Frustrated in your hunt for Quandos Vorn, the arch-criminal of the Gaean Reach upon whom you have sworn vengeance dire? Rather than seek him directly, you and the rest of your rag-tag band of righteous grudge holders may find it fruitful to follow the trail of an item he has stolen. Yes, perhaps in some cases the item will turn out to have been purloined by others. But one of them must surely bring you face to face with the man himself–or at least to one of his bases, or a lackey eager to betray his present location.

  1. Prototype of the First Intersplit Drive. Stolen from the European Aeronautics Museum in Brussels, Old Earth, by an as yet unknown subterfuge. Docents discovered a hologram in its place eight days after its last confirmed cleaning. Recovering this object will entail logistical challenges, as it weighs in at half a tonne.
  2. Sapphire Crown of the Swamp Witch. Carved from an enormous gem of the specified type, this was taken from a shaman of Wyst in a savage raid that left her and seven members of her retinue dead.
  3. Pocket Watch once owned by Ferebos Yalune. Taken from a memorabilia auction on Alcydon. On record as admiring Yalune’s reign of terror from three centuries ago, Quandos Vorn collects artifacts related to his life and is thus suspected in this theft.
  4. Phryndal’s Recursive Refusium. Self-explanatory.
  5. The Jandoon Hotel at Calara. Dematerialized in its entirety, with seventy guests and one hundred and forty staff members, after a billing dispute with a roue later revealed to be a Quandos Vorn alias. Assumed destroyed until relatives of wealthy missing guests began receiving ransom demands. Staff members are believed to have been sold by human traffickers somewhere in the Ferriers sector.
  6. The Perfect Strawberry. Preserved in a beautiful crystal cryosphere, this was judged the apex of the fragaria ananassa at the 143rd Gustation Tournament of Yaphet. It spent its next hundred and twelve years in the Botanic Hall of Fame until it was taken at projac-point by known Vorn associates. Speculation has it that Vorn intends to eat it as part of his upcoming birthday celebrationtime and location to be announced.
  7. Murmurings of the Concrete Column at Plast. Copies of this inexplicable recording of course remain in various top-secret databanks, but the voice unit that captured the original audio was taken during a starmenter raid on the ship Ecdysiast.

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. This ingenious hybrid 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.

Your freelance law enforcement crew may have formed and then found a ship with which to ply the justice trade out in the Bleed. Or perhaps you joined an existing laser gang that already had a ship. Whether or not you had a say in the class of ship you crew on, it has an attitude toward the galaxy that eventually comes to affect the way you see things. All right, all right, you’re a perfect flower of free volition, unencumbered by cultural influence of any stamp. But you have noticed that you can type other crews according to the type of ship they ride, right? You can guess an investigator’s ship class from seeing how she drinks in a bar, and can likewise estimate the sort of person you’ll be dealing with from the class of ship that hails you in the big bad black.

Let’s start with the obvious. And there is no ship class more obvious than The Hammer. The ship class that notoriously got liberated from its original designers by disgruntled operators. That tells you how a bullish craft shapes the decisions of those behind its consoles.

Hammers require more crew members than most to op their many battle stations. They take more casualties than most laser crews. This means recruiting a steady stream of expendables. Seasoned investigators may fill lead positions, but that leaves a lot of hair-trigger jarheads wandering around starport when the main folk are off gathering information. Look for the thick-necked young crewperson with the heat burns and skull-shaven hair, and that’s your typical Hammer crewer.

Used to cruising the Bleed in their shoot-first, question the debris later vessels, they default to bullying when challenged. Like most no-necks, you can back them down with a superior show of force and steelier Intimidation of your own. Many have criminal pasts whose past Downside associations you may recall and therefore leverage. Flattery regarding their workout routines can loosen their lips, too. Just be ready for a long stream of details about the relative merits of zero-grav versus heightened-grav core strength moves. Hammer crews don’t literally meet the definition of an alien species but they do tend to form their own cultures. Ergo, a show of Respect may be the fastest way to earn the trust of these authority-loving outlaws. Yep, they’re walking contradictions: folk who used to be loners on the run and are now valued members of a keenly survival-oriented unit. They’re ready to die for their brethren, so never try to get them to rat on each other. Whatever you need from them, holo it as something that benefits the team. Their sweaty, edge-dwelling, aggro team.


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.

When I start a new series, I always intend to keep it separate from the last one. Certain factors inevitably continue from one game to the next. At the top of this list appear the habits of individual players in creating and portraying their characters. The way any two players tend to riff off one another tends to act as a constant, too. Players can shift these with effort but the reasons that bring them to the gaming table tend over time to push the game toward the group’s default groove.

