A column on roleplaying
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.
…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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
In The Zalozhniy Quartet, there’s a scene (not really a spoiler) where the PCs are outmatched and are ‘supposed’ to flee, leading into a tense chase. Expecting player characters to take a particular action is always hazardous design – you can set up a situation where there’s only one valid route for the PCs to follow, and they’ll still stall and try a hundred alternate approaches before doing the obvious. In this case, waiting for the players to decide the situation was untenable and choose to retreat wasn’t an option – the scene involves a direct confrontation with… things they’re not equipped to deal with.
In my initial draft, I suggested a bunch of ways for the Director to make it clear to the PCs that running away was their best – indeed, only – option. Sense Trouble rolls. Having the bad guys beat up the PCs with ease. Having the NPCs soldiers accompanying the mission heroically sacrifice themselves, giving the PCs a chance to escape.
The solution, as pointed out by Robin, was to make the overwhelming odds a Core Clue, obtained with Military Science. The player character – a veteran of a hundred black operations and brush wars – instantly sizes up the situation, and realizes that hanging around is suicide. They’ve got to run. Making it a core clue changes the dynamic from “the GM forces the PCs to act” to “the PCs, by dint of their superior skills and experience, fight their way out of a lethal ambush and escape to safety”.
What makes this especially interesting, from a scenario design point of view, is that Military Science isn’t often used passively. It’s the sort of skill that a player brings up when they’re spying on a furtive meeting between two mercenaries, or when they’re trying to bluff their way onto a military base. Writing a scene that takes a skill normally used as an active, ‘I ferret out the clues thusly’ and just handing a clue to the players can produce interesting results.
Esoterrorists – Document Analysis: While paying for take-out at a nearby diner, you spot a cheque in the drawer of the cash register. The handwriting on the check matches that of the author of the Esoterror manifesto you’re in town to find. The check was right on top of the drawer – the target might still be right here in the restaurant.
Recalled Information & Flashbacks
Revealing facts to players as Core Clues (or as a benefit for spending points) is the core of GUMSHOE. A Mutant City Blues player uses Ballistics, and you describe how they work out that the killer must have been standing on the third floor balcony of the building across the street. Searching CCTV camera footage with Data Retrieval gets them a photo of the gunman, and running that through a police database with Research gets them a name.
Or, in Trail of Cthulhu, they use Occult, and learn that the owl sigil they found is associated with the Minervan League, and then use Credit Rating to get an invitation to a League-sponsored lecture.
You can go further than that. A Ballistics clue could equally point the characters towards a roleplaying scene.
“At that range, with the weather that night, it would have been a hell of a shot. You know one guy who could have pulled it off – an old army buddy of yours, an ex-sniper who’s now a shooting instructor. He probably knows all the good marksmen in this region. Maybe he knows the shooter; it’s definitely worth talking to him”
“You’ve seen this symbol before. You remember reading a book in the restricted stacks of the Orne Library, back at good old Miskatonic. The owl sigil is used by a sect called the Minervan league. In fact, you recall that that particular book was donated to the library collection after the death of its previous owner. Thinking about it, he lived near here. Maybe his family know more.”
More ambitiously, you can embed scenes inside other scenes, by means of a flashback. Keep flashbacks short, and be prepared to improvise in response to player actions in the ‘past’.
Occult: “You recognise that symbol – it’s the sign of the Minervan League. You know that because in your youth, you were acquainted with a member of the league. You even applied for membership, but weren’t accepted – did an existing member blackball you, or did you back out at the last minute?
Anyway, you remember your friend hinting about the league’s secret purpose. He started to say something about a Great Work… then he fell silent, as if suddenly frightened. What did you do?”
NPCs as Clues
A clue – especially an Interpersonal one – can be incarnated in the form of an NPC from the PCs’ past. Instead of, say, getting information from the waitress at the bar through Flirting, maybe the waitress is an ex-girlfriend of the Flirting player character. She’ll tell you what she overheard – but only if you apologise for what happened the last time she saw you.
If a PC has a high Intimidate, then presumably they’ve intimidated people in the past. So, when the PCs are combing the dark streets of the city, ask who’s got the highest Intimidate – the PC with the second highest rating is the one who gets jumped by the vengeful goons. (Of course they don’t go after the highest rating – that guy’s scary). Beating up the goons yields the next Core Clue.
A Core Clue points the way to another scene. It doesn’t have to be evidence interpreted by the PCs. Anything that opens up a new avenue of investigation works. Mix up the way you present core clues whenever you feel your game is getting repetitive!
