to require large amounts of preparation. Prepless or low prep games tend to divide the work of improvising all this material (to greater or lesser extents) amongst all the players e.g. in Hillfolk by Robin Laws – scene set ups are described by each player rotating round the table (indeed there is an argument as to whether Hillfolk even needs a GM!), in Dream Askew by Avery McDaldno scene setting rotates around the table but each player also has responsibility and creative control over a different part of the world the characters inhabit, even in Vincent Baker’s Apocalypse World, the GM (or MC) is required to continually ask the players questions, getting them to define aspects of the setting which are then folded into the story by the MC.
There are many techniques and ideas out there for dividing creative control over the world, setting and story amongst multiple players. But they all held the same problem for my game. They all require the players to step out of character and think as a director or author of the story, rather than a participant in it. These are two very different mind states, often requiring different and occasionally contradictory agendas) I knew that in order to achieve deep character immersion in only 2-4 hours players would need to stay completely in character and that the culture of staying in character would need to be enforced by the group. In a traditional style game with a GM directing the story and the world, players can stay in character for the majority of a game, but even those games require players to refer to stats, roll dice or ask clarifying questions about the system and/or world. I wanted to dispense even with these out of character moments.
This gave me a number of problems to solve:
- How do you get the players to create details about the world and the story entirely in character?
- How do you maintain consistency and resolve conflicts entirely in character?
- How do you enforce a cultural norm in character?
The setting of a therapy session provided me with all the answers.
- The players create details in character because they are remembering something which has already happened. They cannot react to the things they create, except in so far they react to the memory of it having happened. Creating memories of a fantasy world as in When the Dark is Gone allows the players to have a lot of fun, but isn’t compulsory.
- You don’t bother with consistency or conflict resolution. Memory is fallible, people remember the same event differently all the time. If the memories created are inconsistent or conflict this it is brilliant – the characters can explore why their memories differ. It just creates more story.
- The last problem led to the creation of the Therapist character. Each session has a facilitator who is entirely in character as a Therapist. They ensure that interesting ideas get prompted and then explored by asking the players lots of in character questions. The Therapist constantly reinforces the in character culture and maintain the momentum and pacing of the session.
A surprising amount of the design for When the Dark is Gone went into the guidance for playing the Therapist. At first glance this might appear like a typical GM role. In fact it is very different. The Therapist has no creative input in the story at all – they are a true facilitator and yet it is a surprisingly satisfying role to play.
I’m pleased to say that in all the play testing rounds it was clear that When the Dark is Gone really produced a deeply emotional game, without prep and in a single session.
I ran two Trail of Cthulhu sessions over the weekend (a stealth proof-of-concept of a possible upcoming setting). At a three or four hour convention game, the pressure of time means every scene has to count. There’s little time for backtracking or encounters that don’t go anywhere, and that pressure’s compounded if you’ve got a table of players who aren’t familiar with the GUMSHOE system. You want to shovel clues and benefits at them whenever you can. There need to be clues everywhere (and they all need to converge and lead onto a small number of possible next scenes, to keep the scenario on track).
Most players quickly grasp the big idea of GUMSHOE, that you always find clues instead of rolling for them, but point spends are a little more confusing. New players ask if they need to spend points for core clues, or think they need to roll like a General Ability, or have trouble even imagining what extra benefit, say, Photography might have. They worry about wasting points, and while I assume them that I’ll refund the spend if there’s no added information or benefit to be gained, I always look for ways to make a point spend seem worthwhile. I don’t like saying no to new players when they try to engage with the mechanics.
After all, one of the big reasons to have point spends is to help allocate spotlight time. Spending a point is like sending up a flare to the GM marked “pay attention to me! Give me a way to shine”). The last thing you want to do to a new player let them feel ignored. (At the same time, the other last thing you want to do is let a loud and enthusiastic new player dominate the game and crowd out everyone else – and the limited number of investigative spends available ensure that doesn’t easily happen.)
Here are my four go-to ways to make any Investigative spend, even an obscure one, pay off, in the absence of a better idea or suggestion.
Gain A Trusted Contact
Any certainty is welcome in a mystery game. Telling a player “you know this guy and can trust him” is immensely reassuring. If a player asks “do I know any X (astronomers, doctors, people who know about the swamp, people who’ll help me move a body)”, I’ll either suggest a suitable ability, or just tell the player if they pick an ability and spend from it, they’ll know someone who they can trust and rely on – ideally, someone who provides access to another Investigative Ability.
Even just the act of saying “you can trust this guy” is often enough. You might not have ever intended for that NPC to betray or deceive the players, but the players usually feel that certainty is worth the point.
- Art History: A local dealer in fine art. She’s got lots of Credit Rating and can get you an invite to the Ambassador’s party.
