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I ran two Trail of Cthulhu sessions over the weekend (a stealth proof-of-concept of a possible upcoming setting). At a three or four hour convention game, the pressure of time means every scene has to count. There’s little time for backtracking or encounters that don’t go anywhere, and that pressure’s compounded if you’ve got a table of players who aren’t familiar with the GUMSHOE system. You want to shovel clues and benefits at them whenever you can. There need to be clues everywhere (and they all need to converge and lead onto a small number of possible next scenes, to keep the scenario on track).

Most players quickly grasp the big idea of GUMSHOE, that you always find clues instead of rolling for them, but point spends are a little more confusing. New players ask if they need to spend points for core clues, or think they need to roll like a General Ability, or have trouble even imagining what extra benefit, say, Photography might have. They worry about wasting points, and while I assume them that I’ll refund the spend if there’s no added information or benefit to be gained, I always look for ways to make a point spend seem worthwhile.  I don’t like saying no to new players when they try to engage with the mechanics.

After all, one of the big reasons to have point spends is to help allocate spotlight time. Spending a point is like sending up a flare to the GM marked “pay attention to me! Give me a way to shine”). The last thing you want to do to a new player let them feel ignored. (At the same time, the other last thing you want to do is let a loud and enthusiastic new player dominate the game and crowd out everyone else – and the limited number of investigative spends available ensure that doesn’t easily happen.)

Here are my four go-to ways to make any Investigative spend, even an obscure one, pay off, in the absence of a better idea or suggestion.

Gain A Trusted Contact

Any certainty is welcome in a mystery game. Telling a player “you know this guy and can trust him” is immensely reassuring. If a player asks “do I know any X (astronomers, doctors, people who know about the swamp, people who’ll help me move a body)”, I’ll either suggest a suitable ability, or just tell the player if they pick an ability and spend from it, they’ll know someone who they can trust and rely on – ideally, someone who provides access to another Investigative Ability.

Even just the act of saying “you can trust this guy” is often enough. You might not have ever intended for that NPC to betray or deceive the players, but the players usually feel that certainty is worth the point.

  • Art History: A local dealer in fine art. She’s got lots of Credit Rating and can get you an invite to the Ambassador’s party.
  • Geology: Your old university lecturer is also an expert in Chemistry.
  • Cop Talk: Your buddy on the force can open doors for you that would normally require Bureaucracy.

Gain a General Pool

If a player asks to do something with an investigative spend that’s really better phrased as a general ability test, then instead off a 3-point pool of that general ability. If they make a wild spend for information when you’ve no idea what extra details or clues to give them, go for a 1 or 2-point pool of Investigative Abilities. Phrase it as a pool instead of a straight bonus to give the player more control, and to allow for the narratively satisfying possibility of callbacks.

  • Can I make acid with Chemistry and melt the door? How about a 3-point Explosive Devices pool?
  • I use Bargain on the shopkeeper. What does he have for sale that I can buy cheap? Take 3 points of Preparedness, and later on you can say that you bought whatever item you use here in this scene.
  • I spend a point to Research everything! Um, ok. You read everything in the library related to the case. You don’t find anything that seems immediately relevant, but you can have one point that you can turn into any Academic ability later on, as long as it relates to the case you researched. So, if you find, I dunno, a magic dagger, you could examine that item with the bits of Archaeology you recall from your reading, and get clues that way.

Expand The Scope Of An Ability

Especially for more abstruse academic abilities, it’s common for players to try using them as steamrollers whenever they’re even slightly relevant. (“I have Medicine! I’m a doctor! They should tell me everything about the dead guy’s autopsy”). Interpersonal abilities get repurposed (“I flatter him, saying ‘you’re way too tough to be scared of those mushroom guys.” Is he Reassured yet?”) In such cases, charge a point spend to allow for the more generous interpretation of the ability.

Tangential Flashback

If you’re totally stuck for how an investigative spend could possibly apply to the scene, but the player is adamant that they want to try, consider improvising a brief scene that relates to the spend, but gives a core clue or other information. You can also use such little scenes to drop tangentially-related but spookily Lovecraftian foreshadowing or hints.