GUMSHOE is a game system that privileges bite-size morsels of neat-sounding knowledge. Ideally creepy neat-sounding knowledge, handed out in such a way as to imply a whole universe of such things just beyond the players’ horizon. It’s as though Robin invented it thinking solely of me. Even before Trail of Cthulhu, I liked to make a habit of flavoring my game books with morsels of neat-sounding knowledge, laid out in such a way as to imply … that I knew all there was to know about architecture, or Gnosticism, or astrological decans, or aviation history, and had just picked one or two morsels for the delectation of the reader. Friends, I am here to tell you that is an illusion. I am frighteningly widely (that is, mostly uselessly) read and at have been trying with some success to drown a trick memory under waves of vodka, but I do not know all there is to know about any of those things (except possibly astrological decans, because there isn’t much to know about those in the first place).
With that confession off our chest, let me proceed to show you that such knowledge is an illusion. Better still, it is an illusion YOU can cultivate in the service of being a GUMSHOE adventure writer, whether pro or am. Any GUMSHOE GM can use this foolproof method on pretty much anything. You just need about an hour and a search engine.
In the fourth week of January of this year, my Twitter, Facebook, and email feeds all blew up with the news that there was a Cannibal-Rat Ghost Ship approaching England. A decommissioned 300-foot Russian cruise ship, the MV Lyubov Orlova, broke its chain off Newfoundland on January 23, 2013 while being towed to the Dominican Republic to be scrapped. Its emergency beacons transmitted in the mid-Atlantic, then went silent. About a year later, a Belgian “marine missions specialist” (read: excitable goof) speculated in the press (well, in the Sun) that the ship’s rats had devolved into cannibalism. Hey presto, Cannibal-Rat Ghost Ship. I should not have to explain, at this late date, why or even how this is essentially a perfect Night’s Black Agents story hook.
As with so many perfect game hooks, various killjoys set about pouring cold water (the icy waters of the North Atlantic!) on the story. (I don’t really want to get political about this, but I just love that the Guardian went the extra mile and found someone to assure their readership that the rats would instead set up a socialist utopia.) As with so many debunkers, they let their skepticism out-race the facts on the ground. Er, water. Or, as the Robert Benchley of the 21st century, Mallory Ortberg, put it on Twitter:
“the ocean is a PRETTY big place, I don’t think you can definitively say there are NO rat-ghost ships on their way to England right now”
But the skeptics did one great favor for Night’s Black Agents Directors; the Smithsonian piece provided a link to the MV Lyubov Orlova search blog, “Where Is Orlova?” Which, unlike the slackers in the British media, has apparently been quietly looking for the Cannibal-Rat Ghost Ship since it vanished.
See what you have already? You have a hook. You have the best (i.e., most sensationalistic) version of the story. You have a debunking for the NPC coverup to parrot. And you have a blogful of huge amounts of data and parallel info thanks to the kind of quiet obsessive who makes the Web so Wonderful. Combine that with the Wikipedia article and you have more than enough material for your Cannibal-Rat Ghost Ship adventure, whether the ship heaves up in Norway, or the PCs rappel down onto it from a borrowed Sikorsky, or the Director decides to put the Orlova in her pocket as the floating HQ of a dissident Nosferaterrorist and sprinkle clues (and cannibal rats) over the next six adventures.
It took me about half an hour to become as much of an expert on the Cannibal-Rat Ghost Ship as anyone except perhaps the rats themselves. Go thou and do likewise.
Playtest feedback for Dreamhounds of Paris, the upcoming Trail of Cthulhu campaign sourcebook in which you play the major figures of the surrealist movement wreaking –psychic-revolutionary havoc in Lovecraft’s eerie fantasy realm, is in. Participants should pat themselves on the bat for a collectively great job. They’ve turned in detailed, thoughtful responses that will make the book better. This must have the highest ratio of comments made to comments used of any project I’ve received playtest feedback on.
Because the campaign strongly encourages you to play real historical figures, supplied for you in the book, we can do a fun thing that doesn’t usually arise from playtest reports. We can see who the most popular of the 20 supplied characters were, and in what proportion. Here’s the breakdown for the six most chosen characters, in handy pie chart form.
Clearly, seeing to it that you have Dali or Cocteau along is the Dreamhounds version of making sure somebody’s playing the cleric.