- Geology: Your old university lecturer is also an expert in Chemistry.
- Cop Talk: Your buddy on the force can open doors for you that would normally require Bureaucracy.
Gain a General Pool
If a player asks to do something with an investigative spend that’s really better phrased as a general ability test, then instead off a 3-point pool of that general ability. If they make a wild spend for information when you’ve no idea what extra details or clues to give them, go for a 1 or 2-point pool of Investigative Abilities. Phrase it as a pool instead of a straight bonus to give the player more control, and to allow for the narratively satisfying possibility of callbacks.
- Can I make acid with Chemistry and melt the door? How about a 3-point Explosive Devices pool?
- I use Bargain on the shopkeeper. What does he have for sale that I can buy cheap? Take 3 points of Preparedness, and later on you can say that you bought whatever item you use here in this scene.
- I spend a point to Research everything! Um, ok. You read everything in the library related to the case. You don’t find anything that seems immediately relevant, but you can have one point that you can turn into any Academic ability later on, as long as it relates to the case you researched. So, if you find, I dunno, a magic dagger, you could examine that item with the bits of Archaeology you recall from your reading, and get clues that way.
Expand The Scope Of An Ability
Especially for more abstruse academic abilities, it’s common for players to try using them as steamrollers whenever they’re even slightly relevant. (“I have Medicine! I’m a doctor! They should tell me everything about the dead guy’s autopsy”). Interpersonal abilities get repurposed (“I flatter him, saying ‘you’re way too tough to be scared of those mushroom guys.” Is he Reassured yet?”) In such cases, charge a point spend to allow for the more generous interpretation of the ability.
If you’re totally stuck for how an investigative spend could possibly apply to the scene, but the player is adamant that they want to try, consider improvising a brief scene that relates to the spend, but gives a core clue or other information. You can also use such little scenes to drop tangentially-related but spookily Lovecraftian foreshadowing or hints.
- I spend a point of Astronomy and look out at the stars while the others are talking to the terrible old man! The stars out the window are oddly different – it must be some trick of the light, or a trick of the clouds. Maybe it’s unusually clear here, so you can see more stars. Anyway, you remember one night a few months ago when you came out to a hill near the old man’s shack to do some observations with a portable telescope. Now that you think of, you remember seeing a fire burning that night – and that fire might have been right here, in his back yard. What was he burning that night? (Hints that Evidence Collection or Archaeology might find something in the back garden.)
- I examine the plants in the garden. Do I get anything for spending a point of Biology? You recall a reference in a biology paper you read in college that talked about the occult properties of certain plants. Out of curiosity – you were a bored biology student – you looked up that second paper, and there you learned that the plants in the garden – sorghum – are associated with a tradition called the Benandanti, a 16th century occult group who claimed to be able to astrally project. (Substitutes for Occult)
- I spend a point of Craft while examining the table. What?
- I spend a point of Craft while examining the table. OK. Er. Well, you… know that the table is… ok, it’s made from a hardwood that grows locally. In a forest. And…and in that forest, there are mines running underneath parts of it, and you’ve heard stories about weird stuff there. And dead miners. Buried alive! The roots of the trees there must have fed on human marrow-fat and bones… and now they’re in this table. (There’s another scene in the scenario that points to the old mine, and you’re wildly scrabbling to find anything useful to say.)
In the latest episode of their highly adaptable podcast, Ken and Robin talk humans in F20, Chicago newspaper wars, setting licensing and Tom Driberg.
When Mutant City Blues came out, examples of super powered police procedural TV shows were hard to come by. Back then we had to imagine a hybrid of those two genres. With examples now popping up on network and streaming TV, you kids today have it easy!
“The Flash” comes closest to the structure envisioned in MCB. (Full disclosure: I recently caught up with the first season on streaming and haven’t seen any of the second.) Barry Allen is a civilian forensic specialist who works hand-in-hand with a police detective-slash-father figure. Cases of the week involve super-powered bad guys, referred to here as metahumans. Like MCB, the powers all stem from a single event and yield to scientific analysis. The rest of the DC universe, as seen in connected shows, may have magic and other mystery-busting elements, but at least in the first season, Flash mysteries can be cracked with good old reliable technobabble.
The show diverges from MCB by having most of the clue-gathering take place in a civilian lab facility rather than down at the squad room. But there’s still a gruff lieutenant whose chief function is to bark at Barry when the case isn’t closing fast enough.
A darker, unconnected adaptation of the DC universe, “Gotham” started with an interweaving of “Boardwalk Empire”-style gangland soap opera with case-of-the-week cop investigations. It has shed some of its unevenness in its second season by largely ditching COTW. Although literal super powers don’t figure in its mythology, MCB GMs could use it as inspiration for an alternate campaign frame in which mutations have only begun to manifest, and a city reacts to the first tremors of what will become a dangerously changed world.
