Do not expect your quest for vengeance against the interstellar arch-criminal Quandos Vorn to be met with universal equanimity. Especially uninterested in the havoc you may wreak while doing so are the Gaean Reach various officials and gatekeepers. Here appear reasons they might give you for dragging their feet or refusing cooperation entirely. Be prepared in advance to refute them.

  1. I recently supplied some information of a like nature and am now being sued. Can you idemnify me against all legal exposure? Do not reply; the question is rhetorical.
  2. By expressing yourself so violently, you have engaged in active ill-feeling. Please be advised that emotional assault contravenes local law.
  3. Though apparently sound on a practical basis we need to know more about the philosophy underpinning your proposal. Please refer to the attached style sheet for information regarding the format of the required essay.
  4. I’m afraid that your application to hunt Quandos Vorn has been queued for future attention, as many others claim the right to bring about the same result. We must not show favoritism.
  5. Due to mental disability I am unable to remember requests. Though I do not discourage you from making them I am obliged to warn you that all effort shall prove bootless.
  6. I shall attend to your requests with maximum dispatch. To which planet shall I mail the results of my inquiries? What? No, I’m sorry, responses may not be mailed to the planet of request. Labor relations demand strict adherence to this policy.
  7. Religious scruples prevent me from taking action before the Ides of Yench.
  8. I have already accepted bribes to stop you from proceeding. The suggestion that I would go back on prior promises traduces my honesty.
  9. Lest I be accused of entertaining the receipt of bribes, your request must be heard in the presence of a bureaucratic chaperone. I shall put in a requisition for such services. Typical wait time is four to six weeks.
  10. Quandos Vorn? Incised on the form here it clearly says Quandos Chorn. A common input-output error of the form inciser, but needless to say we must start over.
  11. I will be frank and say that the thought of satisfying your entreaty terrifies me.

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.


In fiction, supporting characters often function as reflections of the protagonists. As we know from DramaSystem, main characters in a dramatic story can be defined as torn between two competing impulses. In the game we call these Dramatic Poles.

In Hamlet, our title character is torn between Action and Contemplation. And wouldn’t you know it, two minor characters exist in relationship to him, each of them expressing one of those poles alone.

Horatio reflects Hamlet’s contemplative side—he is all thought and caution, and thus (spoiler) the one who survives to tell the tale.

Fortinbras marches through seemingly only to prick Hamlet’s guilt about his inaction. Later he also helps provide closure at the end. Tellingly, the last interaction is between the two foils, Horatio and Fortinbras, indicating that Hamlet’s story is done, his story having been fatally resolved in favor of action.

In Casablanca, Rick’s dramatic poles are the ever-popular Selfishness vs. Altruism.

Laszlo (Paul Henried) serves as the foil who is purely altruistic—almost annoyingly so, since we want Ilsa to be available to resume her relationship with Rick.

Claude Rains as Captain Renault reflects the opposite pole, supplying cinema’s most delightful portrayal of pure selfishness. Notably, he too flips to altruism at the end. (Whoops. Another spoiler. Hey, it’s been out for six decades.)

Villains and mentors sometimes also serve as foils. To cite a more nerdly example, you could argue that if Luke’s poles are Light Side vs. Dark Side, Obi-Wan and Darth Vader each represent one of them. (Really Star Wars is a procedural with a few nods to drama, so the analogy breaks down when squinted at too hard.)

As a DramaSystem player, you can give your GM something to work with by inventing and interacting with supporting characters who each embody a single one of your poles.

As a GM, you can conceive of supporting characters as foils, pushing a character toward whatever pole she’s currently neglecting.

So if your Hillfolk game includes a chieftain torn between expediency and mercy, his supporting character foils might be:

  • Hard-Talker, a grim-faced, veteran adviser who always argues for the cruel but effective course
  • Petal, the fresh-faced priestess who speaks up for forgiveness

Often you can retrofit a supporting character created on the spur of the moment to fulfill a need in one scene, adjusting her so that she becomes a long-term foil.


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.

Illustration: Jonathan Wyke

logogumshoeSee P. XX

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.

The skulking Outer Dark Entity known as the sulp crosses the membrane into places where humans keep the possessions they do not need but cannot quite bear to get rid of. Sulps can appear in warehouses, attics, derelict buildings or the squalid homes of hoarders. They most often manifest in self-storage facilities. The name sulp in fact is an Ordo Veritatis term deriving from the acronym SLP, or storage locker prowler. Mostly they seem to be able to push through the membrane into objects connected with murder or trauma. Your classic storage locker full of mementos squirreled away by a serial killer suits them to a T.

