a column on roleplaying

by Robin D. Laws

Looking for a new way to spark ideas for your next player character? Consider stealing a dramatic pole from classic literature.

As Hillfolk players know, a dramatic pole is the essential opposition that defines a character tuned for, you guessed it, dramatic storytelling. It allows the character to be pulled in two directions through the course of the story, fueling inner conflict.

Is Huckleberry Finn innocent, or corrupt?

Is Don Draper real, or an advertising image for a created self?

Is Rick Blaine of Casablanca selfish or altruistic?

You can usually define any classic character in a couple of ways. How you nail this down reveals your perspective on the work and the character. What matters is that you identify a key opposition that spurs the character to pursue emotional goals. This pursuit becomes the action of the story.

Shakespeare serves as a deep mine of classic internal oppositions. As a dramatist, he has to get his characters moving and into collision with one another.

Is Hamlet a man of action, or a man of contemplation?

Is Lear a king or a fool?

Is Brutus an idealist or a betrayer?

Is Juliet a loyal daughter or a romantic lover?

Let’s take Caliban from The Tempest. You could define him in a couple of ways. Rebel vs. servant would work, for example.

For this article, let’s pick another: man or monster. This one reverberates down through the story tradition. We see it again with Frankenstein’s monster, The Wolfman, and “Dexter.” A huge swathe of Marvel comics heroes use the man or monster opposition: the Hulk, the Thing, the Beast, Nightcrawler, and many more.

(To digress for a moment, if you want to sum up the difference between the Marvel and DC heroes, Stan Lee’s creations tend to have dramatic poles, whereas the earlier DC characters don’t so much. Spider-Man’s hero vs loser opposition takes center stage. Superman’s divided nature doesn’t get much play until much later revisionist takes like Man of Steel. The inherent wrongness of that film suggests that the character wasn’t built to support an internal opposition and can’t stand having one bolted onto it retrospect.)

The list above shows us that Caliban’s man or monster opposition serves as a rugged chassis for genre characters.

Most but by no means all genre characters appear in procedural stories, which are mostly about the overcoming of external obstacles. Very often the character appears in a serial format, undergoing multiple distinct adventures. This is the pattern that all traditional roleplaying games emulate.

As the Marvel examples show, serial characters who star in procedural stories can still use dramatic oppositions to hold our interest. However, if they’re to continue their adventures, the opposition can never truly resolve itself. Should Bruce Banner get cured, he becomes 100% man and 0% monster, but that means no more Hulk stories. That’s why experienced comics readers know that a new cure for Banner’s condition will never last very long. It’s just a temporary way of finding a fresh angle on man versus monster theme.

If you start with the idea of playing a man or monster PC, the task of adapting it to various genres falls readily into place.

In a fantasy game, you can literally be a monstrous being, whether an orc or minotaur, who aspires to acceptance and a higher self. If you’re playing 13th Age, you could select icon relationships that heighten the opposition. A fraught relationship with the Lich King, Orc Lord, Diabolist or Three could represent your monster side, even as you aspire to a greater connection to the Emperor, Elf Queen, or Priestess.

Science fiction dramatic poles often center around the nature of humanity. Your monstrous side might be represented as a grotesque or brutish alien morphology, or as extensive cybernetic implants.

Some horror games might permit you to have a bit of monster in you already as you start play. In Trail of Cthulhu, give yourself the drive “In the Blood” and you’re off to the Innsmouth races.

To use the opposition in Mutant City Blues, select mutant powers that make you look freakish, and make sure your powers grant you a defect allowing the question of your slow mental or physical deterioration to drive personal subplots.

When a setting doesn’t allow for literal monstrosity, you can always go for the metaphorical kind. As a cursory glance at history tells us, the real monsters out there are all people. To go back to Shakepeare, his portrayal of Richard III could easily be classified as having a man/monster opposition. (Like pretty well all of the history plays you could also give him just ruler vs. tyrant, but since that fits them all it fails the specificity test of great storytelling choices.)

Your ultra-competent agent in The Esoterrorists could have passed Ordo Veritatis psych evaluation by cleverly hiding her psychopathic nature. She starts out as a sociopath for the forces of good, just like 007 in his classic conception. But what happens when her Stability starts to slide below 0?