  • I spend a point of Astronomy and look out at the stars while the others are talking to the terrible old man! The stars out the window are oddly different – it must be some trick of the light, or a trick of the clouds. Maybe it’s unusually clear here, so you can see more stars. Anyway, you remember one night a few months ago when you came out to a hill near the old man’s shack to do some observations with a portable telescope. Now that you think of, you remember seeing a fire burning that night – and that fire might have been right here, in his back yard. What was he burning that night? (Hints that Evidence Collection or Archaeology might find something in the back garden.)
  • I examine the plants in the garden. Do I get anything for spending a point of Biology? You recall a reference in a biology paper you read in college that talked about the occult properties of certain plants. Out of curiosity – you were a bored biology student – you looked up that second paper, and there you learned that the plants in the garden – sorghum – are associated with a tradition called the Benandanti, a 16th century occult group who claimed to be able to astrally project. (Substitutes for Occult)
  • I spend a point of Craft while examining the table. What?
  • I spend a point of Craft while examining the table. OK. Er. Well, you… know that the table is… ok, it’s made from a hardwood that grows locally. In a forest. And…and in that forest, there are mines running underneath parts of it, and you’ve heard stories about weird stuff there. And dead miners. Buried alive! The roots of the trees there must have fed on human marrow-fat and bones… and now they’re in this table. (There’s another scene in the scenario that points to the old mine, and you’re wildly scrabbling to find anything useful to say.)

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The weather’s been miserable for the last few weeks, so I’ve been cheering myself up with virtual holidays in the sunny foreign climes of the Dragon Empire, going through the maps of the first of our Battle Scenes book, High Magic & Low Cunning: Battle Scenes for Five Icons, and its accompanying map folio, which you can buy together as a special pre-order only bundle in the webstore. I highly recommend a trip white-water rafting with orcs to take your mind off the rain. We’ve also been working on the final print version of our one-shot story game anthology, Seven Wonders, which I’m still excited about – I think it’s going to make a great hardback.

We’ve pulled together all the individual issues of 13th Age Monthly subscription into Volume 1, and set up the second installment of the subscription, which launches this month with Rakshashas & Reavers. KWAS subscribers now have the February edition, Bast, available on their order pages – this will be available generally at the end of February. The January edition, Alchemy, is now on sale in the store.

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The Accretion Disk supplement for Ashen Stars (available from Pelgrane’s shiny new webstore) contains detailed writeups for six common Laser ship designs – the Runner, Hammer, Rampart, Speeder, Porcupine and Hauler. It’s also got deck plans for, er, seven ship designs. Some meson shrapnel interference unaccountably scrambled communications, so the Mandible got a set of deck plans but not a writeup.

With most humble apologies to the noble kch-thk civilisation, this not-food seeks to repair this terrible discrepancy.

Mandible hull view

(Click on the deck plans for larger images)

Mandible

No-one’s closer than a Mandible crew. Maybe it’s the close quarters and lack of privacy on board the kch-thk-designed ships. Maybe it’s the complexity of the ship’s advanced weapons systems and countermeasures that demands teamwork and trust. Maybe it’s the hive pheromones leaching out of the extruded bio-metallic hull struts. As the saying goes, when you sign up on a Mandible, you become part of the ship.

Mandible lower deck

Lower Deck

1. Shuttle Bay

Some Laser crews move their shuttle to the docking pad on the upper deck, and return this room to its original purpose as a ‘boarding ovipositor’. This specialised bolt-on costs 8 bigcreds, and has an upkeep of 1. Activate it at the start of a combat to reduce the threshold for Cripple for Boarding to a mere 9. The Mandible’s two massive mandible-claws lock onto the enemy ship, and the ovipositor punches through their hull, allowing the kch-thk marines to swarm on board.

There are two big downsides to this. First, it leaves the Mandible open to counter-attacks while moving to grab on, reducing all the ship’s Fire and Trickbag specs by 2 each (both Dishing It and Taking It). Second, a crew equipped with an ovipostor might as well go all the way and paint their hull black with skull-and-crossbone flags and rename the ship “Obvious Pirate” – reduce Reputation by 2.

2. Port Cargo Hold

Both cargo holds have forward-facing cargo doors, and the mandibles on the deck above can be used to grab space debris and drop it into the corresponding cargo hold.

Battle Station: Check for Salvage! If you’re at this station when your ship completes Rake, Slash or Destroy, you may make a Systems Design test (Difficulty 6). Succeed, and you grab some salvage from the enemy ship that might be worth something. Roll a d6; on a 1-5, if someone in your crew spends that many Systems Repair, the salvage is worth that many bigcreds. On a 6, you’ve salvaged something interesting, like a damaged-but-repairable bolt-on, an escape pod, some of the enemy’s cargo, or even one of the enemy crew, blown out in an explosive decompression.

