In the latest episode of their ENnie-winning podcast, Ken and Robin talk holy ashes, Mary Sues, a GUMSHOE fallacy and Immanuel Velikovsky.
Continuing Ken’s theme of looting 13th Age for GUMSHOE twists, let’s talk about monsters. In 13th Age, monsters have a sort of rudimentary AI – instead of the GM deciding to use their special abilities in advance, they’re triggered by the result of the attack roll. So, for example, if a ghoul gets a natural even hit, it gets to make its target vulnerable. If a frost giant rolls a 16 or higher when attacking, it also gets to freeze its foe.
For example, here’s a basic human thug:
13th Age Human Thug
1st Level troop [Humanoid]
Heavy Mace +5 vs AC – 4 damage
Natural even hit or miss: The thug deals +6 damage with its next attack this battle. (GM, be sure to let the PCs know this is coming; it’s not a secret.)
PD14 HP 27
Automating monsters like that makes the GM’s life easier. Instead of having to make decisions before rolling the dice, the GM can just attack and let the triggered abilities make the fight more interesting and complex. The thugs, for example, encourage the player characters to focus their fire or dodge away from the ones who have extra damage lined up for next round. Some of the work of making the monster cool gets shifted from the actual play part of the game to pre-game preparation, leaving the GM free to concentrate on evocative descriptions. tactics and other immediate concerns. (Triggered powers can also surprise the GM, which is always fun.)
GUMSHOE monsters and foes have a limited number of points to spend on their attacks, possibly mediated by an attack pattern. While the attack pattern does take some of the heavy lifting away, the GM still has to make decisions about when to spend the bad guy’s ability pools. Let’s try taking away as much resource management as possible from the GM. For general abilities, for every 4 points a creature has in its pool, give it a +1 bonus, to a maximum of +3, and modelling special abilities as special-case rules or powers triggered by a dice roll instead of the GM having to make a choice. Health, obviously, is unchanged.
Obviously, GUMSHOE’s smaller range of random results means that you’ll have to be a little more restrained when it comes to special powers – there’s a big difference between a power that triggers on a natural 20 in 13th Age and a natural 6 in GUMSHOE. Possible triggers for powers include:
- Natural even or odd rolls – good for alternate attacks or special effects
- Natural 1s or 6s
- 5s & 6s – generically ‘good rolls’, useful for foes that have a chance of doing extra damage or inflicting some special condition, like stunning or knocking prone
- Health reaches a certain threshold – perfect for countdown mechanics, where the fie gets nastier towards the end of the fight
- The attacking player character has no points left in a pool – if you’re out of Shooting, the alien monster breaks from cover and rushes towards yo
You can also have a power be limited to a certain number of uses – a ghoul in Night’s Black Agents might get an extra attack on the first three times it rolls a natural 6, but no more.
All these rules are just for monsters and NPCs – player characters still get to juggle points and manage their resources as per the standard GUMSHOE rules.
Esoterrorist Security Guard
General Abilities: Scuffling +1, Shooting +2,
Hit Threshold: 3
Alertness Modifier: +1
Stealth Modifier: +0
Damage Modifier: +0 (Pistol), -1 (nightstick)
Freeze!: +2 bonus to Shooting in the first round of combat if the security guard isn’t surprised.
Natural 1: The guard calls for backup. If help’s available, it’ll arrive in the next few minutes. The guard misses his next attack. Treat further natural 1s as simple misses.
Night’s Black Agents Thug (pg. 70)
General abilities: Athletics +2, Driving +1, Hand to Hand +2, Shooting +1, Weapons +2
Hit Threshold: 3
Alertness Modifier: +0
Stealth Modifier: -1
Damage Modifier: -2 (fist), +0 (club), +1 (9mm pistol)
Wall of Fire: If three or more thugs shoot at the same target, the last thug gets +1 Shooting
Gang Assault: If three or more thugs attack the same target with Hand to Hand or Weapons, they all get +1 damage.
Night’s Black Agents Bodyguard (pg. 69)
General abilities: Athletics +3, Driving +2, Hand to Hand +3, Medic +1, Shooting +2, Weapons +2
Hit Threshold: 3
Alertness Modifier: +2
Stealth Modifier: -0
Damage Modifier: -2 (fist), -1 (flexible baton), +1 (9mm pistol)
Armor: -1 vs bullets
Protect the Principal: On a natural 5 or 6 when making an Athletics, Driving or Shooting test, the Hit Threshold of whoever the bodyguard’s guarding increases by +2 for the rest of the round.