Any opposition you can find in literature can work in DramaSystem. The settings described in the various series pitches merely dictate whether the monster side of you is literal or metaphorical.

So for the core Hillfolk setting, as well as other non-fantastical pitches like “Brigades”, “Maroons” and “The White Dog Runs at Night” reality as we know it restricts you to the limits of human deformity. You might give your character a curved spine, paralyzed hand or missing eye in order to underline the monstrous side of his dramatic pole. Or you might find the way it associates disability with monstrosity unnecessarily stigmatizing and decide to chuck this longstanding literary trope into the dustbin. In that case you’ll make your character monstrous by action but not by outward appearance.

Other DramaSystem series pitches draw on genre elements allowing literal monstrosity. Your “Alma Mater Magica” or “Under Hallowed Hills” character could be half human, half goblin. A mecha pilot from “Article 9” could be infected with an advanced case of ATI (anime tentacle ichor.) In “Against Hali” you could be emotionally warped by exposure to the banned play, The King in Yellow. “Transcend”, with its theme of extreme futuristic body modification, revolves around this opposition. If you’re the central character, you might not see yourself as part monster, but family members run by the other players might.

Likewise you can take any of the other oppositions mentioned here and use them as a springboard for your character. The intersection between pitch and opposition makes for a different character each time. Your choice of family vs. love leads you to create a quite different character in the Icelandic saga of “Blood on the Snow” than it would amid the smoky cross-cultural intrigue of “Shanghai 1930,” because the historical contexts are so different.

Worldbreaker

The Tearing of the Veil Is Nigh

An Appalling Summoning…
Demons of the Depths, Awakened…
Slaughter on Your Mapping App…
Ebola Insurgency…
…and, of Course, Murder Clowns

For decades, the Ordo Veritatis has fought the occult operations of the Esoterrorists, occult operatives bent on ripping apart the membrane between our reality and the demonic vortex of the Outer Dark.

Now that threat directly looms. A barbaric ritual in an underground club touches off a series of coordinated assaults designed to break our world forever.
In this world-spanning campaign of interlocking scenarios, your agents conduct the high-stakes investigations required to stop them.
Until now, Esoterror’s cosmic endgame has been described in background material but never taken center stage in adventures your agents can take part in.
They’ve read the training manuals. They’ve attended the briefings. Now it’s time to deploy their knowledge in the field, staking life, limb and mental stability against those who would destroy everything we know.
After a gore-spattered prologue, Worldbreaker gives your players the choice of four harrowing scenarios they can tackle in any order.
From caverns deep below Belize to an arm’s dealers warehouse in Transnistria, from Silicon Valley offices to haunted, rebel-held forests of Nigeria, your agents unravel the schemes of monsters both metaphorical and literal. Battle deconstructed animals, opportunistic demons, body-stealing parasites and otherworldly PR agents.
Put together the pieces leading to the climactic intervention against the conspiracy’s mastermind and the mightiest, most destructive Outer Dark Entity to ever squeeze through a hole between realms.
All adventures written by Robin D. Laws, creator of GUMSHOE and the Esoterror setting.
Can you keep the world unbroken? And how many agents will you lose along the way?

Status: In playtesting

A column on roleplaying

by Robin D. Laws

 

When we think of doing a haunted house horror scenario, we tend to look to The Haunting (1963, Robert Wise) and its cousin The Legend of Hell House (1973, John Hough.) This plot template pits a seasoned group of paranormal investigators against a home infested by supernatural menace.

You can follow it in The Esoterrorists or Trail of Cthulhu.

In the first case, prior urban legends surround the house. A famous hoax, like the one really at the core of the Amityville franchise, might have been staged there. An Esoterror cell now elects to use the ambient anxiety townsfolk feel about the place to summon Outer Dark Entities. The extra-planar monsters generate actual manifestations, attacking the Stability of the house’s current residents.

Maybe the original structure was razed years ago. So long as people remember where it was, the cell has enough psychic energy to work with to attract some suitable ODEs.