In the various mystery sub-genres, suspects shadow, spy upon and track the detectives at least as often as the investigators stake them out. Yet roleplayers react to being watched with less sang froid than do their fictional counterparts. Like imprisonment, enemy surveillance falls into the category of plot elements that players resist, because they seem to deprive the group of choice. If you can’t take an action because you fear your powerful foes will catch you at it, you feel hemmed in—a sensation adjacent to, if not really analogous to, the dreaded railroad. Yet plots can turn stale if the bad guys never come after the heroes. To use Antagonist Reactions, adversaries have to know enough about the investigative team to strike out at them.
Fight this tendency by giving players a sense of agency over the extent to which the bad guys watch them. Remind them that Infiltration applies even when they’re not technically sneaking into a particular location. Any action undertaken at any point in the investigation can be obscured by the same set of skills that let them creep into bank vaults, server farms, or underground cannibal hideouts.
In some games, like Trail of Cthulhu, Infiltration is called Stealth. This slightly different framing may do much of the work for you.
Don’t just let the players stew in the thought that the bad guys have every means of locating them and anticipating their moves. Give them opportunities to overcome surveillance techniques, presenting them as obstacles to be knocked down with successful Infiltration tests. Pose the problem and let the players, after you’ve suggested they use this ability, propose the specific solutions.
GM problem: You notice the security camera on the nightclub wall turn toward you as you pass by.
Player solution: I note the locations of all the cameras on the street and attempt to plot us a course through their blind spots.
GM problem: A couple of ill-complected sailors stand on the docks of Thalarion, clearly watching you.
Player solution: I call attention to myself, trying to lure them into an alcove, so the others can get the drop on them. Then we’ll find out who put them up to this.
GM problem: When you boot up your laptop, the camera light goes on for a split-second.
Player solution: I set up a bot to generate false search activity, and hide what I’m really doing under a fractal firewall pattern.
Successes in evasion needn’t completely derail all enemy action against the heroes. That would be boring. But it can delay it, or leave the visiting henchmen at a disadvantage when they do arrive to mess matters up.
This is the kindest, bravest, warmest, most wonderful GUMSHOE Zoom I’ve ever known in my life. Presenting detailed rules for brainwashing, memetics, telecontrol, and brain hacking, and for gear from the Microwave Auditory Effect gun to subliminal flashers to tinfoil hats, it brings the fight inside your head.
GUMSHOE Zoom: Mind Control is the tenth installment of the Ken Writes About Stuff subscription, or it’s available as a stand-alone PDF from the store.
What is a GUMSHOE Zoom?
Not everything can support a game of its own, or even a big sourcebook. For those things, we present the GUMSHOE Zoom, a sort of supplement focused on a key game mechanic and its possible applications. In general, Zooms are interesting potential hacks, or intriguing adaptations of the main rules. Some apply to one specific topic or sub-sub-genre. Others cross all manner of GUMSHOE turf; you can slot them in and adapt them to tales of Cthulhuoid investigation, mean superpowered streets, or alien colonies alike.
Zooms are experimental. That does mean that they haven’t been playtested, necessarily. (If something in here is really really broken – and it’s not, as this ain’t our first rodeo – we’ll fix it in post.) But that also means we encourage you to experiment with them. Changing the cost, or prerequisites, or point effect, or other mechanical parameters of a given Zoom changes how often it shows up and how much drama it drives. The dials are in your hands.
Zooms will change the focus of your play if you use them. Putting a mechanic on the table puts it into your game. Adding a Zoom means more actions, possibly even more scenes, using those rules. Since the Zoom mechanics are intended to encourage specific actions or flavors, to force a card in your storytelling hand, they aren’t “balanced” against “normal” actions or rules. In general, if you don’t want to see more of it, don’t Zoom in on it.
Zooms are optional rules. You can and should ignore them if you don’t want them, or change them at will. After all, if a given Zoom turns out to be crucial to an upcoming GUMSHOE game, we’ll change it to fit that specific genre or form of storytelling.
|Stock #: PELH11D
||Author: Kenneth Hite
|Artist: Jérôme Huguenin
||Pages: 12pg PDF
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.
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.
With the dying of the year, it’s time to read “The Festival” and to think of 2014. In this space, specifically, about the next year’s Ken Writes About Stuff installments. To get the good, or rather the known, stuff out of the way:
- January 2014: GUMSHOE Zoom: Mind Control. This is the kindest, bravest, warmest, most wonderful GUMSHOE Zoom I’ve ever known in my life. Presenting detailed rules for brainwashing, memetics, telecontrol, and brain hacking, and for gear from the Microwave Auditory Effect gun to subliminal flashers to tinfoil hats, it brings the fight inside your head.