At rest, the sulp looks like a cube of pale-skinned human flesh, about the size of a piece of carry-on baggage, with bulbous eyes, moist, thick-lipped mouth and patchy hair follicles. When on the move it transforms itself into an obscene, loosely fleshy pseudo-humanoid.

The sulp latches onto the identities of particular targets by fondling and licking their former or stored possessions. Through this practice it forms a gradual psychic bond, eventually granting it the ability to track the people who most often handled its appropriated fetish objects. From this link sulps glean crucial facts about their targets’ lives, enabling them to stalk them. Like most Outer Dark Entities, sulps play with their food. They prefer to torment and emotionally molest their victims before finally leaping upon them and literally eviscerating them. Sulps dismember their kills, taking key portions of their skeletons back to their storage locker hideouts. These they form into a distressing sculpture. Ordo researches have yet to determine whether this construction fulfills a purely ornamental function, or has some practical use to the sulp, perhaps as a psychic antenna allowing it to locate more distant victims.

To find a sulp that has been terrorizing an area in the radius of it’s storage locker, agents must triangulate its location and track it to its lair. Sulps have been known to use items they discover in their home storage areas as weapons. So be prepared to face guns, knives, antique swords and the occasional bandsaw.

Sulps speak in low, mournful voices and have been recorded as expressing the opinion that all of humanity is but a dump heap of delights for them to sort through.


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.’

FourmisTRADE 11SepFrom City of Lights to Palaces of Dream

Evocative, enigmatic, and haunted by airborne polyps, The Book of Ants, a.k.a Livre des Fourmis, gives Trail of Cthulhu Keepers and players an essential window into Paris of the 20s and 30s, and into the Dreamlands beyond.

From November 1918 to September 1929, the young poet Henri Salem fell in with the surrealists of Paris. Swept up by the imperious charisma of group leader André Breton, he rapidly found himself sharing cafe tables with the key figures of this most influential and fractious art movement of the pre-war period. According to this, his diary of the era, he traded quips with Marcel Duchamp, feared the madness of Antonin Artaud, and served as model for the famous shot of ants crawling from a hole in a man’s hand in Salvador Dalí and Luis Buñuel’s scandalous film Un Chien Andalou.
If his tale can be fully believed, he stepped with them from waking Paris to an ancient yet surprisingly malleable realm of dream. (Save for Breton, who could never make the leap.) There he walked alongside such Mythos figures as Randolph Carter, King Kuranes and the ghoul once known as Richard Pickman.
As such his diary serves as an indispensable guide to anyone wishing to explore the dangerous demimonde of the Parisian art scene, where disagreements over aesthetics are often settled with knife wounds and broken bones. Even more, it provides a rare look into the ever-shifting shores of the Dreamlands, just as its air of the fantastical gives way to horrific reflections of a world spinning into chaos and death.

Status: In development

When the stunning photographs taken by Harry Burton of the Carter expedition’s discovery of Tutankhamun in 1922 were recently exhibited at Oxford’s Ashmolean museum, one print was conspicuously not considered for display.

Those of you with high Cthulhu Mythos ratings know that Nitocris, possible last pharaoh of the 6th dynasty, became a ghoul after her death. So perhaps you will not be surprised to learn that Burton, a Metropolitan Museum of Art photographer on loan to Carter, took an image of in which her blurry outline can clearly be seen. She intruded into Burton’s picture of guardian statues in an outer funerary chamber. Burton, engrossed in his composition, saw her only after he developed the picture. His lack of alarm likely saved him from a gruesome fate.

Why was Nitocris prowling around in Tutankhamun’s tomb, you ask. Who do you think administers the ancient curses of the pharaohs against the plunderers of their grave, anyway?

The photograph, the first ever taken of this particularly numinous ghoul, captured a sliver of her spirit essence. Those who gaze too long on the image form an unwitting bond with Nitocris. No matter where they are in the world, the ghoul queen sends her minions. Individuals judged to be valuable to the ghoul community are devoured and excreted as freshly reborn ghouls. (Yes, that’s how the process works. Your other Lovecraftian sources have been too genteel to tell you this.) The rest are marked for later consumption, after they die.

