From the planet Sumter the call goes out: the wargames are on. Before the Mohilar War, Sumter existed as a synthculture planet. It appealed to both permanent and transient populations wishing to relive the period of the US Civil War, including its major battles. Those reenactments took place with fake weapons and robust technological safeguards.
Sumpter’s new martial sports unfold in a hail of live, lethal fire. They attract damaged and discontented veterans of the past war who feel they fit in only when fighting for their lives. Remaining 19th-century trappings include uniforms and energy beam rifles shaped like muskets. Most combatants regard these as irrelevant curiosities. The war they’re here to relive isn’t ancient history, but is torn from their own biographies.
Your laser crew has been hired to find an enlistee in the upcoming wargames. Former atmospheric paratrooper Xino Voss intends to fight until she dies. Haunted by the wartime loss of her comrades, for which she blames herself, she aims to go down in a blaze of glory.
Her rich and terminally ill mother has other ideas. She wants the lasers to find her daughter, administer her anti-trauma meds (forcibly if necessary) and extract her before she achieves her death wish. That requires them to wade onto the games’ vast playing field, half a continent of live fire zone. There the green and purple teams fight to the death as pieces in a brutal struggle devoid of strategic goals or political meaning. Once the lasers step into the playing space, they become targets for both sides. If they’re there, they’re worth points, even if they wear the armbands of neither side.
Investigation involves finding the target, identifying a safe way to approach her, figuring out how to get her out against her will, and then escaping intact. Along the way, they might also discover the formless energy parasite who is stoking the wargames in order to nourish itself on the agony of death and the adrenaline of combat. Neutralizing the parasite ends the wargame, as the vast majority of players realizes they’ve been acting not out of their own desires, but due to the siren psychic call of an alien intelligence.
Ashen Stars is a gritty space opera game where freelance troubleshooters solve mysteries, fix thorny problems, and explore strange corners of space — all on a contract basis. The game includes streamlined rules for space combat, 14 different types of ship, a rogues’ gallery of NPC threats and hostile species, and a short adventure to get you started. Purchase Ashen Stars in print and PDF at the Pelgrane Shop.
As vengeful space effectuators of the Gaean Reach, you know what the interplanetary war criminal Quandos Vorn did to you—and what you must do in return to him, when you catch him.
That part remains more easily said than done.
Rejoice, then, in these latest intercepted transmissions. They detail some of the identities Quandos Vorn has recently traveled under in his never-ending quest for greater acts of barbarity. As is well documented, the chameleonic Vorn gains and sheds disguises with frustrating ease. Some of these people might be real individuals he has impersonated; others, his entirely fictional creations.
Elbin Throm, collector of rare militaria. The stooped, shaggy-haired Throm walks with the aid of a cane. Demanding and quick to take offense, Throm uses his wealth and expertise to bully finders, brokers and auctioneers of antique armaments. The tip of his cane contains a paralyzing toxin that dissolves its victims from the inside out, leaving the brain and screaming nerve endings as the last portions of the body to die.
Gascade, poet and troubadour. Famed for his quatrains in praise of Quandos Vorn. Of willowy frame and limpid blue eyes, he exerts a powerful sexual magnetism on women and men alike. His bright purple goatee precedes him into art festivals and bacchanals throughout the Reach. Dogged by accusations that he drugs his famous paramours in order to sell their organs to collectors. Evidence has yet to substantiate these rumors. May be a henchman of Vorn’s who occasionally lends him his identity.
Jebbas Mrin, hero of the rebellion on the planet Quane against starmenter (pirate) usurpers. Bald, broad-shouldered, with a musical baritone speaking voice. Never goes anywhere without the halberd he used to behead the starmenter Brerum Sosk. Though revered by the people of Quane, the taint of corruption surrounds his administration as its World President.
Castrel Flogg. A shadowy identity known chiefly as a set of signatures on documents claiming ownership over the platinum mines of Vesro.