I have my habits too and try to consciously avoid some of them. I ration the use of particular themes that I’ve used too much in the past.

Sometimes though the story can have a surprising way of wending back to previously explored territory. A new player joined the Alma Mater Magica DramaSystem game I’m currently running and improvised her way to an area the rest of the crew already knew well. She introduced a dream reality into the setting, along with the sort of dreamscaping that featured in our previous Dreamhounds of Paris campaign.

Other players started to joke about the possibility of a cross-over.

At first I decided that I wouldn’t set about to introduce any elements from the old game in the new. If another player had wanted to, the narrative freedom of DramaSystem would certainly have allowed it. But no one did.

You might interpret this as meaning that they didn’t really want the current series to become a sequel to the last.

But the jokes and references kept coming.

I knew it would get a positive response when it happened, so when the story allowed the opportunity, I succumbed to the crossover urge.

A minor antagonist character turned out to be someone else in disguise. He revealed himself to be an insane dream reflection of a PC from Dreamhounds.

Yes, you guessed it. A simulacrum of Salvador Dalí turned out to be the big bad antagonist of the series’ second season.

Lesson: the fun value of a thing is more important than abstract qualms about the cheapness of the effect. In roleplaying, use what works.

Although Dalí hails from the Dreamlands, so far we’ve kept the rest of the Mythos out of it. So in our hunger for that sweet, sweet crossover buzz, we did show some restraint.

Hillfolk is a game of high-stakes interpersonal conflict by acclaimed designer Robin D. Laws. Using its DramaSystem rules, you and your friends can weave enthralling sagas of Iron Age tribes, Regency socialites, border town drug kingpins, a troubled crime family, posthuman cyberpunks and more. Purchase Hillfolk and its companion Blood in the Snow in print and PDF at the Pelgrane Shop.

Antioch, CA, a city of about 100,000 in the San Francisco Bay area. Mr. Verity meets the team in a sleepy old-fashioned coffee shop catering to truck drivers and retirees. He lays out your next assignment as follows:

“A local medical doctor and hobbyist paranormal investigator named Randy Harb has been raising awareness of a phantom hitch-hiker story. According to reports he claims to have assembled, several motorcyclists have picked up a young woman thumbing it on Highway 4, in the vicinity of the 160 off-ramp. She wears motorcycle leathers herself and carries a helmet, and directs them to a residential address in Antioch. When they drop her off, she vanishes into thin air. The bikers then knock on the door of the home she directed them to, at which point an elderly man or woman informs them that their daughter died in a bike accident twenty years ago. Harb only has second-hand accounts, as you’d expect in this variation of a classic urban legend. However, two motorcyclists have disappeared in the past six weeks. Harb has been going on forums speculating that the woman’s ghost has turned vengeful and taken them.

“More likely an Esoterror cell has piggybacked on this legend, staging the disappearances. They might be faked, or the cell might be taking and killing innocent bikers. We fear that they are attempting to, or have already, summoned an Outer Dark Entity. An ODE called either a Wayfarer or, more recently, a Vengeful Hitcher, appears in several case files. It appears by the side of the road, flagging down drivers. It then devours them, takes their vehicles, and uses them in other kill-kidnappings. A Wayfarer’s activities parallel those of a serial killer, except that it is physically quite competent in resisting apprehension.

“Your mission: find the cell, if any. Learn whether Harb belongs to it or is being used by them, as amateur paranormalists so often are. Stop them from summoning the Wayfarer if they have not done so. If they have, find and destroy the creature. Then shut Harb up and veil this out.

“Take care not to activate currently unrelated public fears. Two potential panic vectors concern us here. One, the mysterious plague that wiped out Antioch’s original inhabitants during the gold rush. Two, concern arising from the city’s unusually high population of registered sex offenders. These may interact unpredictably in relationship to the phantom hitch-hiker legendry, perhaps altering the Wayfarer’s capabilities. Exercise all due caution.”

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.

A Mutant City Blues Scenario Premise

Backstory: The local chapter of the Genetic Action Front has long been a lightning rod for tension between the city’s enhanced and unaltered communities.

The Crime: When a recent recruit to the organization is found murdered in its offices, slumped over a photocopier, its enemies exult in the scandal. Detectives ID the vic as Brad Carpenter, a hothead who recently moved to the city after hellish bullying at his small-town high school. His enhancements included speed, reflexes, and lightning decision making. Carpenter showed signs of the attention deficit disorder typical of that confluence of powers on the Quade Diagram.