Stunning Blow: On a natural 6 when making a Hand to Hand attack, the target loses their next action unless they spend 3 Health or Athletics.
Ashen Stars All-Shredder Klorn
General abilities: Athletics +3, Scuffling +3
Hit Threshold: 3
Alertness Modifier: +2
Stealth Modifier: -3
Damage Modifier: +6
Natural Even Roll: +2 bonus to Scuffling
Natural Odd Roll: Smash! The klorn destroys some obstacle or object nearby – it breaks through a wall, kicks over a computer console, smashes its spiked tail through the engine coolant tanks, knocks over a nearby ground car or something equally cinematic.
Natural 6: The klorn’s target is impaled on its spear-teeth; +4 bonus damage
Frenzy: When the klorn’s reduced to 10 or less Health, it immediately makes a free Scuffling attack on the nearest foe.
Special: Refreshes health pool when struck by non-lethal disruption fire
A column on roleplaying
by Robin D. Laws
As a general rule, writers learn to avoid repetition. In the immortal words of David Byrne, say something once, why say it again?
When writing roleplaying material I have to keep reminding myself to strategically violate that general rule.
If there’s one thing playtesting has taught me, it’s that you can write a rule or piece of guidance once, twice, or even three times and still have readers miss it. And roleplayers belong to a pretty elevated class of readers.
But roleplaying texts are dense, and are often read in a non-linear order.
Also, some best practices, even ones we all think we know deep down in our gaming bones, remain elusive in the heat of the moment. Basic common sense they may be, but playtest comments remind us that they need constant hammering home.
One of them is that, although scenarios link clues to a specific ability or abilities, the players can always get the clue if they present you with a credible alternate method. This means credible for the genre, not for our prosaic reality.
Another point you might consider basic to the hobby but nonetheless frequently requires reinforcement is that the GM may have to improvise new material, from minor details to whole scenes and branches, in response to unexpected player choices.
Along with these, here are two more things I often find myself writing into GUMSHOE scenarios, wondering if I should prune them back in favor of a general word in the introduction. In the end I wind up putting each reference back in. Because they can’t, it turns out, be repeated quite enough.
In Response to Specific Questions
A block of scenario text will often provide a set of bullet points a particular witness, suspect or other target of Interpersonal abilities might provide. For example:
After enough Streetwise to convince him you won’t rat him to the cops, Lou says:
- He was down at the docks to collect a debt from a guy. You know, the kind of debt you collect at 2 am on a lonely pier.
- He found the mope he was looking for and was in the middle of applying persuasive means to his sensitive parts when a strange glowing figure flew overhead.
- It had arms and legs and a head, like a person, but was real long and stretched out, with a set of what looked like freaking moth wings.
- The glow reminded him of a firefly, except it was all over and not just coming from one place.
- He was so distracted he let the guy go to chase after it.
- It looked like it landed between the warehouse and the propane depot over there, but by the time Lou got to the spot it was gone already.
I always wind up inserting a phrase into that intro line, so it goes like this:
After enough Streetwise to convince him you won’t rat him to the cops, Lou answers specific questions as follows:
This serves several purposes.
One, it encourages you as GM to break up the information into bite-sized pieces. The scene becomes a back-and-forth between you and the players and not a pause to paraphrase or read text from the scenario.
Two, it requires the players to do more than name the Interpersonal ability they’re using and sit back for a flood of exposition. They still have to ask the right questions to get the info they need.
I’d like to treat this as a given but the lure of text on paper makes it all to easy to forget to keep it interactive.
No Need to Squeeze the Rind
The basic area-clearing adventure many of us cut our teeth on instilled certain expectations about the amount of scenario text that actually comes into play at the gaming table.
In a dungeon crawl, the PCs might miss out on entering particular rooms. But once in a chamber, you expect most of the stuff listed in its entry to happen: the heroes fight the monsters, encounter the traps, and strip the room for loot. Later innovations, like “taking 20” in D&D 3E and its heirs, go further to ensure that everything that can happen in a room, does.
In an investigative scenario, the writer needs to cover more material than any one group will ever uncover. GUMSHOE gives players lots of information, requiring them to sort out the incidental and flavor facts from the core clues required to move to the next layer of the mystery. It must anticipate the most common questions a group will ask.