3. Starboard Cargo Hold. You can Check for Salvage from this station too, if you want to maximise your chances of finding loot.

4. Hazardous Storage. Commonly referred to as the larder.

5. Secure Storage. This room comes equipped with extensive life-support equipment for sustaining a kch-thk grk’k’a chamber.

6. Access to Main Deck. The spiral staircase is a concession to stodgy quad-limbed not-food – on an all-kch-thk ship, there’s a sort of climbing frame/sphincter structure called a clk-ll instead that’s more comfortable to scuttle up.

7. Translight Drive. Every kch-thk translight drive includes a small shrine to Krdzt-Ktchh (see Ashen Stars, p. 157), the martyred inventor of faster-than-light travel. These shrines are included as a matter of tradition, but some engineers swear that they bring luck to the ships that carry them. When all is lost, spending a point of Kch-Thk History to recite the Convulsive Chant might inspire a merciful GM to let you refresh a few points of Systems Repair or Piloting.

8. Power Core

9. Computer Core. Battle Station: Optimise Output! The Mandible’s computer core is built right on top of its power core to enable this risky tactic. It’s possible to have the computer micro-manage power allocation, quickly shunting systems on and off-line to wring a little extra venom out of the reactors. This counts as hyperclocking (Ashen Stars, p. 92), but gives 3-6 points instead of 4. (Roll a die, and count any result of 1-2 as 3). Associated Spec: Fire (taking it)

Mandible main deck

Main Deck

1. Crew Quarters. Perhaps the most infamous aspect of the Mandible design is the lack of private rooms for the crew. It’s possible to hang plastic sheets or other dividers to break up the space, but there’s no elegant solution short of rebuilding the main deck. (Costs 10 bigcreds and takes six weeks). The lack of privacy may wear on the nerves of more sensitive crew members – it’s a great reason to call for Emotion Suppression tests from Balla, for example.

Mandible ships cannot obtain Side Deals (Ashen Stars, p. 173) involving carrying passengers.

2. Lounge. In an emergency, the floor of the lounge automatically pops open, allowing quick access to the shuttle bay below. Any occupied sleeping pods are then transferred into the shuttle.

Note that in the original schematics for the Manidible design, the ‘sleeping pods’ were originally designated for food storage. This automated system was not created to preserve the lives of the kch-thk crew – it’s there to ensure that they have sufficient food after the ship is destroyed and they reincarnate on board the shuttle from its grk’k’a tank.

3. Sleeping Pods. New crew members may hesitate at the idea of sleeping inside what’s effectively a cryo-stasis pod, but it’s the only private space on the whole ship.

4. Sick Bay. Another concession to the limitations of non-sequential lifeforms. A sick or injured kch-thk is more like to attempt Consciousness Transfer to another body rather than waste time and effort on healing a sub-standard shell. Mandible sickbays are often under-stocked and poorly equipped.

5. Facilities. All your sanitary, food preparation, mating and washing needs in one convenient location! What, does your species not usually combine those activities?

6. Access to Bridge.

7. Sensor Station. Battle Station: Countermeasures Targeting Solution! Spend a point of Energy Signatures to give your Stratco a 3-point pool of Naval Tactics. Associated Spec: Fire (either) or Trickbag (either)

8. Sensor Array Access. The deck plans don’t convey how cramped, narrow and confusing this access crawl-space is. Slither down here in a fight, and you’ve got a bonus 4-point Systems Repair pool that can only be spent on Override or Trickbag repairs. The downside is that it costs you 2 points of Athletics to get in here.

9. Weapons Station. Battle Station: Main Battery Targeting Solution! Spend a point of Energy Signatures to give your Gunner a 3-point pool of Battle Console. Associated Spec: Fire (either) or Trickbag (either)

10. Weapons Array Access: Like the Sensor Array access – 2 Athletics buys you 4 Systems Repair for Fire or Trickbag repairs only.

11. Sublight Engines. The Mandible’s drives are notoriously ‘showy’ – they throw off plenty of visible radiation moments before activation. It’s trivial for an enemy ship to track these emissions and anticipate the Mandible’s movements, hence the ship’s terrible Maneuver (Dishing It) rating. Clever Mandible crews prefer to engage enemies in environments where the ship’s giant glowing abdomen doesn’t telegraph their intentions quite so obviously, such as thick dust clouds or radiation storms.