- February 2014: Hideous Creatures: Star Vampires. “The human blood on which it had fed revealed the hitherto invisible outlines of the feaster.” Invisible outlines that shall be expanded upon, extended even, into all sorts of dimensions. Are they summoned demons or feral predators? Are they kindred or competitors to Colin Wilson’s Space Vampires? Herein we trace the Shambler From the Stars, with bonus Night’s Black Agents statistics and a scenario seed.
- March 2014: Lilith. “Satan here held his Babylonish court, and in the blood of stainless childhood the leprous limbs of phosphorescent Lilith were laved.” Lilith as Queen of the Vampires, Lady of the Night — or as First Rebel and First Heroine? We look at the many faces of Lilith, as a Trail of Cthulhu titan (Elder Goddess or Great Old One), Night’s Black Agents vampire queen, Mutant City Blues super-Typhoid Mary, and at her role in the center of the First Esoterror Operation.
- April 2014: Hideous Creatures: Dark Young of Shub-Niggurath. “Worlds of sardonic actuality impinging on vortices of febrile dream – Iä! Shub-Niggurath! The Goat with a Thousand Young!” Are they nameless horrors or numbered servitors, Druidic nightmares or ab-natural abominations? Where do they grow, and on what loathsome food do they thrive? Follow them to Hell and Hydra, or to Mormo and Monsanto.
- Bonus Stuff: Hideous Creatures: The Un-Numbered Ones. For subscribers only, this free issue of Ken Writes About Stuff opens the books on Lovecraftian monsters that have never taken stat-block form before in any game!
For any Ken Writes About Stuff installments you may have missed, go back to the main KWAS page.
You may note that the last two regular Hideous Creatures — and indeed the whole series — followed the results of our Esteemed Reader Poll on the topic fairly closely. The monsters in the Bonus Stuff will likewise track our Esteemed Reader Poll on that subject. (Although rather than do a whole HC workup on one of these essentially unattested monsters, I’m more likely to include a few creatures in more like normal Trail of Cthulhu creature writeup style.) It’s as though we care about what you want!
And so we do! Should the Gods of the Copybook Headings smile upon us and KWAS return for another year, what would you like to see us cover? By now, I think I’ve mapped out most of the possible things I can do in the format, although I’m always open to new suggestions.
Hideous Creatures: This category will definitely continue, as I’m hardly out of the Lovecraftian woods yet. Headliner monsters left to do include the Colour Out of Space, the Great Race of Yith, the Hunting Horror, and the Serpent Folk — but I could easily be persuaded to change things up with a few flavorful B-listers like the Dimensional Shambler, the Lloigor, the Rat-Thing, and the good old bad old Tcho-Tcho. Or maybe you have some favorite I haven’t mentioned here. We’ve already got a request in for the Elder Things, for example, to accompany the shoggoths.
GUMSHOE Zoom: Are there specific rules thickets you’d like to see me dive into? With physical and mental combat out of the way, what strikes you as rich in story possibility, and thus worth zooming in on? I promise, no vehicle building systems.
Campaign Frames: I’m still possibly happiest (or perhaps slap-happiest) with Moon Dust Men of all the issues of KWAS so far, so I’d love to do another campaign frame. I’m still trying to crack the “sitting” mechanism for a Carnacki campaign frame, so we’ll probably get that in 2014/15. I’ve also had a couple of requests for an Elizabethan setting, which might just be adapting Night’s Black Agents to the age of Walsingham and Marlowe, or it might be a full-on “School of Night” occult adventure frame. But what else cries out for GUMSHOE besides wide-lapel UFOs and steampunk ghost-breaking?
Looking Glass: Our city-in-a-PDF framework format got off to a rousing start with Mumbai, don’t you think? In the next year, I’m most likely to try and tackle a 1930s city to show how it can be done, but I’m happy to change planes on your whim.
Nighted Tomes: With monsters under the microscope, how logical is an “expanded look” at one of the major Mythos tomes? Expect to see a Necronomicon piece next year — but should it replace a Hideous Creatures entry or not? How much Cthulhu is too much Cthulhu? Shriek your answer to the stars, below.
Special Subjects: This is the “everything else” sort of category, but it boils down to one subject, so far mythical or folkloric or eliptonic, that can be spun for multiple GUMSHOE games. Lilith will go here, as does Die Glocke — what other mysteries should we plumb with our Investigative pools a-quiver? We already have one request for the Axe Man of New Orleans, so famous crimes might make another topic to plunder.
In short, fill up the comments below with what Stuff you’d like to see Ken Write About. And then I shall fill up your in-boxes with that very Stuff, or Stuff very much like it.