But that doesn’t mean that any one group will ask all the questions the scenario answers. Some may efficiently ask only the one or two germane questions and move on. Others will pose every query they can think of. No two groups will come up with same list of queries. In a well-designed scenario the logic of the situation leads the players to ask the question that prompts the witness to mention the core clue.
By its very nature, any adventure genre scenario that allows for plot branching has to include text for more scenes than any one run of that scenario will touch on. If it gives you the option to form a bond with the vicar over your mutual interest in pagan sculptures, but no one in the group chooses to pursue that, that’s the price of true choice. Even if the scenario writer included some really cool stuff featuring the vicar.
The players haven’t failed to engage in all possible interactions. They’ve made the choice to interact with other things—the family who live near the graveyard, or the folklorist staying with them at the inn, or whatever.
Nor has the scenario failed to force them to do everything. If an adventure eventually requires you to exhaust every alternative, they’re not really alternatives.
A scenario that provides freedom and choices must include more material than any single group could possibly activate. If that means you as GM see the potential for cool scenes that your players never touch, that’s not just acceptable. That’s a non-linear scenario working as designed.
From the planet Sumter the call goes out: the wargames are on. Before the Mohilar War, Sumter existed as a synthculture planet. It appealed to both permanent and transient populations wishing to relive the period of the US Civil War, including its major battles. Those reenactments took place with fake weapons and robust technological safeguards.
Sumpter’s new martial sports unfold in a hail of live, lethal fire. They attract damaged and discontented veterans of the past war who feel they fit in only when fighting for their lives. Remaining 19th-century trappings include uniforms and energy beam rifles shaped like muskets. Most combatants regard these as irrelevant curiosities. The war they’re here to relive isn’t ancient history, but is torn from their own biographies.
Your laser crew has been hired to find an enlistee in the upcoming wargames. Former atmospheric paratrooper Xino Voss intends to fight until she dies. Haunted by the wartime loss of her comrades, for which she blames herself, she aims to go down in a blaze of glory.
Her rich and terminally ill mother has other ideas. She wants the lasers to find her daughter, administer her anti-trauma meds (forcibly if necessary) and extract her before she achieves her death wish. That requires them to wade onto the games’ vast playing field, half a continent of live fire zone. There the green and purple teams fight to the death as pieces in a brutal struggle devoid of strategic goals or political meaning. Once the lasers step into the playing space, they become targets for both sides. If they’re there, they’re worth points, even if they wear the armbands of neither side.
Investigation involves finding the target, identifying a safe way to approach her, figuring out how to get her out against her will, and then escaping intact. Along the way, they might also discover the formless energy parasite who is stoking the wargames in order to nourish itself on the agony of death and the adrenaline of combat. Neutralizing the parasite ends the wargame, as the vast majority of players realizes they’ve been acting not out of their own desires, but due to the siren psychic call of an alien intelligence.
Ashen Stars is a gritty space opera game where freelance troubleshooters solve mysteries, fix thorny problems, and explore strange corners of space — all on a contract basis. The game includes streamlined rules for space combat, 14 different types of ship, a rogues’ gallery of NPC threats and hostile species, and a short adventure to get you started. Purchase Ashen Stars in print and PDF at the Pelgrane Shop.
As vengeful space effectuators of the Gaean Reach, you know what the interplanetary war criminal Quandos Vorn did to you—and what you must do in return to him, when you catch him.
That part remains more easily said than done.
Rejoice, then, in these latest intercepted transmissions. They detail some of the identities Quandos Vorn has recently traveled under in his never-ending quest for greater acts of barbarity. As is well documented, the chameleonic Vorn gains and sheds disguises with frustrating ease. Some of these people might be real individuals he has impersonated; others, his entirely fictional creations.
Elbin Throm, collector of rare militaria. The stooped, shaggy-haired Throm walks with the aid of a cane. Demanding and quick to take offense, Throm uses his wealth and expertise to bully finders, brokers and auctioneers of antique armaments. The tip of his cane contains a paralyzing toxin that dissolves its victims from the inside out, leaving the brain and screaming nerve endings as the last portions of the body to die.
