A flood of vintage NYPD crime photos will be resurfacing digitally, thanks to a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities. Many date from the prime period of Lovecraftian horror, making them ideal handout fodder for your Trail of Cthulhu games. These images, including crime scene images from murder investigations, bring real-life grit to a time we often imagine in a prettier, Hollywood studio production design.

First of all, this jury-rigged combination knife-gun-brass knuckles is a wonder to behold. If your investigators aren’t soon discovering it on the body of a murdered thug, there’s really nothing any of us at Pelgrane can do for you.

A prior batch of these are already available online, licensed for viewing but not commercial use. The big images have been watermarked into uselessness for home handout purposes. But if you hit the link for printer-friendly versions you’ll get a smaller but large enough version to pass around to your players. At this scale the watermarks are absent or can be mistaken for photographic imperfections. Keepers with high Credit Rating abilities might decide to spring for actual prints.

Right now most date from 1916-1920, but the grant covers a much longer period.

You will find plenty of actual murder images, who in your version weren’t bumped off by spouses or criminal accomplices but no doubt by tcho-tchos, cultists, and perhaps a star vampire or two.

Each Keeper will have to judge for herself whether the use of very old pictures of very real murders lie within the bounds of horror fan tastes. Poll your group before springing any graphic death photos on them.

However, not all of these pix can be overtly identified as the work of crime photographers. This evocatively empty tenement courtyard shot could easily represent the home of an urban witness your investigators have to find.

Want to see the badge your NYPD inspector might flash?

What creature did this damage to some unfortunate’s unfortunate living quarters? Felonious assault? That’s what they want you to believe.

Surely your characters will sooner or later find themselves in the dispiriting confines of the police psychopathology lab.

You can improvise your way to an urban period investigation by picking out a handful of shots you find evocative, then constructing a mystery that will take the characters there. For an improvised, Armitage Files-style game, have a bunch on hand to spark ideas during play.


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.

In the latest episode of their dream-stalking podcast, Ken and Robin talk imaginary disease etiologies, Feng Shui movies, introducing settings, and the good walkers.

Like most designers, when I get a stray idea for a game mechanic I try to exercise the discipline to make a note of it.

Here’s where I can’t speak for other designers: I almost never use them, because they are misconceived by dint of their very nature as stray ideas.

Mechanics for their own sake don’t serve the games we try to fit them into. The standalone rules idea is invariably aesthetically pleasing in the abstract. And that’s not rules should be. They should solve a problem arising from your design goals, not sit there looking all pretty and innovative.

For example, I’m glad I saved the following note, and even gladder that I didn’t build it into DramaSystem:

Grid you fill out to keep track of identically framed scenes –- repetition alters odds of success, as you can’t have the same outcome more than twice (and then only when you haven’t advanced the conflict in any other way.)

The idea of a grid you have to fill out seems momentarily engaging. It gives players a concrete way of interacting with the rules. You can imagine yourself behind a booth at Gen Con opening up a book and showing it to a someone you’re pitching the game to.

Yet in practice it would pose a distraction from the organic creation flow DramaSystem aims to facilitate. The occasional transfer of a drama token, and the even more occasional play with procedural tokens and cards, provides more than enough ritual gaminess.

It is worse than distracting, in that it sets out to solve a hypothetical problem that in practice never occurs in DramaSystem. Once it gets moving, the story moves so quickly that you’re not tempted to revisit an exchange that has already been resolved. Players searching for a scene to call naturally reject this option, without needing a rule at all, much less one that has them filling in a freaking grid.

No matter how beautifully graphic designer Christian Knutsson would have made that grid look.

Lesson: jot down those free-floating rules ideas for what they might teach you about design. But don’t wedge them into your designs, inflicting them on unsuspecting players.

As Gridlock the Stray Rules Idea, pictured at right in full tentacled glory, might say, “If I’m aesthetically pleasing in my own right, I’m too complicated!”


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.

In the latest episode of their well-excavated podcast, Ken and Robin talk overly real CGI, themselves as scared kids, the Toronto mystery tunnel and Charlemagne vs. Irminsul.

Well, it’s almost that time, the turning of the Ken Writes About Stuff volume year. If you’ve been a subscriber in the past, many thanks for your support. If you’re a subscriber in the future, future thanks — the first issue of KWAS Volume Three is Hideous Creatures: Tcho-Tchos, which you should get by April 1. (The “bonus content” for KWAS Volume Two subscribers, Foul Congeries 2, is coming after we get Dracula properly staked and in his coffin.) I didn’t have the word count in that issue to cover all the possible varietals of Tcho-Tcho, so here’s another shoot from that dubious vine.