The Ebbast, champion fencer and high priest of the religious order of Kolf. Won the tournament of Vosto by applying a neurotoxin to his epee. Described as possessing a skull-like countenance with deep-set eyes and a grinning, scarred mouth. By becoming a criminal and fugitive he invalidated the Kolf credo, leading to dozens of devout suicides. A schism among the surviving Kolfites centers around the question of whether the crimes were committed by the true Ebbast, or an impostor.
The Gaean Reach, the Roleplaying Game of Interstellar Vengeance, brings to your tabletop the legendary cycle of science fiction classics by the great Jack Vance. An ingenious hybrid, it fuses the investigative clarity of the GUMSHOE system with the lethal wit of the Dying Earth Roleplaying Game. Purchase The Gaean Reach in print and PDF at the Pelgrane Shop.
The GUMSHOE Preparedness ability, which lets you test to see if you happen to already have the crucial bit of equipment you want, lets you skip the aggravation of equipment shopping with an on-the-spot moment of creativity in play.
Although the book definitions of Preparedness refer specifically to gear, GMs may find it plot-forwarding to expand it cover in-the-moment revelations of other prior planning.
Do the investigators need a car to pick you up in a desolate spot in the woods? A player can make this happen by a) supplying a credible retroactive explanation of how she arranged it, and b) scoring a Preparedness success.
- “Naturally I tampered with the elevator as we stepped out of it.”
- “Might I have set the sick bay diagnostic bot to sedate anyone with transferant DNA?”
- “I had time to put flowerpots on the fire escape, right?”
You might combine ordinary Preparedness (having a piece of gear) with the planning to have it in the right place, already doing its job.
“Well, of course I brought along a webcam and set it up by the door to catch video of anyone leaving after we came in.”
If Preparedness as planning seems to give a greater advantage than simply having a particular item on hand, increase the Difficulty above the baseline of 4. If it substitutes an anti-climactic moment for an exciting one, make it exorbitantly expensive. Or better yet, let the players have their moment of coolness and competence and find another, unrelated crisis to throw at them soon afterwards.
If not, don’t make it cost more just for abstract world logic reasons. As always, GUMSHOE cares more about emulation than simulation.
Night’s Black Agents GMs might rule that instances of Preparedness as planning involving the intercession of a GM character also require the expenditure of at least 1 Network point. Or maybe you charge the Network point only if the agents try to squeeze an additional benefit from having the character on the scene.
For example, the driver of the car costs 0 Network if you only have him take you out of the woods, as per the original framing of the Preparedness use. But if you then ask him to accompany you into the motel, to make sure you don’t get jumped by a pack of Renfields on the way in, you have to fork over some Network points to mark his transition from passive background character to source of active, ongoing, risky assistance.
Night’s Black Agents by Kenneth Hite puts you in the role of a skilled intelligence operative fighting a shadow war against vampires in post-Cold War Europe. Play a dangerous human weapon, a sly charmer, an unstoppable transporter, a precise demolitions expert, or whatever fictional spy you’ve always dreamed of being — and start putting those bloodsuckers in the ground where they belong. Purchase Night’s Black Agents in the Pelgrane Shop.
Given the persistent weirdness of FIFA, world soccer’s governing body, it should come as no surprise that they were the first major sports administration to permit the use of mutant powers in professional competition. In the DNA-twisted future of Mutant City Blues, only one thing has changed about the world’s love of football: America now adores it too. After all, the US team boasts such world-class players as Kirk “Force Master” Larson, Lyle “Nonstop” Watts, and Shane “the Ghost” Lowe.
Larson uses his concussion beam to move the ball around, and kinetic energy dispersal to fizzle the opposing team’s kicks. Thanks to his pain immunity and endorphin control (self), Watts simply doesn’t tire. And, attracting the greatest hate from rival fans, Lowe’s mutant brain makes lightning decisions, instantly evaluates threats posed by the other side, and allegedly reads their minds from time to time, too.