12. Drives

13. Engineering Control. Battle Station – Suppress Engine Flares! A successful Systems Design test (Difficulty 6) improves the ship’s Maneuver (Dishing It) rating by 2 for one showdown. Fail, and the ship’s Maneuver (Dishing It) rating drops by 1 for the rest of the combat. Associated Spec: Maneuver (either).

14. Auxiliary Monitoring Station. Battle Station – Double-Check Those Flares! If another crew member attempts to Suppress Engine Flares while this station is occupied, that crew member may roll two dice instead of one and take the higher roll.

15. Access to Upper Deck

Mandible upper deck

Upper Deck

1. Bridge. The Mandible’s bridge is something of a tempting target. The canopy is composed of a semi-transparent resin that’s almost as tough as the rest of the hull, but it’s still a weak spot. If an enemy ship successfully Rakes or Slashes the Mandible, all crew members on the bridge take an extra die of damage.

2. Tactical Station.

3. Access to Main Deck

4. Pilot Station. Battle Station – The Krzd Feint: It’s possible to mislead an enemy who’s tracking your engine emissions by shunting plasma out the lateral maneuvering thrusters at the last instant. Pulling off this trick requires a Systems Design test (Difficulty 6). Succeed, and you get to count your negative Maneuver (Dishing It) rating as positive for one showdown. Fail, and you blow out the lateral thrusters and end up even more sluggish, reducing both your Maneuver ratings by 1. You can only attempt the Krzd Feint once per battle.

5. Comm Station

6. Gunnery Station. Battle Station: Devouring Fire. By carefully calibrating the ship’s weapons fire, a skilled gunner can unleash a fusillade that cripples an enemy ship as part of a successful Trickbag attack. If the Stratco wins a Trickbag showdown, spend 4 Battle Console to add the ship’s Fire (Dishing It) rating to the skirmish point haul.

7. Engineering Station

8. Access to Engineering

9. Airlock

10. Docking Pad. The surface of this docking pad secretes an adhesive gel instead of using artificial gravity or magnetic grapples to keep docked ships in place. One neat side-effect of this technology is that it’s possible to ‘stick’ a Mandible to, say, the side of a rocky cliff. It can park anywhere. It’s also possible to glom onto the belly of a larger vessel, hitching a ride without being obviously detectable…

 

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.

Introduction

This month’s bumper issue of Page XX sees two new releases, a retrospective on the year, and a look at the new store and bookshelf, plus a sneak peek at the forthcoming new website. On pre-order is the of the keenly anticpated story games anthology Seven Wonders featuring all new games from mainly new writers. Also, out now for the Dracula Dossier, The Hawkins Papers PDF, maps, reports, private correspondence, newspaper columns, business cards, and period photographs. Finally if you are reading this before 30th December,  the 13th Age Bundle of Holding is available – almost everything for 13th Age for less than $36.

Retrospective

The solstice has passed, the year draws to a close, and I am looking back at the year through a haze of mince pies and bonhomie. Our annual Pelgrane get-together at Dragonmeet kicked off with a game run by Robin D Laws in which I had to play Time, Inc agent Kenneth Hite in disguise while simulataneously preparing ox cheek and sticky toffee pudding.

dm

Dragonmeet was our most succesful to date, and I was heartened to see that our pre-release version of the Seven Wonders anthology sold out. I’ve been involved in the playtesting of almost all of the games, but this has been Cat’s project, and she’s really brought the best out of all the game designers featured. I’ve used these games to introduce non-roleplayers to roleplaying, as well as enjoying them with my game group.

You can hear Ken and Robin’s Dragonmeet live broadcast here, and the Pelgrane Press seminar here.

2015 has been a year of consolidation, untangling historical quirks I’ve embedded in the company, and improving our processes. This is the first year with Cat Tobin at the helm of Pelgrane Press, and with Gareth and Ken she has delivered most of the Dracula Dossier, a complete new anthology of games, and improved our customer support no end. We’ve not had the mad flurry of new releases we had last year, but sales are about the same as 2014, which is impressive. Cat is now as much the company as I am, and Pelgrane certainly more than the sum of its parts.

Website and Store

We’ve undertaken a soft launch of our new webstore, and all but the most recent of our customers might not have yet encountered the new bookshelf, where you can download all your purchases, track shipments and see your subscriptions to date. Register here and you can import your existing orders.