The Suspects: This seems like an open and shut case. Carpenter is found with puncture wounds in his throat, consistent with fangs, and died from a biological toxin, its effects bolstered by his speedster metabolism. The GAF’s sharp-elbowed second-in-command, Guadalupe Ramirez, has fangs and describes herself as also disease and pain immune. Bite venom is adjacent to fangs on the Quade Diagram, so she could easily have that, too.

The Twist: After the detectives win her over, Ramirez makes a shameful confession: she isn’t enhanced at all. She identifies with the movement, and is sure she will any day now manifest latent powers. But the fangs she wears are cosmetic, and although she has a strong constitution she isn’t actually immune to disease. Nor does she resist pain much better than the average person. Guadalupe begs them not to reveal the truth: it will ruin her career and worse, cost her all her friendships. Renewed testing shows that the killing was actually performed by mundane means intended to ape a murder using Ramirez’s supposed powers.

The Culprit: Is it Lance Mullins, who bullied Carpenter at school and then himself mutated, blaming his classmate for infecting him? Ramirez’s wife, Katrina Richards, who came to hate both her and the Genetic Action Front and sought to extravagantly punish a recent affair? Or anti-mutant bigot Denis Price, who decided to kill one enemy and frame another? Only the dedicated detectives of the Heightened Crimes Investigation Unit can close the case.


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 my recent piece on the necessity of kicking out incorrigibly disruptive players, I briefly mentioned geek culture’s fear of ostracizing behavior. JS3’s comment on the post has me wanting to consider that in a little more depth.

The idea that geeks don’t separate themselves from fellow members of the sub-culture due to their own experience being shunned in the wider world has achieved truism status. However, as the sub-culture increasingly becomes just plain regular pop culture, it’s one that could use some examination.

I’d argue that the narrative of our collective instinct against ostracism is largely an after-the-fact rationalization of something much simpler and near-universal: the desire to avoid confrontation. Audiences at GM masterclass panels laugh delightedly when I say, “kick ‘em out” because they wish they had the wherewithal to stand up to that toxic, disruptive player in their group. But most of us will put up with a lot before launching into an unpleasant interaction. Not just introverts, either—you have to be kind of toxic yourself to enjoy confrontation.

This of course is what toxic, manipulative people depend on; this natural impulse lets them get away with their hijinks.

That’s one of the big emotional roots of Donald Trump’s otherwise surprising appeal. Lots of us would love to yell “You’re fired!” He’d kick that inveterate rules lawyer out of the group in two seconds flat.

(As GM, that is. As player, he’d be that rules lawyer.)

But just as no halfway empathetic person enjoys the sickly adrenaline rush of a touchy personal interaction, we also don’t like to admit that to ourselves.

That’s not just a geek thing either. Confrontation avoidance rules the day in most social environments, covered up with one justification for inaction or another.

But when we sidestep a messy interaction, we create a narrative around it that makes sense to us, the fable of anti-ostracization. If we didn’t have that explanation we’d find another.

That’s a big part of Hillfolk’s appeal. DramaSystem lets you fantasize about telling people off in exactly the same way that D&D encourages you to vicariously slay monsters. Through its rules structure and the distance afforded by playing fictional characters, it lets the confrontation-averse safely yell, browbeat, protest, issue stark demands and, yes, even storm off, slamming the imaginary door on the way out.

I’m not proposing a Hillfolk series as a cure for emotional reticence. But it sure provides a sweet vacation from it.

Original image by Gage Skidmore, under CC BY-SA 2.0 license.

Hillfolk is a game of high-stakes interpersonal conflict by acclaimed designer Robin D. Laws. Using its DramaSystem rules, you and your friends can weave enthralling sagas of Iron Age tribes, Regency socialites, border town drug kingpins, a troubled crime family, posthuman cyberpunks and more. Purchase Hillfolk and its companion Blood in the Snow in print and PDF at the Pelgrane Shop.

I’m glad tabletop culture still seems to respect elder wisdom. Otherwise I’d be reluctant to tell you how long I’ve been doing GM Masterclass panels.

Over time a few questions change, but some stay the same.

One question you don’t get much anymore: the once-standard, “How do we get new blood into the hobby?” This is because today’s con panels brim with teens and college students. Yes, OGs* who don’t get out much, the hallowed ones longed for by prophecy have finally come to save us.

A couple more perennial questions have persisted into the new generation, meaning that certain Things I Always Say must continue to be said. Saves me the cognitive trouble of coming up with new shibboleths, I suppose.