Gascade, poet and troubadour. Famed for his quatrains in praise of Quandos Vorn. Of willowy frame and limpid blue eyes, he exerts a powerful sexual magnetism on women and men alike. His bright purple goatee precedes him into art festivals and bacchanals throughout the Reach. Dogged by accusations that he drugs his famous paramours in order to sell their organs to collectors. Evidence has yet to substantiate these rumors. May be a henchman of Vorn’s who occasionally lends him his identity.
Jebbas Mrin, hero of the rebellion on the planet Quane against starmenter (pirate) usurpers. Bald, broad-shouldered, with a musical baritone speaking voice. Never goes anywhere without the halberd he used to behead the starmenter Brerum Sosk. Though revered by the people of Quane, the taint of corruption surrounds his administration as its World President.
Castrel Flogg. A shadowy identity known chiefly as a set of signatures on documents claiming ownership over the platinum mines of Vesro.
The Ebbast, champion fencer and high priest of the religious order of Kolf. Won the tournament of Vosto by applying a neurotoxin to his epee. Described as possessing a skull-like countenance with deep-set eyes and a grinning, scarred mouth. By becoming a criminal and fugitive he invalidated the Kolf credo, leading to dozens of devout suicides. A schism among the surviving Kolfites centers around the question of whether the crimes were committed by the true Ebbast, or an impostor.
The Gaean Reach, the Roleplaying Game of Interstellar Vengeance, brings to your tabletop the legendary cycle of science fiction classics by the great Jack Vance. An ingenious hybrid, it fuses the investigative clarity of the GUMSHOE system with the lethal wit of the Dying Earth Roleplaying Game. Purchase The Gaean Reach in print and PDF at the Pelgrane Shop.
The GUMSHOE Preparedness ability, which lets you test to see if you happen to already have the crucial bit of equipment you want, lets you skip the aggravation of equipment shopping with an on-the-spot moment of creativity in play.
Although the book definitions of Preparedness refer specifically to gear, GMs may find it plot-forwarding to expand it cover in-the-moment revelations of other prior planning.
Do the investigators need a car to pick you up in a desolate spot in the woods? A player can make this happen by a) supplying a credible retroactive explanation of how she arranged it, and b) scoring a Preparedness success.
- “Naturally I tampered with the elevator as we stepped out of it.”
- “Might I have set the sick bay diagnostic bot to sedate anyone with transferant DNA?”
- “I had time to put flowerpots on the fire escape, right?”
You might combine ordinary Preparedness (having a piece of gear) with the planning to have it in the right place, already doing its job.
“Well, of course I brought along a webcam and set it up by the door to catch video of anyone leaving after we came in.”
If Preparedness as planning seems to give a greater advantage than simply having a particular item on hand, increase the Difficulty above the baseline of 4. If it substitutes an anti-climactic moment for an exciting one, make it exorbitantly expensive. Or better yet, let the players have their moment of coolness and competence and find another, unrelated crisis to throw at them soon afterwards.
If not, don’t make it cost more just for abstract world logic reasons. As always, GUMSHOE cares more about emulation than simulation.
Night’s Black Agents GMs might rule that instances of Preparedness as planning involving the intercession of a GM character also require the expenditure of at least 1 Network point. Or maybe you charge the Network point only if the agents try to squeeze an additional benefit from having the character on the scene.
For example, the driver of the car costs 0 Network if you only have him take you out of the woods, as per the original framing of the Preparedness use. But if you then ask him to accompany you into the motel, to make sure you don’t get jumped by a pack of Renfields on the way in, you have to fork over some Network points to mark his transition from passive background character to source of active, ongoing, risky assistance.
Night’s Black Agents by Kenneth Hite puts you in the role of a skilled intelligence operative fighting a shadow war against vampires in post-Cold War Europe. Play a dangerous human weapon, a sly charmer, an unstoppable transporter, a precise demolitions expert, or whatever fictional spy you’ve always dreamed of being — and start putting those bloodsuckers in the ground where they belong. Purchase Night’s Black Agents in the Pelgrane Shop.
Given the persistent weirdness of FIFA, world soccer’s governing body, it should come as no surprise that they were the first major sports administration to permit the use of mutant powers in professional competition. In the DNA-twisted future of Mutant City Blues, only one thing has changed about the world’s love of football: America now adores it too. After all, the US team boasts such world-class players as Kirk “Force Master” Larson, Lyle “Nonstop” Watts, and Shane “the Ghost” Lowe.