If the building still exists but lies abandoned, the entities go after occasional visitors, from meter readers to thrill-seeking amateur ghost hunters.

Believers in literal ghosts, unaware that something much nastier is behind the knocks, door closings, and apparitions, don’t stand a chance in there. The ODEs toy with them, as they do with all mortals, breaking them over time. The agents must find the cell, learn what ritual element binds the entities to the house, and destroy it. The item most likely consists of a box containing artifacts associated with the original case, or the family presently occupying the house.

In Trail of Cthulhu, non-Euclidean space has intruded into the house, eating away at anyone unfortunate enough to come into contact with it. The planar disturbance might have been conjured by witchcraft, as in “Dreams of the Witch House”, or “From Beyond”-style scientific inquiry into Things That Must Not Be Known. Either way, the investigation probes the same question: what do we need to know to sever the connection between the house and this unfathomable other dimension?

If a witch caused this and is still present, investigators have to to figure out how to find her and how to banish her. Along the way they must avoid countermeasures taken by scuttling rat-being familiars—or some other less canonical secondary threat the players aren’t expecting.

If the gate to non-Euclidean space lingers as the remnant of an old summoning, the group must discover that, identify the nature of the entities now taking opportunistic advantage of it, and find a way to close the portal. Step three may require fighting the beings mentioned in step two.

When weird science has opened the portal, the team must reconstruct the mad experiment so they can then work out how to reverse it. The scientist, now transformed and probably running about waggling his pineal gland at any who dare enter, serves as main antagonist. Or maybe the victims of the manifestations all become possessed by Lovecraftian aliens.

A third option has the malleable reality of the Dreamlands bleeding into the house. For example, your Dreamhounds of Paris surrealists could discover that a rich patron’s chateau has been infected by their nocturnal activity. Now, it might be useful to have an easy way of entering the Dreamlands while awake, especially if you’ve annoyed Nicolas Flamel and his ghouls of the Paris Catacombs. Still, you also don’t want one of your few financial supporters to become forever lost in the vale of sleep. Your task then becomes to journey into the Dreamlands and use your shaping powers to erect a wall barring its denizens from entering the chateau. Your opposition consists of dream beings who enjoy entering our world and want to keep on doing it, no matter how many people of the Wakelands they drive insane.

Fear Itself suggests another possibility: you play the family in the house. Way more haunted house movies, in keeping with their themes of the family under threat and the anxieties of property, focus on a mom, dad and kids. Paranormal experts may show up to provide exposition and perhaps exorcism, but our attention stays with the distressed family unit. Examples include Poltergeist (1982, Tobe Hooper), Sinister (2012, Scott Derrickson), Insidious (2010, James Wan), and the alien variant Dark Skies (2013, Scott Stewart.)

Here you create new characters, all closely related: father, mother, and one to three kids. You can also throw in a live-in extended family member to fill out the group: a grandmother, uncle, or a nanny who has been with the family so long she’s treated like a blood relative. In place of the Worst Things the characters ever did, one random character gets designated as the Mistake Maker. The Mistake is the decision that started the family’s collision with the supernatural. The most common Mistake is buying the haunted house. If you go with this, both the mom and the dad can be the Mistake Maker. Or the one who pushed for the purchase over the objections of the other bears that burden alone. Other Mistakes:

  • finding that weird stuff in the attic
  • opening that tunnel under the house
  • messing around in the cemetery next door
  • playing with an Ouija board (or otherwise messing with the occult)
  • arousing the ire of someone with the power to bestow curses
  • (for a disturbed kid character) torturing those animals

The GM hands out Mistake cards, some of them blank, the others including red herring Mistakes. The Mistake Maker gets the card with the real answer on it. To end the haunting, the family must determine what the real Mistake was and then somehow undo it. As ever, simply leaving the house never works—the dark forces have awakened and will now infest whatever place you run to.

Admitting your Mistake to everyone else might cost Stability points, or require you to do something in the story to gain permission to reveal it. GMC paranormal investigators can help, but might also push you further into insanity when the entities destroy their minds or bodies. The GM might further pare the Fear Itself ability roster, making sure that those left to the group are the only ones needed to answer the scenario’s questions.