“How do I get the combat and tactics oriented players in my group to like story and characterization more?” is still a thing. (Answer I Always Give: If they’re interested, they’ll catch on in time. But maybe they’re not, and they’ve come to your table to combat and tactics.)

“What do I do about this one person in my group who is doing [fill in incredibly dysfunctional thing]?” also remains all too common.

The answer we all have to keep repeating is: talk to them, out of game, out of character, and tell them that you’re finding their behavior completely undermining. When they respond as desired, great.

When they don’t, kick ‘em out.

In a broadly attended, non-specialist panel, like one I recently took part in at FanExpo Canada, these three simple words provoke a ripple of delighted laughter. Attendees shiver at this thought of crazy liberation. “We can do that?” the laugh seems to ask.

Yes, you can do that. And should. The downside of geek culture’s fear of ostracizing behavior has been discussed at greater length elsewhere. To see how ridiculous it is to allow someone to constantly undermine the game, throw the question into another context. Would a football team tolerate a quarterback who constantly runs toward his own team’s goalposts, because that makes him the center of attention? Would aquarium fanciers invite somebody back after he drains everyone’s tanks?

Acceptance by others requires acceptance of others. Trying to continue with an undermining player will just kill your love of the game.

It doesn’t matter whether he drives others to game night, or brings the pizza, or is the one who introduced the rest of you in the first place.

If he insists on undermining your game after you’ve kindly asked him not to, three words pertain:

Kick ‘em out.

*Original Grognards, of course.

You can eject an egregiously undermining player from any fine Pelgrane Press game. For example, GUMSHOE the groundbreaking investigative roleplaying system by Robin D. Laws that shifts the focus of play away from finding clues (or worse, not finding them), and toward interpreting clues, solving mysteries and moving the action forward. GUMSHOE powers many Pelgrane Press games, including Trail of Cthulhu, Night’s Black Agents, Esoterrorists, Ashen Stars, Mutant City Blues and Fear Itself. Learn more about how to run GUMSHOE games, and download the GUMSHOE System Reference Document to make your own GUMSHOE products under the Open Gaming License or the Creative Commons 3.0 Attribution Unported License.

In the world of Mutant City Blues, so-called muters pursue an obsessive hobby. Fascinated by people granted extraordinary powers by the Sudden Mutation Event, they attempt to log personal sightings of mutations used in the wild. Like bird watchers, they maintain journals logging their sightings. The object of the exercise is to tick off all the major powers of the Quade Diagram. Incidents of powers in use must be spontaneous in order to fully count. Attending a scheduled performance by mutants, or worse, paying a mutant to deploy venom or flame blast so you can tick it off in your journal constitutes a huge no-no in muter circles. To fully score a sighting with the World Muter Association, one must witness without participating.

Mutant rights groups describe the hobby as discriminatory, casting genetically altered as exotic Others to be ogled and cataloged. The threat of constant surveillance by muters adds another level of anxiety to life with an expressed helix. It doesn’t just border on stalking, mutant leaders say; the entire hobby is one of harassment, full stop. Yet some mutants themselves participate in the hobby. Any mutant in need of a little status can easily find it at the nearest muter gathering. Cooperative mutants may lead muters on a tour of your city’s mutant district, either for the emotional rewards, or perhaps for covert payments. After all, you don’t have to write everything down in your journal, do you?

Muter groups can feature in your Mutant City case files in a number of ways.

  • A hate group sets itself up as a group of harmless muters, giving themselves quasi-respectable cover as they stalk their victims.
  • A muter witnesses the murder of a mutant, but fears to come forward due to the slayer’s heavy duty connections. Your officers must convince the witness to testify in court—and keep him alive long enough to do so.
  • A muter is shot to death by a mutant he was trailing. The shooter claims self-defense. Did his quarry have reason to fear for her life, or was the deadly incident set up by a third party, hoping for a fatal outcome?
  • A muter’s journal, collected as evidence in one case, contains evidence of more serious crime committed by a dangerous mutant the squad has never been able to hang a charge on. Yet the warrant doesn’t cover that incident, and the muter, fearing for the integrity of his beloved hobby, refuses to voluntarily release its full contents. Do the cops use his notes to capture their quarry now, and hope the assistant D.A. can smooth over the differences in court? Or do they find another way to bring down the perp that won’t get tossed on constitutional grounds?

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 Raymond Chandler’s short story “Nevada Gas,” Johnny De Ruse, one of his proto-Marlowe protagonists, pays a hotel detective for answers to questions. In GUMSHOE terms, he’s clearly using the Bargaining ability. Before De Ruse gives him the dough, he extracts a promise not to tip off the man he’s investigating. A few beats later, he discovers that the house dick, Kuvalick, went straight to his target to spill the beans.