In his 1931 novella “The Horror From the Hills,” Frank Belknap Long mentions a tribe of abominable (and amphibian) dwarves who worship Chaugnar Faugn on the hideous Plateau of Tsang in Tibet, implying their descent from the “Miri Nigri,” a black, stunted tribe of the Pyrenees dreamed up (literally!) by H.P. Lovecraft. I believe it was William Barton (in his Call of Cthulhu adventure “The Curse of Chaugnar Faugn”) who decided that Lovecraft and Long’s black, “squinty-eyed” tribe and Derleth’s Tcho-Tchos were one and the same people, at opposite ends of their migration, in a sort of conservation of cannibal pygmies principle.

If we take, for the time being, this insight as useful, what we need to go looking for is some indication of the Tcho-Tchos among the peoples of the Pyrenees. Millennia before Lovecraft’s beloved Indo-Europeans got to the western edge of Europe, those hills were home to the Basques, whose antiquity can be judged by the Basque saying: “God made man out of bones from a Basque graveyard.” And what do we find up in the Pyreneean hills, shunned by even those ancient folk, but an even more obscure people called the Cagots — a word multiply etymologized, often from gahets meaning “lepers,” although I like cas Got or “dogs of the Goths” best, as having that inhuman touch we need for our Tcho-Tchos. The Cagots were shunned and persecuted by their Basque and other neighbors for reasons nobody seemed to be able to articulate (although they were accused of being Cathars 300 years after the fact).

Elizabeth Gaskell of all people wrote an essay on the Cagots, enthrallingly titled “An Accursed Race,” from which we learn wondrous facts like the Cagots’ reputation for sorcery and alarming body heat (even withering apples by their touch), their reputed cannibalism and tainted smell, and the near-universal prohibition on allowing the Cagots to drink from town water supplies or even use the same holy water fonts in the churches — which Cagots had to enter through special, lower doors. They also had to wear a red duck-foot symbol, or even the webbed foot of an actual duck. The laws in some towns forcing the Cagots to remain shod at all times likewise imply their webbed or inhuman feet, and perhaps more Deep One ancestry than Tcho-Tcho, although there’s no reason not to link Cthulhu and Zhar-Lloigor, for instance. As a point in our favor here, I’ll mention that the suggestive Basque word txoko means both “cuttlefish” and “angle,” which gets us not just Cthulhu but Lloigor, the Many-Angled One. Similarly, the Cagots’ cultural role as woodworkers and carpenters might tie them to Shub-Niggurath cultism.

The best thing about the Cagots, from a Tcho-Tcho adventure design utility standpoint anyhow, is that they can infiltrate Basque, Spanish, and French populations and from thence travel to America in the 15th century. (Basque sailors served with Columbus, and Basque fishermen almost certainly found Newfoundland’s Grand Banks by 1475 and just didn’t say anything about it. While I’m inside this parenthesis, Basque whalers traded with the Greenland Inuit in the 17th century, another possible Cthulhuvian cult connection.) You can thus put Cagot-Tcho-Tcho (Tchogot?) clans in Quebec, Boston, and Boise, Idaho (home to the largest Basque population in the U.S.). They’re also pretty unmistakably white (indeed sometimes described as pale compared to their Basque neighbors), which can take some of the sting off the Tcho-Tchos’ “yellow peril” origins.

True, the Cagots are sometimes described as taller than average — although those little doors might indicate otherwise — but I think we can let that pass. They’re also described as red-haired and bristly-haired, as sickly and as stocky, as dark and as grey-eyed, as thin-fingered and as thick-footed. This only shows the Tcho-Tcho tendency to blend in, or the truly amphibian nature of their Miri-Nigri DNA. The only true test of the Cagot (besides the tainted aura and the “invisible leprosy” they carry) is this: Their ears are “differently shaped from those of other people; being round and gristly, without the lobe of flesh into which the ear-ring is inserted.” The Comtes de Bleuville in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (born without earlobes, as Blofeld discovers) are thus exposed as ancestral Tcho-Tchos — and if Blofeld’s imposture bears even a hint of truth, perhaps the next Tcho-Tcho villain in your campaign can run a network of master criminals from a hidden modernist fortress while petting a white (Saturnian?) cat.

In the latest episode of their revelatory podcast, Ken and Robin talk F20 entheogens, Rahm’s run-off, status quo first acts, and Goetia.

GUMSHOE doesn’t care. It doesn’t care whether a clue is easy to interpret, like a matchbook with a phone number on it, or as hard the Van Gaal code. It doesn’t care what a clue is; a physical object, a realisation, an NPC’s throw-away comment or a simple signpost. It doesn’t care where it is in space or time. A trail of clues can lead you back to the very place you started, with enough extra information gathered on your journey to find something new.  GUMSHOE doesn’t care which ability you use to get a lead, only that there is at least one ability which can do the job.