This year the World Cup has come to Mutant City, with all the revelry and security issues needed to keep a police officer up at night. HCIU officers have been pulled from normal duty to keep the city safe for visiting fans from around the globe.
The juxtaposed atmospheres of celebration and terrorism fear that accompany any high profile sporting event might hang as a background element over several other cases the squad pursues as the World Cup rolls on.
After sufficient foreshadowing, a case puts the tournament center stage. Options include:
- The squad gets evidence of a credible death threat against one of the above-named players. FIFA won’t hear of a star player being pulled, so the players have to track down the would-be killer without being able to stash the victim safely.
- Anti-mutant terrorists, angry that non-mutant players have been pushed to the sidelines, regard the games as a prime target. This allows you to stage your super-powered, footie version of Black Sunday.
- Trinidad Güngör, the FIFA board member most responsible for bringing mutation into the game, is found brutally murdered in his hotel suite, with several underage prostitutes dead for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Initial indications point to an attack by a non-mutant player whose career declined after the genetically enhanced were permitted on the field. Investigation points to another possible angle— Güngör was about to implicate fellow board members in a bribery scandal over the bid to hold the next games.
Mutant City Blues is an investigative science fiction roleplaying game by Robin D. Laws where members of the elite Heightened Crime Investigation Unit solve crimes involving the city’s mutant community. Purchase Mutant City Blues in print and PDF at the Pelgrane Shop.
In all GUMSHOE games, there’s a benefit for having 8 rating points in Athletics – your Hit Threshold rises by 1. Night’s Black Agents expanded this to all General Abilities – if you invest eight of your precious build points in a particular ability, you get a cherry, a special ability that shows off your mastery in that field.
So, for your high-octane Pulp games, here’s a bunch of Cthulhuoid cherries that don’t overlap with the various occupation special abilities.
Conceal: Trap Sense
You may spend Conceal when making a Sense Trouble test if the potential threat is a concealed trap or other hidden environmental peril, like an overgrown pit or impending cave-in.
Disguise: Alternate Identity
You’ve established a whole other life for yourself, complete with friends, possessions, documentation – possibly even a home and family. This alternate persona must have a lower Credit Rating than your main identity (unless you’ve been masquerading as someone else since the start of the campaign). A Disguise rating of 8+ gets you one alternate identity; you can purchase more for 4 experience points each).
Driving: Drive-By Shootout
You’re adept at lining up shots for your passengers when they’re shooting out the window. (We won’t ask which mob outfit you were working for when you learned that trick). You may transfer up to 4 Driving points to your passenger’s Firearms pools at the start of a car chase. Unspent points are lost when the chase ends.
Electrical Repair: Alien Insight
Your intuitive understanding of electricity and magnetism gives you an insight into devices far beyond the paltry technology of humanity. You may spend 4 Electrical Repair to activate an alien device, like a Mi-Go brain cylinder or Yithian lightning gun. You only guess at how to turn the thing on, not what it does or how to properly control it.
Explosives: One Last Stick
You can spend Explosive points on Preparedness tests to obtain dynamite or similar explosives.
Filch: Here’s One I Stole Earlier
With a Filch rating of 8+, once per investigation, you may declare you stole something retroactively from a previous scene. You need to get into the mansion’s boathouse to flee the rampaging shoggoth? Well, it just so happens that you picked the groundkeeper’s pockets earlier on, and here’s the very key you need. You still need to make a Filch test to actually acquire whatever you want to unexpectedly produce.
Firearms: Nerves of Steel
Difficulty numbers for your Firearms tests aren’t affected by being Shaken.
First Aid: Sawbones
A First Aid Rating of 8 or more gives 1 free point in either Medicine or Pharmacy, player’s choice.
Once per adventure, when you fail a Fleeing test or are about to be consumed by some other horror, you may declare that you black out. When you wake up, you’re somewhere safe. You have no idea how you escaped or where you are now, and may have dropped items or abandoned fellow investigators to some horrible fate. But you’re alive, and that’s something.