To take the most obvious choice, run the family-based haunted house scenario as a one-shot. It could on the other hand make an interesting way into an ongoing Fear Itself series where the family uses what it learns in this first scenario to go out and fight other occult dangers. Think “Supernatural” with an entire family unit instead of two brothers.

New creature for The Esoterrorists

The membrane between this world and the Outer Dark is everywhere. Even inside your computer. That’s where seepers break through. They sense the particular stink of paranoia and latent aggression stoked on the Internet’s blackest shoals. When you drink in conspiracy theory or wallow in mythologies of victimhood, they wriggle from the swirling chaos into your CPU, out through your motherboard, and into your keyboard cable. Using a wireless keyboard? A seeper is fine with that; it can transmit itself along your wi-fi connection. As you spiral down the rabbit hole of electronic disinformation, as you type your screeds against the government and You Know Which Ethnic Group, the seeper works its way under your fingernails and into your bloodstream. 9/11 was an inside job!

Once it infests you, the seeper doesn’t turn you into a rampaging maniac. Instead you become a vector for madness. You take that extra step from posting and commenting on conspiracy theories and start to network in person with fellow believers. When you meet an especially unstable hanger-on in the world of fringe politics, the seeper floods your brain with endorphins. Unconsciously seeking that biochemical reward, you befriend damaged, repellent people you’d normally shun. The seeper uses you as a broadcast beacon, intensifying the fragility of its secondary target. It might even require you to do things behind your new friend’s back to worsen his life and drive him further to the edge. Maybe you “accidentally” let his boss find out about his white supremacist views. Or you tell a story on him that gets him kicked out of his responsible gun club, or pushes him away from the one family member who still keeps tabs on him.

That way, when the secondary target embarks on his kill spree and shoots himself in the heart when cornered, or takes a sniper shot to the head, the seeper remains alive and in this world. You go on television to decry the way the media is exploiting this tragedy to score cheap political points. You mourn your friend and cultivate your sense of martyrdom.

Eventually the seeper impels you to move to another city, where it draws you to its next secondary victim. It teaches you to be careful, so no one ever puts it together, IDing you as the common factor connecting two, three or even four spree killers. Meanwhile, the seeper grows psychically fat on the grief and carnage it causes, sending its energy back through the membrane to grow offspring, which wait for their own chance to stoke the spree-kill epidemic.


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.’

As students of The Book of Unremitting Horror know, Sisterites are beings from the Outer Dark who prey on lonely and isolated men desperate for contact with the opposite sex. Case files from that volume include a transcript of an IRC chat between a Sisterite and its doomed target. In the years since the Ordo Veritatis came into possession of that intercept, the entities have adapted to changing social interaction technologies. First they infiltrated dating sites, from OKCupid to Christian Mingle. The latter has proven a particularly fruitful hunting ground, with a user base that might charitably be described as skewing toward the trusting, or lacking in street smarts.

More recently the Sisterites have taken to mobile apps, most notably Tinder. The ease of its mechanism, in which one swipes photos of prospective dates left, to dismiss them, or right, to indicate interest, allows the extradimensional demons to rapidly zero in on their preferred victims. What used to take weeks or months of chat exploration can now unfold in a matter of hours, from first approach to torture, evisceration, and consumption.

Through its SIGINT capabilities the Ordo has been able to study the mobile app activity of several Sisterites. Given a wider field of choice, Sisterites choose victims fitting the following profile:

  • Photo backgrounds show social isolation: messy apartments, low income, accouterments associated with solo hobbies.
  • Expressions of subjects in their photographs show apprehension or suppressed hostility.
  • Subjects display poor dress sense, bad haircuts, unsatisfactory hygiene.
  • Greeting text reveals status anxiety, overcompensation for fear of rejection, unrealistic expectations for sexual success, complaints about failure despite being a “nice guy”, resentment of men who achieve success with women.

In particular Sisterites eagerly initiate contact with men using catch-phrases of the men’s movement, pick-up artist community, and pick-up artist hater community. They leap on the term “friend zone” like catnip.

Given this information the Ordo has initiated sting operations in several major metropolitan centers, creating profiles that fit these criteria, in order to entrap, confront and destroy Sisterites.