Larson uses his concussion beam to move the ball around, and kinetic energy dispersal to fizzle the opposing team’s kicks. Thanks to his pain immunity and endorphin control (self), Watts simply doesn’t tire. And, attracting the greatest hate from rival fans, Lowe’s mutant brain makes lightning decisions, instantly evaluates threats posed by the other side, and allegedly reads their minds from time to time, too.
This year the World Cup has come to Mutant City, with all the revelry and security issues needed to keep a police officer up at night. HCIU officers have been pulled from normal duty to keep the city safe for visiting fans from around the globe.
The juxtaposed atmospheres of celebration and terrorism fear that accompany any high profile sporting event might hang as a background element over several other cases the squad pursues as the World Cup rolls on.
After sufficient foreshadowing, a case puts the tournament center stage. Options include:
- The squad gets evidence of a credible death threat against one of the above-named players. FIFA won’t hear of a star player being pulled, so the players have to track down the would-be killer without being able to stash the victim safely.
- Anti-mutant terrorists, angry that non-mutant players have been pushed to the sidelines, regard the games as a prime target. This allows you to stage your super-powered, footie version of Black Sunday.
- Trinidad Güngör, the FIFA board member most responsible for bringing mutation into the game, is found brutally murdered in his hotel suite, with several underage prostitutes dead for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Initial indications point to an attack by a non-mutant player whose career declined after the genetically enhanced were permitted on the field. Investigation points to another possible angle— Güngör was about to implicate fellow board members in a bribery scandal over the bid to hold the next games.
Mutant City Blues is an investigative science fiction roleplaying game by Robin D. Laws 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.
In all GUMSHOE games, there’s a benefit for having 8 rating points in Athletics – your Hit Threshold rises by 1. Night’s Black Agents expanded this to all General Abilities – if you invest eight of your precious build points in a particular ability, you get a cherry, a special ability that shows off your mastery in that field.
So, for your high-octane Pulp games, here’s a bunch of Cthulhuoid cherries that don’t overlap with the various occupation special abilities.
Conceal: Trap Sense
You may spend Conceal when making a Sense Trouble test if the potential threat is a concealed trap or other hidden environmental peril, like an overgrown pit or impending cave-in.
Disguise: Alternate Identity
You’ve established a whole other life for yourself, complete with friends, possessions, documentation – possibly even a home and family. This alternate persona must have a lower Credit Rating than your main identity (unless you’ve been masquerading as someone else since the start of the campaign). A Disguise rating of 8+ gets you one alternate identity; you can purchase more for 4 experience points each).
Driving: Drive-By Shootout
You’re adept at lining up shots for your passengers when they’re shooting out the window. (We won’t ask which mob outfit you were working for when you learned that trick). You may transfer up to 4 Driving points to your passenger’s Firearms pools at the start of a car chase. Unspent points are lost when the chase ends.
Electrical Repair: Alien Insight
Your intuitive understanding of electricity and magnetism gives you an insight into devices far beyond the paltry technology of humanity. You may spend 4 Electrical Repair to activate an alien device, like a Mi-Go brain cylinder or Yithian lightning gun. You only guess at how to turn the thing on, not what it does or how to properly control it.
Explosives: One Last Stick
You can spend Explosive points on Preparedness tests to obtain dynamite or similar explosives.
Filch: Here’s One I Stole Earlier
With a Filch rating of 8+, once per investigation, you may declare you stole something retroactively from a previous scene. You need to get into the mansion’s boathouse to flee the rampaging shoggoth? Well, it just so happens that you picked the groundkeeper’s pockets earlier on, and here’s the very key you need. You still need to make a Filch test to actually acquire whatever you want to unexpectedly produce.
Firearms: Nerves of Steel
Difficulty numbers for your Firearms tests aren’t affected by being Shaken.
First Aid: Sawbones
A First Aid Rating of 8 or more gives 1 free point in either Medicine or Pharmacy, player’s choice.
Once per adventure, when you fail a Fleeing test or are about to be consumed by some other horror, you may declare that you black out. When you wake up, you’re somewhere safe. You have no idea how you escaped or where you are now, and may have dropped items or abandoned fellow investigators to some horrible fate. But you’re alive, and that’s something.
You may attempt to use hypnotism on subjects who aren’t actively willing to be hypnotized. Your subject must still be somewhat open to your influence – you could hypnotize someone that you’re in conversation with, or the doorman at a club, but you couldn’t hypnotize the mugger who’s about to rob you, or the cultist who’s intent on sacrificing you to some alien god. Increase the Difficulty of any hypnotism tests using this ability by +2 (so, putting someone into a trance without their co-operation is Difficulty 5; planting false memories is Difficulty 7).
