In Hillfolk the GM acts as the custodian of the overall narrative. You mostly do this when calling your own scenes. You use these to heighten tensions, add new fresh developments, and picking up previous ones that got dropped along the way.

Less evidently, you can also intervene during player scenes. This requires utmost subtlety. Be careful that you’re not trying to impose your storyline on the group. Focus on making the emergent story sharper.

I mostly intervene to hint to players that they need to get to the point of the scene, or that the point of the scene has been reached and it’s time to wrap it up.

Recently a new instance of subtle GM contribution came up in our long-running game using the Alma Mater Magica series pitch.

Hard-living Professor of Troll Studies Einar (played by Justin Mohareb) was taking a verbal shellacking from resentful librarian Ann Snooks (Rachel Kahn.) She came at him by accusing him of being no fun any more since he’d stopped drinking. As Justin responded, I could see that he’d momentarily forgotten a telling bit of emotional history. With 28 sessions and counting, there’s a lot of that history to remember, so no shame there. But had this been a written scene in a TV episode, you could be sure that the writers would have had Einar point out that it had been Ann who pushed Einar to quit drinking in the first place. That’s the sort of delicious irony you can’t just leave on the table.

So I stage-whispered that to Justin and he made that his next verbal parry.

My prompt didn’t require him to insert it but he did because why wouldn’t he?

Presumably another player could also have pitched that in from the peanut gallery. As a careful watcher you as GM are more likely to spot an unexploited moment like that.

I take very skeletal notes on each episode, which help me to recall stuff like this. Some of it needs explicating in the pre-action recaps I give at the start of each session. It’s more the paying attention to the note-taking than the notes themselves that make this happen.

I wouldn’t advise looking for memory prompts to give the players. But when the perfect instance arises, consider it part of the DramaSystem GM’s toolkit.


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 volume Blood in the Snow at the Pelgrane Shop.

When Mutant City Blues came out, examples of super powered police procedural TV shows were hard to come by. Back then we had to imagine a hybrid of those two genres. With examples now popping up on network and streaming TV, you kids today have it easy!

“The Flash” comes closest to the structure envisioned in MCB. (Full disclosure: I recently caught up with the first season on streaming and haven’t seen any of the second.) Barry Allen is a civilian forensic specialist who works hand-in-hand with a police detective-slash-father figure. Cases of the week involve super-powered bad guys, referred to here as metahumans. Like MCB, the powers all stem from a single event and yield to scientific analysis. The rest of the DC universe, as seen in connected shows, may have magic and other mystery-busting elements, but at least in the first season, Flash mysteries can be cracked with good old reliable technobabble.

The show diverges from MCB by having most of the clue-gathering take place in a civilian lab facility rather than down at the squad room. But there’s still a gruff lieutenant whose chief function is to bark at Barry when the case isn’t closing fast enough.

A darker, unconnected adaptation of the DC universe, “Gotham” started with an interweaving of “Boardwalk Empire”-style gangland soap opera with case-of-the-week cop investigations. It has shed some of its unevenness in its second season by largely ditching COTW. Although literal super powers don’t figure in its mythology, MCB GMs could use it as inspiration for an alternate campaign frame in which mutations have only begun to manifest, and a city reacts to the first tremors of what will become a dangerously changed world.

“Jessica Jones” points the way to an alternate campaign frame in which our relatively low-powered super-PCs are private detectives and those around them. Its first season still shows a few vestigial traces of the cast of the week structure that must have been part of the pitch when it was first envisioned as a network show. As reconfigured for serialized Netflix binge-watching, we mostly see Jessica use her investigative abilities to turn the tables on a threat that’s coming at her. In that regard, it’s more like Night’s Black Agents than MCB. It’s easy enough, though, to use it as a tonal reference and imagine an MCB game in which the characters free themselves from barking lieutenants and concern for what Internal Affairs will say by making themselves investigators for hire.

As extensively, nay giddily, described in a recent episode of Ken and Robin Talk About Stuff, the two of us received a sneak peek at the books on display in the Royal College of Physicians’ current John Dee exhibition. Among the treasures we examined was Dee’s copy of Trithemius’ Polygraphie. Its pages include several volvelles, paper wheels the reader can turn to use the ciphers contained in this 16th century cryptography text.