The next major task is to entirely redo the website in a style developed by Christian Knutsson, who designed the look of Hillfolk. We are moving it from our own server to a hosted solution, and the new site will tie into the webstore much better and showcase our products in a more approachable fashion.

 

newwebsiteTimeWatch

The TimeWatch Core Rules manuscript is now with Christopher Smith Adair for copy editing. It will be our biggest core rule book yet. Kevin Kulp has been finishing his remaining adventures for Behind Enemy Times, and is moving on next to his part of The Book of Changing Years. Backers already have their playable version of the TimeWatch manuscript. I can only apologise for the delay in this project which was never intended to be quite so large when we first announced the Kickstarter. It will be very late, but of high quality.

13th Age

The GMs Screen and Resource Book GMscreen is off the presses and will be shipped out at the end of January. Get the pre-order and download the resource book now.

The first Battle Scenes book High Magic and Low Cunning is ready for layout now, and the next book is underway. It will be on pre-order in January or February 2016.

Gareth Hanrahan has delivered the first draft of the Book of Demons, and I’ve playtested the Demonologist –  a character which makes pacts with demons and gives them offerings. Each pact is either disfavoured, neutral or favoured at any one time, and it’s important to the demonologist to give offerings to prevent the creatures breaking free and wreaking havoc.

Here is an example of a spell from the Pact of Cruelty:

Tormenting Chains

Ranged Spell

Once per battle

Targets: 1 nearby enemy

Attack: Intelligence + Level vs PD

Hit: 2d8 + Intelligence damage

Special: You may maintain this spell by expending a quick action every round. As long as you maintain the spell, the target takes 1d8+Intelligence damage whenever it makes an attack or move action. The target may break free of the spell by making a hard save (16+). This damage counts as ongoing damage.

Miss: 3d8 + Intelligence damage

3rd level spell: 4d8 damage (2d8 damage if the target struggles)

5th level spell: 6d8 damage (3d8 damage if the target struggles)

7th level spell: 8d10 damage (5d8 damage if the target struggles)

9th level spell: 10d10 damage (7d8 damage if the target struggles)

GUMSHOE One-2-One

Chris Spivey and Ruth Tillman are creating characters for Cthulhu Confidential to be included as a core part of the first release, so you’ll have a choice of three characters, including Dex Raymond, LA Noire detective, Vivian Sinclair, a New York socialite amateur sleuth and Langston Wright, an African American codebreaker and war veteran in post-war Washington DC.

It’s in playtesting now and we’ve had the highest take up we’ve had since we offered the 13th Age core rules.

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Hope you’ve had a lovely Christmas, and are all set for New Year’s Eve and a shiny new year in 2016! We’ve had a busy month, between our Pelgranista get-together at Dragonmeet in London, and soft launching our new look webstore, which is the first part of our website redesign. The new store design has given us the space to sell individual Series Pitches for the DramaSystem, as well as all the back issues of Ken Writes About Stuff, and over the coming months we’ll be updating it with new bundles and special offers.

To get the new store up and running with a bang, we’ve got two new releases to get it going – Seven Wonders, our much-discussed anthology of story games by up-and-coming UK-based designers, and the PDF of the Hawkins Papers, the extensive handout collection for the Dracula Dossier. We’ve got bumper collections of the subscription products, too, with the November and December editions of KWAS, Galileo Uplift and Las Vegas: 1968, and the November and December editions of 13th Age Monthly, The Waking Stones and Home BasesKWAS Vol. 3 subscribers now have the December edition, Alchemy, on their order receipt pages – this will be available to non-subscribers at the end of January.

New Releases

      • Seven Wonders – an anthology of one-shot story games, which introduces the next generation of UK games designers
      • The Hawkins Papers – a PDF collection of maps, newspaper clippings, photos, and documents for the Dracula Dossier
      • Galileo Uplift – Tech and gear for your high-powered MOON DUST MEN game, powered by a new GUMSHOE “tech tree” subystem
      • Las Vegas: 1968 – Sin City in its heyday, with happening hooks for vampire conspiracies, esoterrorism, and THE FALL OF DELTA GREEN Mythos machinations
      • The Waking Stones – a full 13th Age Bestiary-style writeup  of an ancient stone race, reawakening in the 13th age
      • Home Bases – new mechanics for 13th Age PCs to create their own castle, tavern, or sacred grove to call home and build stories around

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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.