Mechanical Repair: Give It A Kick
Once per adventure, you may make a Mechanical Repair roll instantly. You could kick a plane’s engine back to life as it falls from the sky, or unjam a machine gun with one solid whack.
Piloting: There’s Always A Plane
Once per adventure, you may ask the Keeper to introduce an aircraft of some description that you can fly with this ability. Maybe it’s your own plane, and you’ve flew out or had it shipped out. Maybe it’s someone else’s aircraft you can borrow, or a crashed plane that’s repairable. Maybe the cultists have a zeppelin-temple. In any event, there’s always a plane nearby that you can use/borrow/steal over the course of the adventure.
Preparedness: Expedition Planning
If you have time to prepare and pack for any sort of expedition, then you bring enough for everyone. When you succeed at a Preparedness test to obtain an item, you may spend one extra point to have one of those items for everyone in the group. For example, if you use Preparedness to declare you’ve got an electric lamp, then you can spend an extra point to give everyone else a similar lamp too.
A Psychoanalysis Rating of 8 or more gives one free point in Reassurance or Assess Honesty (player’s choice).
Riding: Ride the Flying Polyp
You can ride anything, including Mythos mounts like shantaks. Even better, if a creature is introduced to you as a mount and you only use it for riding, then any Stablility losses for seeing the creature are reduced by 2.
Scuffling: The Old One Two
You may make an extra Scuffling attack per round, as long as you hit with your first attack. Your extra attack costs a number of Scuffling points equal to the result of the damage die (so, if you roll a 2, that’s 2 Scuffling points for another swing).
Sense Trouble: Quick Reflexes
If you overspend on a successful Sense Trouble test, you get those points back as a pool that can only be spent on Athletics, Fleeing, Firearms, Scuffling or Weapons tests in the first round of combat or in tests immediately related to the trouble you sensed. The maximum size of this pool is equal to the number of Sense Trouble points spent. For example, say the Difficulty to sense a lurking Deep One is 5. You spend 3 Sense Trouble and roll a 4, for a total of 7, beating the Difficulty by 2. You get 2 points back that you must spend immediately on attacking or escaping the monster.
If you’d rolled a 6, you’d have beaten the Difficulty by 4, but you’d still only get 3 points back.
Shadowing: In Over Your Head
Whenever you have to make a Sense Trouble roll while shadowing someone, you gain 2 points in a pool that can be spent on Evidence Collection, Locksmith, Disguise, Filch or Stealth. You lose any unspent points in this pool when you stop shadowing the target and turn back, or are discovered.
Stealth: Stay Here
As long as someone follows your explicit instructions, they can piggyback (as per the rules on page 57) on your Stealth tests even when you’re not present. So, if you tell a fellow investigator to hide in the undergrowth and keep crawling until they reach the road, they can piggyback on your Stealth tests if they do exactly what you told them to do.
Weapons: Favorite Weapon
Pick your favorite melee weapon. You draw strength and courage from its familiar heft in your hand. Once per adventure, you may gain 4 Stability from drawing or brandishing your weapon. With this sword by your side, there’s nothing you can’t handle.
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 the Pelgrane Shop.
by Robin D. Laws
In The Gaean Reach Roleplaying Game, your team of interstellar grudge-holders journeys to the galaxy’s darkest crannies in search of the arch-criminal Quandos Vorn. In reprisal for the despicable wrongs he’s done each of you, you’ve sworn to track him down and send him to his grave. But with his vast resources and illimitable flair for chicanery, he’s so far managed to stay one step ahead of you. A flurry of contradictory new reports places him on a variety of worlds. Pick one, if not several, of these, giving your GM sufficient advance warning that you’ve found your next destination.
(Worlds listed here do not appear in the works of Jack Vance, the late science fiction master and creator of the Gaean Reach setting. So feel at liberty to destroy them.)