GUMSHOE doesn’t care whether benefits gained from characters’ abilities are pre-determined, offered by the GM, or suggested by the players. It doesn’t care what those abilities are, or how they function. It only cares that there is a match between abilities and information, benefits or interpersonal interaction in the games’ fiction.

GUMSHOE doesn’t care if your character is getting attention by intimidating a suspect, researching a discarded coin or mixing a reagent. It just cares that all players get their chance to shine in the spotlight.

GUMSHOE doesn’t care whether your adventure is pre-planned or improvised, whether it’s a published adventure with carefully crafted scenes, a structure like a peeled onion, a single page with bullet points, or just an idea in the GM’s head. It doesn’t care if abilities lead you into trouble, difficult moral choices, or the wrong direction entirely. It doesn’t care if the game is about players interpreting clues or characters interpreting clues. It doesn’t care if the use of the system is to get the flow of information out of the way, or make it central. It only cares that information that all players want to make available, is made available, to the person who should have it in the game’s fiction.

GUMSHOE takes care of information. You take care of the rest.

A relatively new entry in scriptwriting jargon owes its secret origin to notoriously uncooperative movie star Bruce Willis. Kevin Smith recalls the moment, during their unfruitful collaboration on fore-doomed project Cop Out, when Willis started ripping out pages of dialogue he deemed irrelevant to the main action. This was chuffa, Willis said, and he wasn’t going to bother to shoot it.

Mindy Kaling defines chuffa as dialogue that expresses an amusing attitude without rising to the level of actual funny joke:

“Chuffa is filler that seems like it’s funny but isn’t really a joke. It’s just kind of an attitude. I watch Entourage and Weeds, but they have a lot of chuffa. I don’t mean to denigrate them, but I don’t think I’ve laughed once watching them. 30 Rock and Arrested Development are anti-chuffa.”

Aziz Ansari puts a positive spin on chuffa in his moving tribute to the late writer and comic Harris Wittels, who he describes as a master of genuinely funny chuffa:

Chuffah is the random nonsense characters in a scene talk about before getting to the meat of it that leads to story.

Roleplaying scenes can have chuffa in them too. Even in a deep old school F20 game, the banter you have with the blacksmith before he sells you armor could be considered chuffa. If it entertains, it’s the Harris Wittels variety. If not, it’s the Bruce Willis kind. Except that roleplaying is always the first and last draft, and there’s no movie star to rip boring pages out of a script. Or script for him to rip out of, for that matter.

In DramaSystem players often want to nibble around the edges of a scene with small talk and banter before the petitioner reveals to the granter what she wants from him. This follows the emotional dynamic of real life. We don’t immediately launch into a difficult request as soon as we encounter the person we want something from. We hedge, we distract, we beat around the bush, and we wait for our moment. But unlike real interactions, you do need to keep the attention spans of the rest of the group in mind. Players don’t expect the ruthless editing an episode of The Office would get, but attention will wander if a scene doesn’t get to the point.

It may surprise you to learn that the people of our great nerdtribe are sometimes prone to digression. Two participants in a scene may happily spin surface minutiae until the cows come home, with nary a petition in sight.

This is one of the main reasons why DramaSystem uses a GM: to keep an ear cocked for excessive chuffa. When as GM you sense that the scene has lost the rest of the room by failing to reach the point, gently intervene and suggest that the players move it along.

My response to overlong chuffa is usually to say, “Raise the stakes.” You may prefer another term, but whatever you say, your players will be grateful for your help in keeping scenes trim—by tabletop standards, at least.


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.

Pelgrane games It’s our now-annual shout-out for Gen Con GMs! Last year, we ran more games than ever before, but this year we’re determined to beat that record. The  submission date for games is March 13th, 2015, so if you’re interested in running games at GenCon, email me for more information and to stay updated on our plans.

It’s not just GenCon, though – we’re always looking for GMs for other conventions. At the moment, conventions we’re attending and recruiting GMs for include UK Games Expo (Birmingham, UK – May 29th to May 31st) and Origins Game Fair (Columbus, OH – June 3rd to 7th), but we also need GMs for PAX East (Boston, MA – March 6th to 8th) and PAX Prime (Seattle, WA – August 28th to August 31st).

We’re also keen to support conventions that we can’t make it to, but you can! If you’d like to run Pelgrane games at your local games convention, email me and let me know – we can help out with demo game and full game scenarios for all our lines, and we might even be able to offer incentives and prizes for your Pelgrane Press games.

We recently signed up with the Envoy program to do more organised play, so you can also sign up there to become a Herald, and run Pelgrane Press games in your FLGS or local convention.

In the latest episode of their ENnie-winning podcast, Ken and Robin talk headline ripping, Igor Gouzenko, heroic surveyors and George Hunt Williamson.

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