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

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Blood_splatterImprovising telling but subtle details on the fly is tricky, especially if the players catch you off-guard. They’ve suddenly flown to Iceland to follow a lead you hadn’t prepared, and now you’re scrambling not only to get back ahead of the Agents, but also get a handle on where the overall campaign is now going. With all that to think about, atmosphere and description suffer, and your NPCs become bland stick figures who meet the PCs in, I dunno, an office or somewhere.

Using motifs – ideas that recur in different forms throughout the campaign – can help with this. It’s the classic “constraints breed creativity” trick  – if you’ve got to somehow associate Random Icelandic Dude with blood in the players’ minds, that’ll give you a starting point to riff from and get you off the blank page of the mind. Maybe he’s a farmer, and he’s just slaughtered a lamb when the PCs arrive. He’s a surgeon. He’s wobbling and pale because he donated blood this morning. He’s got ketchup on his face. Anything that suggests blood works.

There are two other benefits using motifs. Firstly, they’re a device to add a feeling of cohesion and consistency to a work. Used properly, they make a campaign with a lot of side trails, dead ends and random weirdness seem more like an actual polished story in retrospect. More importantly (from the rat-bastard GM point of view, as opposed to the lit critic in me), motifs are great for retroactive revelations. If, later in the campaign, you need to reveal that the Icelandic farmer is a minion of Dracula, you can retroactively decide that the blood on his hands was human blood from the hitch-hikers he killed! That bat beating against the window at Hillingham House wasn’t a bit of spooky atmospheric description – it was Dracula himself, spying on the Agents! Every motif can be a trapdoor. Everyone’s a suspect.

Use motifs as modifiers –  instead of coming up with a new NPC/Location/Object, take an existing one from the Director’s Handbook and work the motif into your description. Associate one or two themes with each major faction in your campaign. You might push the Dracula-Blood connection, and reserve Rats for Edom’s spies and thieves.

 

Major motifs lifted straight from the novel:

Blood

Associations: Vitality/health/strength/lifeforce, family & lineage, hearts, passion, wine (through Jesus Christ), stains (guilt), injuries (‘shedding blood’ as a badge of honour).

People:

  • Visible scrapes, bandaged wounds (“cut myself shaving this morning, you see”)
  • Red jewellery or clothing (“in the Whitby gloom, her red scarf looks like blood gushing from her pale neck”)
  • Small bloodstains on collar, cuffs or shoes (“one of the kids had a nosebleed – the washing machine didn’t get it all out”)
  • Eating a rare, bloody steak (“my doctor says it’s bad for me, but who wants to live forever”)
  • Breath smells metallic (“she’s beautiful, but her breath turns your stomach when she gets close to you”)
  • Phobia of blood (“It makes me feel faint – please don’t make that Medic roll in here.”)
  • Drinking red wine (“a rare vintage, laid down by my grandfather”)
  • Cuts themselves while talking to the Agents (“she gets so pissed at you she knocks her glass off the table with an angry gesture. As she’s picking up the pieces, she cuts her finger open on a jagged fragment.”)

Locations:

  • Bloodstains on the ground in or near the location (“looks like someone had a fight outside the office last night – the ground’s dark with dried blood that wasn’t washed away by the morning’s rains”)
  • Dark red walls (“you can almost hear the decorator saying it’ll make the room feel warm and cosy. It makes you feel like you’re inside a hunk of raw meat.”)
  • Red stains or marks. (“The old pipes spit out rusty, reddish water.)
  • Inherited property. (“It’s been in my family for generations. This place is in my blood.”)
  • Sound like a distant heartbeat (“some piece of machinery in the basement’s making this rhythmic hammering noise, thump thump thump thump, and the vibrations go right up your spine and echo in your ribcage”)
  • Nearby medical facility (“there’s a blood donation van parked in the car park of the community centre across the street”)

Objects: 

  • Reddish colours, stains or markings (“the diary’s written in dark red ink”)
  • Bloodsucking things nearby (“after wading through the leech-infested marsh, you find the buried box”)
  • Emotional reactions (“your blood runs cold when you look at the portrait”)
  • Inherited object (“to think that Quincey Harker once wielded this knife! It fires up your blood!”)
  • Evocative hiding place (“you find the diary inside an old winepress in an outbuilding”)

Bats and Rats

Associations: Filth and disease, nocturnal predators and scavengers, hiding in holes and caves, unclean animals, eating insects

People:

  • Rat-like features (“she’s got very prominent front teeth, like a rodent”)
  • Skulking demeanour (“he’s in a corner of the bar, so well hidden you nearly miss him.”)
  • Gnawing or scavenging (“he starts burrowing through the piles of reports and letters on his desk. It looks like this guy’s a total packrat.”)
  • Disconcertingly good night vision (“even though you’re hidden in the dark shadow of the hedge, he looks right at you and sniffs the air, like he can smell you”)
  • Pet rat or bat (“I found it in the garden this morning. Poor thing was starving. I’m feeding it with an eye-dropper.”)
  • Taste for cheese. (“It’s an excellent variety of Edom. I’m sorry, Edam.”)