Thick, verdant flora covers the rocky continents of Ballairides. Despite its lushness, the plant life proves thinly rooted, surviving on a shallow but super-nutritious soil layer. Scientists prize not its run-of-the-mill carbon-based botanical species, or the lackluster food network of decapedes, crawlers and air slugs it supports. Ballairides’ true interest to researchers lies in the rocks themselves. Before meteoric spores seeded its present ecosystem, this world hosted a silicon-based fauna. Crystallized fossils of these bizarre, asymmetrical lifeforms fill its sedimentary rock layers. Licensed geo-plunderers drill deep beneath a hard igneous stone wrapper to find and harvest them. Prized both as museum pieces and as art objects spawned by rogue, whimsical nature, the fossils attract a criminal element of illicit looters. Dodging the efforts of understaffed rock wardens, these paleontological pirates covertly meet interstellar demand for Ballairides fossils.
Your informants tell you that Quandos Vorn now commissions a notably ruthless crew of fossil looters, insisting only on complete specimens of the most gigantic extinct lifeforms. Have his laboratories perfected a method, long thought possible in theory, to resurrect these lumbering titans? If so, to what destructive use does he intend to put them?
The last planet allegedly discovered by the legendary world-prospector Lamint Cegiel veritably burst with exploitable life and mineral resources. Probes from his ship, the Tactile, noted temperate climes, abundant timber, and, in its northern region, magma lakes literally made of liquid gold. Yet when eager clients flew to the coordinates he sold them, they found nothing. Or rather, the five per cent of them who returned said they’d found nothing. Occasionally communications arrays pick up messages from purported descendants of those vanished would-be settlers, begging others to join them on their paradisaical but sadly underpopulated planet. Now and then another group of crack-brained utopians falls for this obvious hoax and sets course for Cegiel’s coordinates, never to be seen again.
Some deluded believers say that Cegiel’s Ghost can only be a real planet, cut off from the rest of the galaxy by a space-time ripple. Those lucky enough to approach it at the right instant pass from our molecular resonance into the pocket reality it resides in.
Wiser heads presume that the world is as imaginary as ever, and that starmenters ambush those lured in by their faked beacon signals. After stealing their ships and supplies, the pirates leave them floating naked in space, their last thoughts wistful dreams of Cegiel’s World. Who might lead such vicious starmenters, if not Quandos Vorn?
Shallow seas cover the whole of Grentic. A long-lived, highly boredom-resistant person might circumnavigate the entire planet by wading, without ever getting wet above the mid-thigh. Occasional circuitous loops might be required in one’s path, to avoid its few ocean trenches. Settlers on Grentic live on interconnected platforms, chained to the profusion of granitic spires rising through the muddy seabed into the salt-choked sky. Feeding on a rich variety of quasi-crustaceans and cod-mollusks, Grentic’s people adhere to the founding maxim of its deliberately nameless first explorers: “We’ll mind our business and you mind yours.” Only the principle of unity against outside interference binds its population of sodden-toed libertarians. They join together with projacs and harpoons against any who would attempt extradition of any resident, no matter how recent his arrival. Fugitives tend not to tarry long here, due to its lack of amenities and excitement. Quandos Vorn, it is said, takes occasional Grentic idylls, freeing his turbulent mind from the pressing issues of arch-criminality.
|Dithermal image showing Quandos Vorn on Grentic. Note the newly acquired scar on his left cheek.|
Don your flame-suits when you step from your ship onto the heat-baked surface of Myrt. A luxuriant grassland covered its surface when first settled, five hundred years ago. By clearing it for farming, its pioneers triggered catastrophic climate change, turning it into a desert hellhole. Too proud to admit either defeat or fault, they tunneled beneath the surface, undergoing rapid hyper-evolution. Now blind, bald, hunched, and bleeping and burbling in a sonar language standard human ears cannot fully apprehend, Myrtans worship the stern fungal god Bletch, rigorously enforcing the many sanctions of their faith. Rumor has it that We-9Y, the psychotropic communion brew quaffed during its solemn festivals. confers extraordinary sensory powers. That users untrained in the psychic arts of Myrt often drop dead after a handful of doses does not deter questers after heightened perception.
You hear that Quandos Vorn has entered the We-9Y market in force. From this one can safely assume that he can at times be found in the tunnels of Myrt, or clues to his whereabouts might be found there. Persons less intent on vengeance than yourselves might note with caution the extent to which off-world trade in We-9Y has stoked divisions in Myrtan society. But what trouble could a little civil war cause you, now that you finally have a solid lead to Vorn’s whereabouts?