Another such tome of interest to Trail of Cthulhu Keepers is the Circumago Tenebrae by Danish philosopher, pastor, engineer, courtier and alchemist Johannes Castenschiold (1532-1574.) Best known today for his spectacular expiration at the feet of King Frederick II, supposedly the result of a Jesuit poisoning scheme, Castenschiold wrote several volumes of cryptography, of which this was the last. He composed its ciphers in the wake of mental breakdown suffered while viewing the heavens through a telescope. Fumes emitted from his alchemical laboratory may have contributed to his fevered epiphany. As described in the preface, his intent was not to reveal what he saw through that lens, but forever imprison those insane truths in a code no one could crack.

Alas, the weird, ornamented alphabet he created for the book took on a life of its own. It now spontaneously turns the several volvelles he included in its pages. Readers sharing its author’s polymath tendencies and propensity for staring into things the eye is best averted from may benefit from this process—though not without risk.

Investigators possessing the Circumago Tenebrae may choose to concentrate on a thorny question while caressing the book’s rich red leather cover. When they come back a few hours later, they find a volvelle turned to highlight one of Castenschiold’s strange letters. For best results, frame the question so that it can be answered in a single word, ideally a noun. Cryptography finds the equivalent Roman letter that starts the one-word answer, in the language best understood by the questioner. So if you want to know which bank Eula Whateley’s unborn son is buried under, the process will yield an M for ‘Milford Federal.’ Its results can be ambiguous. Ask it who killed the mad radio hound Christopher Fife, and it gives you an L, which might refer to either Kent Leman or Raymond Loesser.

Each time the volvelle leads the team to a core clue, the investigator who posed the question loses 1 Sanity.

See the volvelle turn in this GIF from the RCP.

A Column on Roleplaying

by Robin D. Laws


Excerpt from an Ordo Veritatis threat analysis report (draft version)

Author Codename: Coastpoint

In this department we think often of ODEs (Outer Dark Entities) but too little of a parallel phenomenon, one I will, for lack of a better term, call the Outer Dark Intersection. For the rest of this paper I will use the acronym ODI, while recognizing that it has not been officially recognized by the OV style guide.

Intersections differ from entities as follows:

  • Chiefly, ODIs lack sapience, loosely defined to include such signs of intelligence as personality, individual motivation, learning, and the ability to communicate*.
  • They lack bodies, although in some cases they might be said to have, or be, structures.
  • Accordingly they lack locomotion. An ODI might wink into existence or disappear but once manifested in our reality does not visibly shift position by means other than materialization/teleportation.

In short, where an ODE reminds us of a person or animal, an ODI appears to be a place. We can talk with, or be attacked by, an ODE. We can enter an ODI and move around inside it. While inside, we might confusingly believe ourselves to be under assault, or to be encountering intelligent/autonomous beings. In fact, we are interacting with psychic projections, generated by the interaction of our minds with the irrational variant space of an ODI.

The classic ODI would be the haunted house of legend and lore. When entering a haunted structure, a top investigative priority must be to determine whether it is:

  1. an ordinary building infested by ODEs
  2. an ordinary building manipulated by Esoterror agents to create the impression of an ODE manifestation
  3. an unreal building partially present in standard physical reality, and partly present in an intermediate zone between us and the Outer Dark (see below)

In a house haunted by, say, Dementia Larva or Kooks, the structure itself, though it may be trapped or unstable, serves merely as an environment for the threat. A haunted house acting as an ODI is itself a supernatural presence. Agents entering it project their thoughts, fears and expectations regarding haunted houses into the ODI. It responds by presenting them with their dread imaginings—incorporeal spirits, eerie whispers, hurled objects, vivid visions of past crimes. Generally, in keeping with our notions about hauntings, they begin with the minor and eerie, finally escalating into the downright mind-shattering.