Locations:

  • Visible mouse hole in the skirting board (“You can’t help but notice a small hole behind the desk, littered with chewed scraps of paper”)
  • Mouse droppings on a surface (“the kitchen hasn’t been cleaned in years. Mouse droppings and worse in the cabinets.”)
  • Scratching in the walls (“you try to sleep, but there’s a mouse running around the walls near your bed. It sounds like it’s trying to claw its way inside your skull.”)
  • Rats crawling over garbage. (“There’s a back door in a garbage-strewn alley. Rats look up at you with brazen curiosity as you pass, utterly unafraid of you.”)
  • Animal brought in to keep the rats down (positive spin: “a small terrier bounds into the room, something tiny and furry caught in its jaws. It shakes its head violently and there’s an audible snap a the rat’s neck breaks. The dog drops the body at your feet.” Negative: “a white cat, more like a furry rugby ball than anything else, snores lazily on the couch, ignoring the mice darting across the floor”).
  • Bats crashing into windows or beating against them is a classic, and always good for a jump scare. Players are a cowardly and superstitious lot.

Objects: 

  • Stored with rat poison (“you find the gun under the sink, behind some black bin bags and a box of rat poison”)
  • Unusual interest from bats (“as you leave the graveyard, you see a huge number of bats settling in the nearby tree. Suddenly, there’s a thump as one of them flies low and slams into your briefcase, as if it knows what’s inside.”)
  • Animal tooth marks on the object. (“The coffin’s been chewed by rats.”)
  • Animalistic decorations (“you can’t find a printer’s name or publisher on the book, suggesting it was privately printed. There’s a little symbol on the spine that might be stylised bat.”)
  • Evoke animal imagery when describing it. (“Thick grubby electrical wires, like a cluster of rat tails,run into a brass port on the underside of the machine.”)

Mirrors

Associations: Illusions, trickery and sleight of hand; deception; vanity and the ravages of age, espionage and double agents (‘wilderness of mirrors’), parallels and counter-examples, reversals.

People:

  • Seen first in a mirror (“he stops to look in his reflection in a shop window”)
  • Mirror shades (“the border guard is wearing mirrored sunglasses”)
  • Has a hand-mirror or very shiny surface to hand (“he has the annoying, childish habit of angling his watch face to catch rays of sunlight and bouncing them around the walls and into your eyes”)
  • Dopplegangers & duplicates (“you see an older, heavyset man with thick brows, wearing overalls. It’s only when you get closer that you realise it’s a different man. It’s not the Russian.”)
  • Mirroring body language (“she leans forward, copying your stance. Psych 101, creates a feeling of shared experience and promotes bonding and trust. Damnably effective when you look like she does, too.”)
  • Shadow duplicate of Agent (“The name’s Hayward. You must remember me. I was the year behind you at Cambridge, you know, and was on the Bucharest desk after you too. Our paths diverged after that, of course – I never left the Service.”)

Locations:

  • Prominent mirror in room (“the lobby’s huge, but the full-length mirror running down one wall makes it feel like you could meet an aircraft carrier here for coffee without inconveniencing anyone”)
  • Reflected or symmetrical structure (“her office is in the east wing, just across the quad. The only building is a copy of itself, so much so that when you look across the courtyard, you see three figures much like yourselves in the corridor opposite.”)
  • Still, reflective water (“The pond outside Carfax Abbey is long gone, but water pools on the Meath road in much the same place, reflecting the wintry skies.”)
  • Broken mirror or glass. (“The windows around the back are all cracked. Looking for a place to peer in, you’re momentarily arrested by the sight of your own reflected eye staring back at you.”)
  • Silvered or glassy surface. (“It’s art,” she says doubtfully.”The owners like it.”)
  • CCTV Cameras (“The security post has a bank of monitors showing all the feeds. You can see yourselves crouched in the corridor outside the post.”)