A column on roleplaying
by Robin D. Laws
Your Mutant City Blues characters may spend their on-stage time putting down major cases with an extra-human slant. But just like their TV procedural counterparts, we see them only when they’re working the interesting cases. We can assume that they investigate plenty of routine cases between episodes. Most of their arrests stem from easily solved, and therefore less than compelling, crimes. In real police work, the most obvious suspect is almost always the guilty party. (That’s why it’s tough to be innocent when you fit the profile of a usual suspect.) The criminals you mostly deal with aren’t masterminds. Far from it—they’re easily tripped up in the interrogation room, don’t know their legal rights, and fall again and again for basic interrogation ploys.
Nor are all the cases you work major crimes. Other squads are happy to bounce cases to the Heightened Crimes Investigation Unit at the slightest hint of mutant involvement. So you get not only the big cases, like murders, kidnapping and high-dollar heists, that seem to have an extra twist in their helixes. You get to track down mutant vandals, petty thieves, flashers and street corner drug slingers.
Any of these cases might lead into a more complicated crime with a mystery at the heart of it, one fitting the GUMSHOE modus operandi. If so, your GM kicks off a scenario with it, or drops it in at the relevant moment. Most of the time, the day-to-day efforts comprising the bulk of your career hang as an implication in the background.
Add cop show flavor to your character portrayal by using minor offstage cases as springboards for banter. Scenes in which partners exchange dialogue on the way to an interview are a staple of the genre. Roleplaying groups often engage in banter and digression to give themselves time to think when they’re stumped. Combine these two functions by doing your digressions in character, making them less digressive.
Invent a routine case and drop it into your dialogue as an exercise in dark police humor. Find powers on the Quade Diagram and meld them with tales of typical police work. Regale your fellow mutant officers with such gems as:
- How you identified an invisible peeping tom.
- The animal rights activist who spit acid all over a furrier’s inventory.
- The guy with gills you caught hiding in a building’s water tank.
- The landlord who hired a guy to scare his rent-controlled tenants into leaving by attacking them with rats, via his control mammals power.
- The landlord who called to complain that a tenant was interfering with the thermostat, making the apartment warmer than he needed legally to pay for. The landlord accused the tenant of using his reduce temperature power to blast chill air at the thermostat. You told them to take it to small claims court.
- “Stupid arson squad had me working overtime on that warehouse torching. I was halfway through my list of suspects with fire projection, when they found the accelerant.”
- The extortionist who wanted protection money not to blow a new condo’s glass balconies into the street. Maybe you caught him by showing up at the payoff site and spotting the dude with the asthma inhaler. (You’ll recall that asthma is a defect associated with wind control.)
- The guy who confessed to a fatal stabbing in a prank gone wrong. He went after his frat brother with a knife, because the bro had blade immunity. It was a trick they’d pulled a dozen times to impress the college girls. But the frat bro didn’t tell him his identical twin was visiting that night, the twin was a norm. So it all ended in a puddle of blood and an involuntary manslaughter collar.
- “My sister wants me to talk some sense into my nephew, who’s been jolting. If I knew how to talk to kids, maybe I would have had one. I don’t suppose if I introduced you, that you’d do the heavy lifting…?”
- The citizen who accused his ex-husband of chopping off his finger. It turned out that the guy did it himself, which he could afford to do because he regenerates. Later the two reconciled and the citizen dropped the charges. Later still you get another call, and this time the falsely accused has really chopped something off the hubby. But this time it’s not the finger.
Mutant City Munchausen
You could also steal a trick from a classic game by friend-of-Pelgrane James Wallis, The Extraordinary Adventures of Baron Munchausen. In that game, you challenge your competitors to weave entertaining anecdotes from a simple premise. While essaying a squad car banter scene with another Mutant City Blues player, you might toss them a premise and see what they do with it. It could relate to a case, another aspect of mutant life, or some off-duty cop matter. For extra points, pick an idea that highlights the contrast between your characters. Or pitch an idea that might draw the other player into a shared sub-plot.
- So what’s the deal on that entangling hair kink club case you’re working?
- Hey, did I hear right that you’re dating a telepath? If you don’t mind my saying so, that’s crazy.
- Are you still thinking about studying for the sergeant’s exam? I bet they skew the scores against lixers. They’re aren’t enough of us to work mutant cases, so they want to keep us outta the desk jobs.
- It sucks that the perps in that barhead bar brawl case walked. We should go pay a visit to the property clerk who screwed the pooch on the chain of evidence and put the fear of God into him.