Unfortunately the explosion in dating apps seems to correlate to an increase in the creatures’ numbers. Even if successful, this project may represent only a holding action against an increasing horde culling alienated, socially challenged males.

 


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.’

In the latest episode of their submersible podcast, Ken and Robin talk sunken Dunwich, Gulina Karimova, professionalism, and saving Anne Boleyn.

New creature for The Esoterrorists or Fear Itself

A hole opens up in the road outside your house. You pay no attention to this. Guarded by construction fence, it shows every sign of being regular repair work. Maybe they’re fixing the water mains. Or resurfacing the pavement. But then it gradually dawns that you never see anyone working on it during the day. It couldn’t possibly have opened up during the night, could it? You’d have heard them, and been disturbed by the noise. What construction projects get done in the darkness?

Projects by the workmen do. These beings from the Outer Dark materialize beneath busy urban areas. Drawn to neighborhoods in flux, they absorb and reflect anxieties of homeowners and renters alike. The nature of the change matters not. They show up where foreclosures are rampant, and where rising rents threaten to price out longterm residents. Anyone who gazes down into their holes becomes a psychic power battery. Once empowered they sneak from their tunnels, unlock your doors, and to stand over your bed at night, drinking your essence. As you start to die, your symptoms mimic those of hazardous chemical exposure. Doctors may try to find the source of the contamination, but no matter how many soil tests they perform they never turn up the real truth.

To end an infestation you have to descend into their tunnels. Once underground one finds a labyrinthine dig defying ordinary geometry. Stopping them means finding the original gateway to the Outer Dark. The workmen, with their helmet-like heads, glowing eyes and skulking bodies, individually pose no greater threat than an ordinary person. But there are so, so many of them. And if they take you out in their subterranean home ground, you join their ranks, slaving eternally for more scraps of emotional residue…

Abilities: Athletics 6, Health 6, Scuffling 6

Hit Threshold: 3

Weapon: +1 (pick-axe or shovel)

Alertness Modifier: +1

Stealth Modifier: +2


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.’

or, When Your Car Battery Goes Dead Outside the Jorgamundr’s Lair, It Ain’t No Coincidence

A Column on Roleplaying

by Robin D. Laws

Your assignments for the Ordo Verititas take you into zones where the membrane between our reality and the terrifying realm of the Outer Dark nears the breaking point. In such places you may encounter signs and symptoms of this damage bearing only an acausal relationship to the conspiracies and entities you hunt. The Esoterrorists, and the monsters they foolishly truck with, don’t directly cause these phenomena. Nonetheless, by rolling up the target terror cell, and, more importantly, conducting a veil-out to disguise its true nature from an unsuspecting populace, you can restore the membrane. This brings about a rapid drop-off in TMP (Thin Membrane Phenomena) in the afflicted area.

Though unrelated to your primary mission, these low-level manifestations can nonetheless exact a toll on the psyche. Repeated exposure can in extreme cases compromise agent mental condition, and with it successful mission execution. On the up side, they can help you narrow your quest when more concrete leads grow scarce. The closer you come to people, places and things related to the Outer Dark, the more of these manifestations you will encounter. When their frequency increases, you know you’re on the right track.

Common manifestations include:

  1. Enhanced pareidolia. The pattern-seeking of the human perceptual array encourages us to see familiar shapes, most notably faces, in random visual assemblages. In CMZs (Compromised Membrane Zones), this effect increases, independent of the viewer. Ordinary random patterns take on the terrifying faces of the entities you are chasing, or of innocent people murdered during the current case. Agents report seeing enhanced pareidolia effects in clouds, ice crystals on windows, knots of wood, peeling house paint, stains from water or other liquids, or even, as in the accompanying photo, in the cooking froth from starchy vegetables.
  2. Sudden animal death. Maddened wild creatures may burst from the wilderness to drop dead at your feet—after briefly menacing you of course. Likewise with household pets.
  3. Where the animal does not inexplicably die before your eyes, partial remains might later be discovered, as if from inexplicable predation. In one case, all of an informant’s aquarium fish were found by agents to have been skeletonized. The manifestation affected multiple tanks, and occurred in the room of the witness’ home where an interview was taking place. It occurred in an instant, when neither agents nor the informant were looking directly at the tanks. In more typical instances the head of the animal is found, but nothing else. Cattle mutilation (less commonly reported to also target horses and large working dogs) might be regarded as a subset of this phenomenon, or a separate one. Agents are cautioned to distinguish between this complex of CMZ collateral symptoms and direct predation by Outer Dark Entities, many of which require considerable quantities of protein to remain in this dimension for prolonged periods.
  4. Extreme vermin infestation. Pest animals suddenly infest an area that should not be vulnerable to them. They do so either in unlikely numbers or out of season for their vermin type. Reported cases from our incident reports include rats, bats, cockroaches, ants, and worms.
  5. Carcass materialization. A dead animal spontaneously appears somewhere it should not. For example you find a rat or writhing maggot mass in your milk carton.
  6. Localized weather. CMZs often suffer markedly worse climatic conditions than the immediate area. You may also encounter supernaturally brief flashes of inclement weather. Ordo Veritatis case files record sudden and meteorologically inexplicable bursts of hail, lightning, freezing rain, fog, tornadoes, and typhoons. Overcast skies cover Compromised Membrane Zones so inevitably that their presence becomes unremarkable.
  7. Fortean precipitation. This phenomenon was discovered by documenter of the unknown, and eventual Ordo Veritatis asset, Charles Fort (1874-1932.) An unlikely substance, object or animal falls from the skies, without apparent source. Examples drawn from case files include beans, roof tiles, mud, oil, excrement, shrapnel, shredded morgue documents, debris from long-vanished airplanes, and the proverbial frogs. When blood precipitates during an investigation, protocol requires you to test its origin. It may be that of an animal, human, or Outer Dark Entity. Some apparent blood falls turn out to be other substances entirely, from liquefied autumn leaves to stage blood.
  8. Electronic equipment anomalies. Clocks gain or lose time. Harsh whispers in Sumerian or Proto-Indo-European emanate from cell phones. Phantom fingers type threats or indecipherable messages on laptop keyboards. Televisions and personal stereos pop suddenly on, their content either directly disturbing or ironically innocuous. The tendency of batteries, particularly of cars, flashlights, and mobile communications devices, to go suddenly dead becomes so commonplace in a CMZ that you should plan for none of these to work when you need them most. Beware also the effect that may cause the vehicle you drove to your final confrontation to move or vanish.
  9. Materials degradation. Ambient Outer Dark energy degrades molecular bonds, rapidly aging commonly used construction materials. ODE manifestations are drawn to older, already decaying structures as it is. However even newly built homes, offices and installations can fall prey to this effect. Wallpaper glue weeps and melts. Stairs crumble, as if riddled by wood rot. Locks wear out or seize up. Screws and nails work themselves loose from surrounding wood or drywall.
  10. Psychic imprinting. Locations absorb extreme negative emotions, which can be released when ambient Outer Dark energy levels increase. You may witness ghostly replays of an area’s noted past murders and violent accidents. Some agents report complex interactions with events, as if drawn back in time to take part in them. Curiously, evidence of their actions in the past may later surface. Through this means an agent active in the late 1990s found herself in the background of the Zapruder footage of the John F. Kennedy assassination—an anomaly whose veil-out cost the organization significant effort and financial resources.

GMs, when you need a random creepy thing to reintroduce a mood of horror simply generate a random number and pick a creepy omen from this list. Or choose a manifestation thematically related to the current case. Give this column to your players in advance, or let them clearly deduce when an effect is key to the case, and when it is a collateral one like those covered here.

Excerpt from interview conducted at Debriefing Center Xenon, 9/12/12

Subject: Nathan Cox, age 27

 

Interviewer: So what do you think you did to attract their attention?

Subject: Attract her attention, you mean?

Interviewer: However you want to answer the question, Nathan.

Subject: Don’t call me by my first name like you know me. I don’t like that.

Interviewer: You don’t want me to bring the other guy back in here, do you?

[Inaudible.]

Interviewer: What’s that, Nathan?