“Jessica Jones” points the way to an alternate campaign frame in which our relatively low-powered super-PCs are private detectives and those around them. Its first season still shows a few vestigial traces of the cast of the week structure that must have been part of the pitch when it was first envisioned as a network show. As reconfigured for serialized Netflix binge-watching, we mostly see Jessica use her investigative abilities to turn the tables on a threat that’s coming at her. In that regard, it’s more like Night’s Black Agents than MCB. It’s easy enough, though, to use it as a tonal reference and imagine an MCB game in which the characters free themselves from barking lieutenants and concern for what Internal Affairs will say by making themselves investigators for hire.
“Knowledge was knowledge a hundred thousand years ago, when our especial forbears were shambling about Asia as speechless semi-apes!”
— H.P. Lovecraft, “The Last Test”
It’s a new year, and time for the “Call of Chicago” column to seamlessly shift from endless iterations of Stuff We Left Out of The Dracula Dossier to endless iterations of Stuff We’re Probably Not Going To Have Room For in The Fall of Delta Green. You won’t even notice the difference!
The various peoples of Indochina tell national origin myths in which a hero displaces inhuman rulers – and inhabitants – of the land. The kings of Funan in Cambodia and Champa in central Vietnam both succeeded (and intermarried with) naga rulers, multi-headed snake beings. In northern Vietnam, their hero overthrew the Hung Kings, descendants of dragons and “mountain fairies.” In Laos, hideous giants laid down the Plain of Jars before being driven out. But what if some of these monstrous inhabitants remained for thousands of years, only to be started from their jungles by the new warrior heroes from Hanoi, Hue, and Houston? Might they not leave tracks in the historical record? Might they not leave … footprints?
Of the Reptile Kind
Or perhaps they leave trails … serpentine trails. We’ve already covered the ophidian naga and the almost as telling “dragon” of the Hung Kingdoms. These might refer to Cthulhu spawn of one or another kind, or to the Valusian serpent-people. The latter seems more likely when we read about a 1970 encounter about 30 miles south of the DMZ. A US squad on patrol discovers ruins of Cyclopean architecture (“stacked large stones and boulders”) near the entrance to a cave that seems artificially cut into the rock. A foul odor and opaque mist flood out, and the patrol waits until the serpent folk emerge:
“As it stood up from a crouch it stood at least 7 foot high and started to look in our direction. At that time, another similar-looking creature was moving out of the cave. They were making hellish ‘hissing’ sounds and looking directly at us.
The only way I can describe these beings is that they looked like upright lizards. The scaly, shiny skin was very dark – almost black. Snake-like faces with forward set eyes that were very large. They had arms and legs like a human but with scaly skin. I didn’t notice a tail – though they wore long one-piece dark green robes along with a dark cap-like covering on their heads.”
During the ensuing firefight, the two Reptoids vanish, perhaps turning invisible, rotating into another dimension, or rapidly eating and shapeshifting into two of the men. Eventually, the patrol close the cave entrance with explosives and return to base.
Explorers of Vietnam’s Son Doòng Cave (discovered in 1991 and opened to tourism in 2013) also report sighting reptilian humanoids (or humanoid reptiles) and similar “devil creatures.” One person has vanished in the cave, perhaps abducted by the things. Or perhaps just lost on the way to red-litten Yoth: Son Doòng is one of the largest cave systems in the world.
US forces encounter “rock apes” numerous times in country, with varying results. Rock apes are reddish-brown, furry, upright humanoids, between three and five feet tall. They make “a noise that sounded just like dogs barking.” Some cryptozoologists believe they are gibbons, snub-nosed monkeys, langurs, or even (very lost) orangutangs; they may in fact be ghouls, voormis, or some unknown breed of Tcho-Tcho.
Some prime rock ape encounters include:
- Near Chu Lai, June 1966: Marines ordered not to fire and expose their positions engage in a rock-throwing contest with “hairy, bipedal humanoids.”
- A Shau Valley, 1967: Repeated attacks by rock apes emerging from caves on Firebase Rockpile.
- Dong Den near Da Nang, May 1968: Marines and rock apes battle hand-to-hand after gunfire doesn’t stop the furry attackers. (Date also given as “early 1966.”)
- Nui Mo Tau ridge, 1969: Hundreds of rock apes (“ghostly images swooshing around in bush and trees”) attack a 101st Airborne patrol. After the Airborne open fire and drive the rock apes off, “I searched the site and but found not a drop of blood, which totally amazed me given the amount of firing that had gone on.”