You may attempt to use hypnotism on subjects who aren’t actively willing to be hypnotized. Your subject must still be somewhat open to your influence – you could hypnotize someone that you’re in conversation with, or the doorman at a club, but you couldn’t hypnotize the mugger who’s about to rob you, or the cultist who’s intent on sacrificing you to some alien god. Increase the Difficulty of any hypnotism tests using this ability by +2 (so, putting someone into a trance without their co-operation is Difficulty 5; planting false memories is Difficulty 7).
Mechanical Repair: Give It A Kick
Once per adventure, you may make a Mechanical Repair roll instantly. You could kick a plane’s engine back to life as it falls from the sky, or unjam a machine gun with one solid whack.
Piloting: There’s Always A Plane
Once per adventure, you may ask the Keeper to introduce an aircraft of some description that you can fly with this ability. Maybe it’s your own plane, and you’ve flew out or had it shipped out. Maybe it’s someone else’s aircraft you can borrow, or a crashed plane that’s repairable. Maybe the cultists have a zeppelin-temple. In any event, there’s always a plane nearby that you can use/borrow/steal over the course of the adventure.
Preparedness: Expedition Planning
If you have time to prepare and pack for any sort of expedition, then you bring enough for everyone. When you succeed at a Preparedness test to obtain an item, you may spend one extra point to have one of those items for everyone in the group. For example, if you use Preparedness to declare you’ve got an electric lamp, then you can spend an extra point to give everyone else a similar lamp too.
A Psychoanalysis Rating of 8 or more gives one free point in Reassurance or Assess Honesty (player’s choice).
Riding: Ride the Flying Polyp
You can ride anything, including Mythos mounts like shantaks. Even better, if a creature is introduced to you as a mount and you only use it for riding, then any Stablility losses for seeing the creature are reduced by 2.
Scuffling: The Old One Two
You may make an extra Scuffling attack per round, as long as you hit with your first attack. Your extra attack costs a number of Scuffling points equal to the result of the damage die (so, if you roll a 2, that’s 2 Scuffling points for another swing).
Sense Trouble: Quick Reflexes
If you overspend on a successful Sense Trouble test, you get those points back as a pool that can only be spent on Athletics, Fleeing, Firearms, Scuffling or Weapons tests in the first round of combat or in tests immediately related to the trouble you sensed. The maximum size of this pool is equal to the number of Sense Trouble points spent. For example, say the Difficulty to sense a lurking Deep One is 5. You spend 3 Sense Trouble and roll a 4, for a total of 7, beating the Difficulty by 2. You get 2 points back that you must spend immediately on attacking or escaping the monster.
If you’d rolled a 6, you’d have beaten the Difficulty by 4, but you’d still only get 3 points back.
Shadowing: In Over Your Head
Whenever you have to make a Sense Trouble roll while shadowing someone, you gain 2 points in a pool that can be spent on Evidence Collection, Locksmith, Disguise, Filch or Stealth. You lose any unspent points in this pool when you stop shadowing the target and turn back, or are discovered.
Stealth: Stay Here
As long as someone follows your explicit instructions, they can piggyback (as per the rules on page 57) on your Stealth tests even when you’re not present. So, if you tell a fellow investigator to hide in the undergrowth and keep crawling until they reach the road, they can piggyback on your Stealth tests if they do exactly what you told them to do.
Weapons: Favorite Weapon
Pick your favorite melee weapon. You draw strength and courage from its familiar heft in your hand. Once per adventure, you may gain 4 Stability from drawing or brandishing your weapon. With this sword by your side, there’s nothing you can’t handle.
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 column on roleplaying
by Robin D. Laws
In The Gaean Reach Roleplaying Game, your team of interstellar grudge-holders journeys to the galaxy’s darkest crannies in search of the arch-criminal Quandos Vorn. In reprisal for the despicable wrongs he’s done each of you, you’ve sworn to track him down and send him to his grave. But with his vast resources and illimitable flair for chicanery, he’s so far managed to stay one step ahead of you. A flurry of contradictory new reports places him on a variety of worlds. Pick one, if not several, of these, giving your GM sufficient advance warning that you’ve found your next destination.