Subject: No, no I don’t.

Interviewer: So tell me how your story starts.

Subject: I’m just a normal guy. I work a job, I go to night school, I got this girl I’m kinda seeing.

Interviewer: So why do they approach you, then?

Subject: Well on the side I got this hobby.

Interviewer: Hobby?

Subject: I like to bust up statues. Not like real statues, like valuable art statues. But in the neighborhood l live in, there’s a lot of Italians and Portuguese, right?

Interviewer: You’re part Italian, correct?

Subject: Yeah, on my ma’s side. So they like garden statuary. Plaster stuff. Poured concrete. Sometimes it’s Virgin Marys and saints and whatnot. Sometimes it’s more classical statues.

Interviewer: Like in this photo, here, for example. Of Atlas carrying the world. Except somebody’s smacked off his arms. With what, a hammer?

[Subject nods.]

Interviewer: You did this, Nathan?

Subject: Yeah, yeah, probably. I was drunk a lot of the time. But if a statue got broken in my neighborhood, it was probably me that did it.

Interviewer: And did you vandalize them in any particular way that might have attracted their interest?

Subject: Well there’s the practical to consider. There’s only certain bits of a statue you can break. But within that, I always tried to do the most to ruin what the statue meant. Does that make any sense?

Interviewer: So Atlas isn’t Atlas anymore if he has no arms to carry the Earth.

Subject: Yeah, like that.

Interviewer: Do you know what semiotics is, Nathan?

Subject: No.

Interviewer: Did Odessa ever use that word with you?

Subject: Uh, maybe. But I keep telling you, her name isn’t Odessa. It’s Katherine. Katherine James.

Interviewer: Did she explain what it was about your vandalism that led her to track you down?

Subject: She said I wasn’t just a vandal, I was an artist. Making statements. Destroying meaning. Changing the vibration of my neighborhood.

Interviewer: And you took that seriously.

Subject: The way Katherine talks, you take everything she says seriously. It all makes sense, when she says it.

Interviewer: Including kidnapping?

Subject: Well that was months later. I was in deep by then. She made me think we were changing the world.

Interviewer: Changing it how?

Subject: Taking all the powerful people who didn’t deserve to be lording over the rest of us ordinary people and casting them down. Giving ordinary people like me a chance to rule.

Interviewer: Were you sleeping with her?

Subject: I wish.

Interviewer: But she implied that maybe you might get to, eventually.

Subject: Not in so many words.

Interviewer: Would it be fair to say she led you to infer it?

Subject: Maybe.

Interviewer: Was that on your mind when you smothered the victim for her?

Subject: I need a break. Can we stop talking about this?

Interviewer: Sure, Nathan. Do you want anything?

Subject: I wish I hadn’t done it. I want to die. If you bring the other guy back in, will he kill me?

 


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.

See P. XX

A column on roleplaying

by Robin D. Laws

With Kevin Kulp’s TimeWatch RPG blasting through Kickstarter as only a chronoton can, you may be asking yourself if you can put time travel in other GUMSHOE games. We at Pelgrane are not in the business of telling you not what not to do with GUMSHOE. (Unless you want to use it to light your Hibachi indoors. In which case, don’t do that.)

That caveated, here’s how you might do it in the various existing GUMSHOE settings.

The Esoterrorists/Fear Itself/Trail of Cthulhu

One of my favorite treatments of time travel comes, of all places, from an old Batman comic. And not during a cool Batman phase, but from the kooky silver age. In that story, the details of which my memory is doubtless mangling, Batman and Robin go back in time hypnotically. (In fact, now Googling “Batman time travel”, I find that I like this idea because I’m remembering it wrong.) In my memory’s mistaken version of how this works, they possess the bodies of their ancestors, who happen to be conveniently located and remarkably similar in appearance in ancient Rome, the old west, the Viking era and so on.

Lovecraft likewise treats time travel as a mental journey, making it the specialty of the Great Race of Yith. In a Trail game you need go no further than to have a series of weird murders committed by a victim of Yithian possession. When the investigators capture the first suspect, the Yithian simply jumps to someone else—perhaps a PC whose player is absent that session—and forges ahead with the mayhem. To really shut down the Yithian menace, the group must figure out what the entity is trying to accomplish, and then take action to ensure that it is no longer possible. Otherwise the body-hopping from the ancient past continues.