GUMSHOE handles requests for benefits other than information as spends. You spend a pool point associated with the investigative ability you’re using. You’d get the info from Kuvalick, then spend a point to get him to shut up.

De Ruse naturally is plenty steamed when he finds out that Kuvalick double-dealt him. You can expect your players to be even more annoyed than their characters if they make spends and get less than nothing for them. Yet to never permit a supporting character to betray them means that you can never use this basic genre situation.

To retain the possibility of petty sellouts in a way players find acceptable, frame it as a choice. As the PC extracts the promise of cooperation from Kuvalick, suggest, in GM authorial voice, something along the lines of “you can see the wheels turning in the backs of his eyes. Trusting him might be a crapshoot.” When the player has 2 points in Bargaining, you could indicate that 1 point lends the chance of cooperation, while 2 buys certainty. Even if the player has only 1 point, she can still decide whether spending it on an untrustworthy recipient is still worth risking. Then when the betrayal comes, the player at least made an aware choice.

(In a scenario you could easily roll randomly to determine whether your Kuvalick equivalent rats the characters out or stays bribed.)

Except in the bleakest setting, let’s say a Purist Cthulhu scenario, I’d then refund the spent point.

This uncertainty principle could extend to other Interpersonal spends, adding suspense to the proceedings. The investigator senses that a 1-point Reassurance spend might or might not keep the scared maid from staying put while you go off to find the ghoul. That the recipient of your 1-point Cop Talk might agree not to record your interaction in his notebook, and so on.

One could argue that characters ought to have Bullshit Detector in order to sense that a bribe might not stick. On the other hand, you could also say that Bargaining includes the ability to assess honesty during a Bargain, Reassurance can test whether your calming words will stick, and so on.

GUMSHOE is the groundbreaking investigative roleplaying system by Robin D. Laws that shifts the focus of play away from finding clues (or worse, not finding them), and toward interpreting clues, solving mysteries and moving the action forward. GUMSHOE powers many Pelgrane Press games, including Trail of Cthulhu, Night’s Black Agents, Esoterrorists, Ashen Stars, Mutant City Blues and Fear Itself. Learn more about how to run GUMSHOE games, and download the GUMSHOE System Reference Document to make your own GUMSHOE products under the Open Gaming License or the Creative Commons 3.0 Attribution Unported License.

Detective_400Face Madness and Corruption… Alone!

Los Angeles, 1937. Fastest-growing city in the world. Suicide capital of America. By day, a place of blue skies and palm trees. By night, a town ruled by the smell of fear. The System, a tight-knit conspiracy of cops, crooks, politicians and businessmen, holds L.A. in its grip. One lone private detective, equipped with smarts, fists, and just maybe a code of honor, uncovers the town’s secret truths. But what happens when you scratch past the veneer of human malfeasance to reveal an eternal evil—the malign, cosmic indifference of H. P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos?

You get Cthulhu ConfidentialTM.

You get GUMSHOE One-2-OneTM.

One Game Master, One Player

GUMSHOE One-2-One retunes, rebuilds and reenvisions the acclaimed GUMSHOE investigative rules set, as seen in such hit roleplaying games as Trail of Cthulhu and Night’s Black Agents, for one player and one GM.

Together you create a story that evokes the classic solo protagonist mystery format.

Can’t find an entire game group who can play when you can?

Want an intense head-to-head gaming experience?

Play face to face.

Or take advantage of its superb fit with virtual tabletops to play online.

Includes all the rules you need to play, plus a detailed approach to building your own mysteries.

Horror Goes Hardboiled

Cthulhu ConfidentialTM drops your hero into the noir nightscape of hardboiled-era Los Angeles. Meet its powerbrokers, from the kings of its vice rackets to the Hollywood studio bosses who mold America’s dreams. Rub shoulders with cultists and radio evangelists. Frequent its legendary restaurants and glittering nightspots. Just don’t get hit by that careening Packard while standing at the end of the Lido Pier. There’s a dead man at the wheel.

The Party Girl With the Stolen Sanity

Includes a fully rendered scenario, “The Fathomless Sleep.” How exactly did fast-living society girl Helen Deakin come down with a case of catatonia? Her sultry sister pays you to find out. Explore a web of blackmail, dirty money, and weird mysticism.

A hard case like you won’t stand for any flimsy, half-hearted introductory adventure. “The Fathomless Sleep” serves as a complete model for further mysteries of your creation in the city of fallen angels.

Status: In development

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