- Quang Nam province, 1970: Another rock fight breaks out between a Marine Force Recon unit and at least 20 rock apes. “Those Apes started to come at us and we ran as fast as we could and we didn’t stop until we were out of the jungle.”
The rock apes’ more elusive cousins, the nguòi rùng (“forest men”) may be Lemurians, voormis, or just bigger ghouls. Their brown fur tends toward gray or black, not red; they are much taller (6’-8’) and generally less aggressive. Significant sightings occurred in 1947 and 1969, a Special Forces patrol in 1968 find one cut in half, and two sets of nguòi rùng footprints (11 inches and 18 inches) appear in 1970. In 1971, tribesmen from Dak Lak province capture a batutut, as they are also called. They haunt Vu Quang Forest in North Vietnam.
The Shining Ones
Another cluster of sightings seemingly has nothing in common – except that the bogeys all glow. They may be mi-go or mi-go constructs, servitors of the Shining Trapezohedron or the Shining Moon-Thing of Muria and Chau-te-leur, shoggoth extrusions, or imagos out of space or out of Dream.
The most salient Shining One sightings include:
- Mekong Valley, December 1964: A squad of Special Forces on river patrol encounter three large (7-8 feet tall), yellow, glowing apelike beings “with flat faces, slits for noses and snake-like eyes.” The creatures have three clawed fingers and three clawed toes. The unit fire on the beings with weapons up to a Browning Automatic Rifle, with no effect except “twitching.” The US team retreat to their boat, but “before leaving they saw a strong powerful glow on the riverbank as if dozens of the creatures had gathered to watch them leave.” (The report no doubt mistakenly gives the year as “1974,” the year after US forces withdrew from Vietnam.)
- Near the DMZ, late 1966: During a Viet Cong ambush of helicopter landing, an 8-foot tall giant “dressed perfectly” and wearing a sort of helmet kills a VC guerrilla, saving a US crewman. It has “an aura,” and speaks to the crewman in English (or telepathically).
- Near the DMZ, October 1967: A six-man Long-Range Recon Patrol encounters a being with a long face and black eyes, emitting an eerie glow. One soldier fires a burst into its head, and “a brilliant blue syrupy fluid splattered the trees.” Using a Starlight scope, the patrol spots three lights in the sky. All the witnesses but two died in Vietnam.
- Near Da Nang, summer 1969: Three soldiers on a bunker see a mysterious apparition above them:
“It looked like a woman. A naked woman. She was black. Her skin was black, her body was black, the wings were black, everything was black. But it glowed. It glowed in the night—kind of a greenish cast to it.
There was a glow on her and around her. Everything glowed. Looked like she glowed and threw off a radiance. We saw her arms toward the wings and they looked like regular molded arms, each with a hand, and, fingers and everything, but they had skin from the wings going over them. And when she flapped her wings, there was no noise at first. It looked like her arms didn’t have any bones in them, because they were limber just like a bat.”
The glowing moth-woman buzzes the team, as low as seven feet overhead, and then flies off after three minutes.
In the latest episode of their high-rolling podcast, Ken and Robin talk Vegas 68, writing dramatic scenes, pad thai politics & saving both Garfield and his assassin.
Like a burnt but still alarmingly competent spy with the whiff of vampire in her nostrils, convention season has crept up on us once more. Last year was our most successful yet, with Pelgrane games on the rise at a number of conventions around the world. More than forty Pelgrane GMs joined Simon and me at Pelgame HQ on the Wednesday night of Gen Con, to have Jonathan Tweet throw t-shirts at them, and get GMing advice from top Pelgrane writers Robin, Ken, Gareth, and Kevin.
2016 is very special for us. Our little GUMSHOE is all grown up, and celebrating its tenth anniversary. We’re planning to release three new core books this year – the second edition of Fear Itself; TimeWatch; and GUMSHOE One-2-One. These new launches will help make it a year to remember, but we need your help to celebrate!
You may have spotted Trail of Cthulhu right up near the top of Gen Con’s Highest Demand Games of 2015, and Night’s Black Agents also flying high. This means a lot of gamers wanted to play these at Gen Con, but there weren’t enough spaces (even though we had a record 745 spaces available in our games). Gen Con have asked us to increase the number of games we run this year, and we need you to GM them! Wade “Mission Control” Rockett has already flagged up our need for 13th Age GMs, and to celebrate the tenth anniversary, we’d love to get as many GUMSHOE games running at conventions around the world as we can.
So, sign up to be a Pelgrane convention GM, and get t-shirts, free stuff, store discounts, insider gossip, convention entry, personalised GMing advice from our top writers, and much, much more (warning: the much, much more may come flying at you from across a room). Fill in this Google form to become part of our esteemed and not very injured GM team!