Scrubbing the Mythos detail from this idea for The Esoterrorists or Fear Itself allows you to reverse the direction of travel. Outer Dark Entities come from the future, when they have already breached the membrane, to create the conditions that will later allow them to breach the membrane. They can’t travel directly into this time, but possess those emotionally destabilized by Esoterror provocations. Again the problem is that stopping one meat-form merely slows them down, requiring them to find a suitably vulnerable replacement. The definitive solution depends on rendering what changes they’re trying to wreak in the timestream impossible. After the Veil-Out, the Ordo Veritatis might take temporary relief in the thought that they’ve prevented a future in which their demonic foes win. But plenty of additional ways for them to do it remain, as a fresh manifestation quickly demonstrates.

Mutant City Blues

The conceit in this mutant-powered police procedural is that all weird abilities are already well explicated by science. If you do want to invent a mutant time travel ability you have to find a spot for on the Quade Diagram. Somewhere out near sector F00, where the weirdo dream manipulation appears, might fit the bill. You also want to establish the effects of time manipulation as already measurable, if not fully understood. So perhaps a time distortion field might emit some sort of radiation that enters the bloodstream, or induce over-production of a particular preexisting hormone. As members of the Heightened Crimes Investigation Unit you can perform tests on tissue samples to determine whether victims, alive or on a morgue examination table, were exposed to time altering energies. Finding out who committed the time crime would then be a matter of finding out which local mutant miscreant has the mutation in question. That said, given the down-and-gritty reality level of Mutant City Blues superheroics I would be inclined to make time travel something that tantalizingly almost seems to exist, until the detectives get to the real truth of the matter. Perhaps false rumors of time travel could be connected to the alien beings some people in the world credit with the Sudden Mutant Event that created all weird powers.

Ashen Stars

The space opera setting of Ashen Stars seems tailor-made for timey-wimey activities. Like several sources of its inspiration, it includes godlike aliens. Or at least there used to be godlike aliens, the Vas Kra, who have devolved into the all-too-moral vas mal. And with those in the mix, even if only in the setting’s past, anything can happen. That allows you to nod to this key genre element without introducing brain-cracking paradoxes that rightly belong in TimeWatch territory. Needless to say the shift from universe with time travel to universe without would be an outcome of the Mohilar War. We might take a cue here from the current, degraded morphologies of the Vas Mal, the former godlike aliens. Now they look like classic UFO grays, which hook up to the motif of missing time. Perhaps in the Ashen Stars universe, missing time derives not from hypnosis or erased memories but from proximity to time travel and its contradictions in minds not capable of handling it. Back in the 20th century, when the Vas Kra came to earth to meddle with the human mind, those taken up into their vessels suffered gaps in understanding because they brushed too close with their transtemporal natures. This leads to the theory, oft-mooted by residents of the Bleed, that the Vas Kra ended the Mohilar War by interfering massively in the past of those forgotten beings. It explains how the war ended, how the Vas Kra lost so much energy that they had to devolve, and why no one remembers that this happened. The fear that this is so leads at least one powerful movement to oppose all efforts by the vas mal to reconstitute themselves, lest time travel come back, unleashing chaos throughout the cosmos—maybe bringing back the Mohilar, too.

Night’s Black Agents

What if the vampires are time travelers? They’re humans who, sometime in the future, discovered how to move through time. Problem: doing so warped their bodies. They became vulnerable to sunlight and had to drink the blood of humans uncontaminated by chrono-energy to survive. Their added strength and resistance to damage (except to the brain or heart) hardly counts as a fair trade. So they send agents back to the past, to prevent the chain of events that leads to their own development of time technology. Stopping those events requires a grand upsetting of the geopolitical power structure. To achieve this they must penetrate and destroy the world’s intelligence agencies. The PCs know too much about this, even if they don’t believe the truth, and hence find themselves on the run from somewhat sympathetic vampires from the future. Who still want to pulp them and take nourishment from their juices.

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