An ODI may locate itself in our world only long enough to trap one victim and then vanish. The Phantom Toolshed, seen in Rochester NY in the spring and summer of 2008, followed such a pattern. Various at-risk teens reported seeing this shed, where according to urban legend money or drugs might be stashed. Some witnesses recounted incidents in which they came across the shed in an alley, industrial park or backyard. Though drawn toward it, they for assorted reasons chose not to enter. At least three others did go in. They found tools inside—a hammer, a hacksaw, a nail gun—and removed them to show their friends. In three cases they later used these as weapons in savage attacks against friends and family. All three had undergone complete psychotic breaks. Our Veil-Out procedure ensured that mental health professionals labeled the detailed and similar accounts of their time inside the toolshed as hallucinatory. In fact, all three recounted a journey through a labyrinthine subterranean network where they witnessed scenes of historical torture, were imprisoned or restrained, and saw their own worst thoughts enacted before them. Each found the toolshed in a different location within the same twenty block radius. Our agents ended the Intersection by finding the buried remnants of an old graveyard ritual, performed by unknown persons sometime in the early 19th century. During that era the upstate New York area became known as the Burned Over District due to an explosion of spiritualist and psychic activity. The pre-Esoterror cult responsible for the rite has yet to be identified. Research continues, with tantalizing hints suggesting that some precursor of the OV smashed the cult and dispersed its members—regrettably leaving the seed of an Outer Dark Intersection behind for later generations to contend with.

What activated the fruits of this ancient rite in 2008 remains unclear. A likely cause would be lone wolf activity by a naïve supernaturalist. However I cannot yet discount the possibilities that fully aware Esoterrorists sometimes hunt down such traces of old magic and, by no doubt twisted means, renew their force.

An ODI can overlie a mundane structure, as occurs in classic haunted house style Intersections.

Particularly brutal murders, especially those where the remains of victims or perpetrators remain buried on site or nearby, render buildings vulnerable to these intrusions. Discovering the truth behind these old crimes and/or destroying (or properly interring) the remains has in some cases suppressed the uncanny in such places. However one cannot underestimate the certainty of razing a targeted building to the ground. Before doing this investigators must be sure that they have truly uncovered and neutralized the factors making the site a vector for Intersection. Absent such precautions, the Intersection may attach itself to them. In the unfortunate aftermath of Operation Glad Strike, agents declared a haunting case complete. Then the lead agent arrived home to find her own condominium transformed into a new host for the ODI experience.

Stepping within an ODI’s boundaries takes one into a space unlike our own. It cannot be the true Outer Dark, because:

  1. contact with it does not bring immediate madness and destruction.
  2. Outer Dark Entities cannot use it as a portal to bypass the Membrane and enter the material world.

I therefore posit an intermediate space, a fold in our reality that defies psychics while packing a destabilizing emotional charge. The Intersection displays some qualities of the Outer Dark, but they are manifesting here, not taking us there. An Intersectionalized structure may appear larger and more circuitous than measurement of its exterior could possibly allow. Note that, unlike outbreaks of the Ocean Game, the experiencer never hallucinates anything that would contradict the notion of being inside a structure, albeit a very strange one.

Inquiry into this area remains dangerously preliminary. Please find attached my proposal for the formation of a new working group. Included is a series of reports on a location in northern Saskatchewan where we might find, and study, a mine shaft infected by an ongoing Intersection.

*This is not to say that all ODEs possess all such qualities—some varieties for example display no documented propensity for communication.


The Esoterrorists are occult terrorists intent on tearing the fabric of the world – and you play elite investigators out to stop them. This is the game that revolutionized investigative RPGs by ensuring that players are never deprived of the crucial clues they need to move the story forward. Purchase The Esoterrorists in print and PDF at the Pelgrane Shop.

In space, the darkest day of the year is every day. Nonetheless, five of the Combine’s seven major species evolved naturally on home planets before reaching for the stars, and to various degrees remember rituals and holidays that marked the turning point between encroaching and receding night.

Before the war, human secularism confined Christmas celebrations to the quaint symbolism of Santa, mistletoe, and candy canes. Since the mysterious end of the Mohilar threat, certain nufaiths have reshaped the Nativity story of the holiday to their own futuristic ends.

The emotion-averse, nature-loving balla fight to retain a connection to growing seasons. Their solstice holiday, Seedsong, has farmers keen songs of hope to hibernating plants, and to seeds anticipating their next germination. On spaceships, balla gift each other, and trusted outsiders, with plant cuttings, bulbs, and seeds. Unlike the olden days, these can be planted and tended straightaway in a ship’s hydroponics facility. The balla in the illustration holds a bulb it has sung fertility into, offering it as a gift. Don’t recoil when it chirps!

Get ready for trouble on the durugh solstice. On this day of misrule, serfs and peons were permitted to speak freely and satirically castigate their authoritarian betters. During the festival, one is not supposed to remember, much less taken personally, anything a durugh of inferior rank or status says to you, right before he stumbles off to drunkenly vomit. Lasers can expect an investigation conducted on a durugh world during Chaotica, as the holiday is commonly translated, to vibrate with boozy, brawly complications.