Flash back to the time of your series, in the 1930s. Renegade NYU Egyptology professor Nathaniel Stonebridge has stumbled onto the secret of the photograph. Driven by a heedless thirst for knowledge, he wants to be the first mortal to witness and document the hideous rebirthing ceremony by which Nitocris brings new ghouls into her flock. To this end he gained access to the suppressed Burton image, normally housed in the Metropolitan’s securest vault. By threatening Metropolitan archivist Norman Lanning with the revelation of certain details of his unsavory private life, Stonebridge got him to strike new prints of the negative. These Stonebridge has been circulating to his many enemies in occult academia, in hopes that Nitocris will choose one of them, and he can watch it all happen.

Since letting Stonebridge strike new prints from the negative, Lanning has vanished. His superiors, afraid that the Nitocris image has fallen into the wrong hands, approach the investigators to find out just what has happened to him.


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.

When you watch the typical serial cable drama that DramaSystem, the game engine underlying Hillfolk, in large part emulates, you’ll note that the scenes tend to be short. Occasionally you get a change of pace episode structured more like a one act play. Mostly you see a large number of two-hander scenes in which the petition is presented, the granter plays various facets of the argument, the petitioner responds, and resolution occurs. DramaSystem players often like to get into the scene and pull every possible nugget of interaction out of it. However if you’re willing to engage in the occasional quickie scene, that provides a variety of pace that benefits everyone.

In DramaSystem the granter dictates the length of the scene more than the petitioner. As granter you can shorten a scene by allowing your resistance to be overcome in the tighter time frame you’d seen in the compressed medium of television or fiction. (Really every medium is more compressed than roleplaying, which is only fair since we’re making it up as we go along without aid of later editing.)

Another potential-rich way to keep a scene snappy is to leave the petition unresolved. In TV writing you’ll see that this happens all the time. The petitioner makes the request but the grantor does not tip her hand as to which way she’s going to go. In DramaSystem terms, a non-response constitutes a refusal. But it also leaves this conflict open to be furthered in a later scene, either to the advantage or detriment of the petitioner. This creates suspense, leaving a question hanging over the proceedings. Which way are you, as granter, going to jump?

As granter, a non-response response does cost you a drama token. At the same time, though, it heightens your character’s emotional power by leaving that narrative hook hanging out there. So although you may be tempted to end each interaction on a definitive yes or no to the petition, consider the occasional power of an unresolved scene conclusion. Just say, “I walk away without answering.” You may find it the coldest rebuff of all.


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.

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.

A while back we learned of the vials of supposedly destroyed smallpox virus that turned up in a laboratory storage room in Bethesda, Maryland. Luckily, no one was exposed to the deadly disease, allowing us to guiltlessly mine the incident for scenario inspiration. How you might use it depends on the game you’re currently running:

Ashen Stars: The lasers get a contract to find out what happened to an archaeological survey team tasked to explore the ancient alien ruins of the outlying world Cophetus. They arrive to find the team’s base, with evidence that they had located the tomb of a great emperor and were set to open its entry hatches. The team’s interpretation of the hieroglyphs found on the side of the complex alert them to a different story—this was the tomb of the ancient pathogen that nearly extinguished this mystery civilization. Can the team learn enough to locate, rescue and decontaminate the archaeologists before they succumb to the disease—or spread it to the stars?

Mutant City Blues: Conspiracy blogger Warner Osterman is found dead in your jurisdiction, a .22 bullet in his brain. His last story was about finding serum sample vials in a disused military laboratory. According to the contents of his laptop, Osterman believed these contained a version of the disease that caused people around the world to gain super powers ten years ago. That’s the angle that gets the case assigned to the HCIU. Did Osterman die because he got too close to the secret of the Sudden Mutation Event? Or just because he made people think he did?

Dying Earth: Locals in an isolated village your neer-do-wells happen to traipse through run a lucrative sideline in waylaying treasure hunters. When visitors come, they let slip the presence of an ancient treasure vault, one they pretend to be too superstitious to venture near. Over many years they’ve learned the right words to trigger the greed of arrogant freebooters. The adventurers head off to plunder the ancient temple, which in fact is the repository of an enervating energy left behind by a heedlessly experimental arch-magician. The magical plague kills off the visitors. Then, armed with protective amulets, villagers head on down to strip their corpses of valuables. Can our anti-heroes escape the fate of so many likeminded troublemakers before them. If so, do they turn the tables on the rubes who so impertinently used their own greed against them?

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