Objects:

  • Fake or duplicate item in same place (“he collects 19th century maps, so it’s only after sorting through a dozen Austro-Hungarian surveys of the mountains do you find the annotated version you seek.”)
  • Hidden behind a mirror (“searching the bathroom, you find a syringe behind the mirrored door of the medicine cabinet”)
  • Copy of original document (“the original files are gone, but you dig up a photocopy.”)
  • Wrapped in silver foil (“the inner crate is lined with some tin-foil-like substance, interleaved with swatches of ballistic cloth”)
  • Image of Agent or key NPC (“A sketch of your own face stares out at you from the first page. It must be a sketch of your great-grandmother. The resemblance is uncanny.”)

Other motifs from the novel: Revenants and the Un-Dead, Superstitions vs. Technology, Stories Told Indirectly

 

 

There will be no November 2015 See Page XX – we’ll have a double issue in December.

Why? Well, we are changing our online store this week. The new store clean and easy to use. It will have a bookshelf to list out all your downloads and subscriptions from past orders on the old store, and make easier for you to order and organise your downloads in future.

bookshelf

There are bound to be teething problems, so we are doing a live test then a soft launch this week. A soft launch and a See Page XX are not compatible; when our excited readers go on to the webstore, we want to have a system in place which experienced all the vagaries and complexity of real-life customers.

What’s not changing is that we will never store your financial details anywhere; when you place an order we simply send your details to Paypal, or our secure payment gateway, while covering our eyes – and we get a yes or no back.

We are also redoing the website – a massive undertaking. It will integrate nicely with the new store, allowing you to add items to your basket from product pages, and remembering your basket items between sessions. It won’t be completed until the New Year.

Ken Writes About Stuff and 13th Age Monthly subscribers have the latest editions – Las Vegas: 1968, and The Waking Stones, respectively – available to download on their order pages now.

ROB_tileJonathan and I usually agree on the mechanics of 13th Age, but our memories don’t always agree when it comes to how key mechanics were created.* The escalation die is a prime example.

I remember using the escalation die in a bizarro 4e game, fighting minions of Torog, back before we started work on 13th Age. Jonathan remembers coming up with the mechanic on his own, as part of a system he ran for a couple of months that I…er…never showed up for. Both those memories may be accurate; but recently I discovered that the true origins of the escalation die lay elsewhere.

During a period when Jonathan and I weren’t GMing, Mike Fehlauer manned the captain’s/GM’s chair and took us on a 4e cruise through the Savage Tide. Mike’s excellent campaign benefited from a lot of mechanical experiments, and here’s one that he recently unearthed from an ancient email thread:

Another idea I had for speedy play was to put a card for “end of round” into the initiative deck. Each time that card comes up, all combatants (including monsters) add +1 to all their attacks. Second time it comes up, everyone starts adding +2 to all their attacks. And so on.

The pacing isn’t right, but the general idea is that as time goes on, the combat’s pace toward resolution increases. Sort of like how the blind keeps increasing in poker.

Maybe a better pace is “when a monster or character is bloodied, the ‘combat blind’ goes up by 1. All monsters and characters add the ‘combat blind’ to all their attacks.”

Hmm. Instead of “combat blind”, let’s call it “Savage Tide”. That way, as the Tide rises, things get more deadly. I like the sound of that. :)

Jonathan said that the idEscalation_Die_LKEea was interesting, but he wasn’t sure he wanted to track it. Paul Hughes commented that you could just use a die to keep track.

Jonathan and I both went off and used our own versions of the escalation mechanic in our games, giving the escalating bonus to the player characters but not the monsters. As a result, by the time we decided to design 13th Age together, we were both locked in with using something like the escalation die at the table.

Turns out that it’s really important to have a good gaming group!

*To be honest, Jonathan and I don’t particularly care which of us created specific mechanics, or how—the topic only comes up when other people ask.


 

13th Age combines the best parts of traditional d20-rolling fantasy gaming with new story-focused rules, designed so you can run the kind of game you most want to play with your group. Created by Rob Heinsoo and Jonathan Tweet, 13th Age gives you all the tools you need to make unique characters who are immediately embedded in the setting in important ways; quickly prepare adventures based on the PCs’ backgrounds and goals; create your own monsters; fight exciting battles; and focus on what’s always been cool and fun about fantasy adventure gaming. Purchase 13th Age in print and PDF at the Pelgrane Shop.

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