Kch-thk of course celebrate by feasting. Their holiday, called Doorbreak, marks the end of a fast with the ritual destruction of pantry doors. Dry, crunchy foods modern Kch-thk would normally eschew in conditions of abundance become a heartfelt connection to the rigors of the past.

Tavak recall the Winter Wars, a series of battles in which warriors of honor vanquished a culture of unrestrained violence and pillage. Orations of epic martial poetry take place over a dozen nights. Gifting ceremonies at the end recapitulate the awarding of spoils to the victorious sword-priesthoods.

None of the solstices of these five cultures sync up. All remain keyed to original dates from the dominant hemisphere of each respective homeworld.

Cybes reject solstice celebrations as obsolete reminders of earthly limitations.

The vas mal, somewhat annoyingly, insist that in their former godlike personas they inspired all mortal religious beliefs and festivals. However they do enjoy a nice Terry’s Chocolate Orange.

 


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.

See Page XX book cover croppedSee Page XX is an irregular column written by Robin D. Laws, as part of the monthly See Page XX webzine. This collection brings together his first twenty four columns.

The columns are amazingly innovative, sometimes bringing in to the light techniques many GMs use without having a name for them, sometimes putting forward brand new ideas. They only dwell in theory as much as is required to highlight practical techniques.

There is advice for designing games, researching and planning games, running games, improvising, commentary on the rpgs and their relationshop to other media.

This collection also includes two internal design documents for the GUMSHOE system, which are invaluable aids to creating GUMSHOE background settings and The Esoterrorists adventures.

These columns are frequently funny, occasionally controversial, but always entertaining. So when you next find a See Page XX, you’ll know where to turn.

 

Stock #: PELPX01 Author: Robin D. Laws
Artist: Robin D. Laws Pages: 64pg PDF

Buy

Thank you as always for gathering on short notice. I trust you found your travel arrangements satisfactory.

Two nights ago local police officers patrolling the city’s entertainment district found a corpse in an alleyway. Due to its condition our contacts within the force referred the case to us.

The body is that of an as yet unidentified man in his mid-twenties. Our analysts classify it an FOI [Fatality Of Interest-ed] due to two factors. One: All pigmentation has been drained from the corpse. Two: although it bears no signs of epidermal trauma, the victim’s bones, from toes to skull, have been reduced to a fine powder, as if pulverized from the inside. Assuming this victim’s demise matched others in our record bank, he died after his bones were crushed. An agonizing way to go, and naturally one we hope each of you avoids.

The loss of pigmentation and internal skeletal crushing correspond to an Outer Dark Entity known as a Night Light. It manifests as a swirling nimbus of dark energy illuminated by within by hundreds of tiny lights—usually multicolored, but sometimes monochrome.

Night Lights manifest during holiday seasons, when people hang festive lights outdoors. Here in the western world they most often come at Christmastime. The recent habit in cold weather cities of leaving lights up throughout the winter has extended their hunting season. They may also appear at Halloween, during Mardi Gras, or at secular light art festivals. Unsubstantiated reports link them to Diwali in India and, in a variant visual form, lantern festivals in China and Korea.

Manifestations link to the childhood trauma of a particular individual unwittingly serving as the creature’s psychic locus. They occur during adulthood after an incident triggering memories of the original trauma. The scourging memories always connect to the holiday in question: a fatal accident on New Year’s, a harrowing beating on Mardi Gras.

The Night Light hunts secondary victims connected to the locus, striking opportunistically at those moving about alone at night. Typically it begins with loose connections—an acquaintance met at a party, someone who sits next to the locus on public transit—then moves inward, to friends, family members, and ultimately the locus him or herself. The final killing occurs either on the actual holiday, or on the anniversary of the instigating trauma.

To destroy the Night Light, identify the locus and enable that person to come to terms with or resolve her relationship to the trauma. For example, if her mother was slain on Christmas Eve, find the killer who was never caught. Then, with an physical token related to the traumatic incident on your person, strike the Night Light with any blade, or with a stun gun.


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.

 

Ken’s upcoming Fall of Delta Green will get Trail of Cthulhu as far into the modern era as it’s likely to go for a while. In the meantime, here’s a quick and dirty ability list with which GUMSHOE investigators can learn too much about the Mythos in 2015 and beyond.

With its forensic procedural vibe, The Esoterrorists has a few too many technical abilities. So you’ll see Forensic Anthropology and Forensic Entomology merged into Trail’s more general Forensics ability.

Modern characters needn’t show New England restraint, so I’ve added in a few interpersonal abilities that appear in other games.

Where the general abilities are concerned, I dropped Disguise as a thing that seems less realistic out of the pulp era, replacing it with Impersonate, which is more oriented toward identity theft.

Riding also went, as something that will come up less in contemporary games. Fold it back in if you expect the characters to chase serpent folk on the range.

In my own games I’d drop Weapons, collapsing it into Scuffling, but that’s about how much you want to evoke Call of Cthulhu’s look and feel, not a time period issue.

Academic

Accounting

Anthropology

Archaeology

Architecture

Art History

Biology

Cthulhu Mythos

Cryptography

Geology

History

Languages

Law

Library Use

Medicine

Occult

Physics

Theology

Trivia

Interpersonal

Bullshit Detector

Bargain

Bureaucracy

Cop Talk

Credit Rating

Flattery

Flirting

Inspiration

Interrogation

Intimidation

Oral History

Reassurance

Streetwise

Technical

Astronomy

Ballistics

Chemistry

Data Retrieval

Electronic Surveillance

Explosive Devices

Evidence Collection

Forensics

Locksmith

Outdoorsman

Pharmacy

Photography

General Abilities

Athletics

Conceal

Driving

Electrical Repair

Explosives

Filch

Firearms

First Aid

Fleeing

Health

Hypnosis

Impersonate

Mechanical Repair

Piloting

Preparedness

Psychoanalysis

Sanity

Scuffling

Sense Trouble

Shadowing

Stability

Stealth

Weapons



# of players

Investigative Build Points

2

34

3

26

4

24

5+

22

 

General Ability Points: 60

UPDATE: Thanks to Chris Huth for wrangling the above into character sheet form.

 


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.

A Fear Itself Scenario Premise

Start by designing high school age characters. Confine the Worst Thing You Ever Did to the sorts of transgressions ordinary teenagers might get up to. You all hang out together, regarding yourselves as semi-outsiders. You aren’t bullied, nor are you bullies. But neither are you the insider kids.

A random PC notices one of her class’ high achieving students, a withdrawn, New Age-y kid named Lauren Andrews, staring at graffiti scrawled with a marker on the mirror of a school washroom. Lauren turns pale, staggers back into a stall door, then rushes for the exit. The PC catches the inscription even as it begins to inexplicably fade away:

Over the next few days Lauren visibly falls apart. Each PC has an interaction with her in which she seems faded, drawn, and increasingly listless. The last encounter sees her wandering, eyes glassy, into a busy street. The PCs can maybe rescue her, but the Difficulty of the Athletics test is pitched high, so they’re more likely to see her splattered gruesomely across the roadway.

Her death makes surprisingly modest waves among teachers and other students. The group realizes that her detachment from the world has spread to others. One member catches another student looking at a piece of graffiti declaring the futility of his own personal concerns. It too fades moments later. Each inscription tailors itself to the individual target:

You are a failure and will never be anything else.

Like your father’s, your future holds only the stink of alcohol.

You won’t make it in the big leagues. You will be injured and wind up working in an Arby’s.

Who is writing the graffiti? The weird new transfer student who never talks to anyone, but seems forever accompanied by the cries of unseen gulls? The ghost of the honors student who killed herself after an online bullying incident last year?

The mystery complicates itself when those infected by the apathy plague don’t die like Lauren probably did. Instead, one by one at first but later in small groups, you see them herded onto unmarked trucks by men in white jumpsuits, their gaits peculiar and faces oddly impassive.

And then one of the PCs sees her own grim notice scrawled on a mirror…


Fear Itself is a game of contemporary horror that plunges ordinary people into a disturbing world of madness and violence. Use it to run one-shot sessions in which few (if any) of the protagonists survive, or an ongoing campaign in which the player characters gradually discover more about the terrifying supernatural reality which hides in the shadows of the ordinary world. Will they learn how to combat the creatures of the Outer Black? Or spiral tragically into insanity and death? Purchase Fear Itself in print and PDF at the Pelgrane Shop.

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.

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