(Worlds listed here do not appear in the works of Jack Vance, the late science fiction master and creator of the Gaean Reach setting. So feel at liberty to destroy them.)
Thick, verdant flora covers the rocky continents of Ballairides. Despite its lushness, the plant life proves thinly rooted, surviving on a shallow but super-nutritious soil layer. Scientists prize not its run-of-the-mill carbon-based botanical species, or the lackluster food network of decapedes, crawlers and air slugs it supports. Ballairides’ true interest to researchers lies in the rocks themselves. Before meteoric spores seeded its present ecosystem, this world hosted a silicon-based fauna. Crystallized fossils of these bizarre, asymmetrical lifeforms fill its sedimentary rock layers. Licensed geo-plunderers drill deep beneath a hard igneous stone wrapper to find and harvest them. Prized both as museum pieces and as art objects spawned by rogue, whimsical nature, the fossils attract a criminal element of illicit looters. Dodging the efforts of understaffed rock wardens, these paleontological pirates covertly meet interstellar demand for Ballairides fossils.
Your informants tell you that Quandos Vorn now commissions a notably ruthless crew of fossil looters, insisting only on complete specimens of the most gigantic extinct lifeforms. Have his laboratories perfected a method, long thought possible in theory, to resurrect these lumbering titans? If so, to what destructive use does he intend to put them?
The last planet allegedly discovered by the legendary world-prospector Lamint Cegiel veritably burst with exploitable life and mineral resources. Probes from his ship, the Tactile, noted temperate climes, abundant timber, and, in its northern region, magma lakes literally made of liquid gold. Yet when eager clients flew to the coordinates he sold them, they found nothing. Or rather, the five per cent of them who returned said they’d found nothing. Occasionally communications arrays pick up messages from purported descendants of those vanished would-be settlers, begging others to join them on their paradisaical but sadly underpopulated planet. Now and then another group of crack-brained utopians falls for this obvious hoax and sets course for Cegiel’s coordinates, never to be seen again.
Some deluded believers say that Cegiel’s Ghost can only be a real planet, cut off from the rest of the galaxy by a space-time ripple. Those lucky enough to approach it at the right instant pass from our molecular resonance into the pocket reality it resides in.
Wiser heads presume that the world is as imaginary as ever, and that starmenters ambush those lured in by their faked beacon signals. After stealing their ships and supplies, the pirates leave them floating naked in space, their last thoughts wistful dreams of Cegiel’s World. Who might lead such vicious starmenters, if not Quandos Vorn?
Shallow seas cover the whole of Grentic. A long-lived, highly boredom-resistant person might circumnavigate the entire planet by wading, without ever getting wet above the mid-thigh. Occasional circuitous loops might be required in one’s path, to avoid its few ocean trenches. Settlers on Grentic live on interconnected platforms, chained to the profusion of granitic spires rising through the muddy seabed into the salt-choked sky. Feeding on a rich variety of quasi-crustaceans and cod-mollusks, Grentic’s people adhere to the founding maxim of its deliberately nameless first explorers: “We’ll mind our business and you mind yours.” Only the principle of unity against outside interference binds its population of sodden-toed libertarians. They join together with projacs and harpoons against any who would attempt extradition of any resident, no matter how recent his arrival. Fugitives tend not to tarry long here, due to its lack of amenities and excitement. Quandos Vorn, it is said, takes occasional Grentic idylls, freeing his turbulent mind from the pressing issues of arch-criminality.
|Dithermal image showing Quandos Vorn on Grentic. Note the newly acquired scar on his left cheek.
Don your flame-suits when you step from your ship onto the heat-baked surface of Myrt. A luxuriant grassland covered its surface when first settled, five hundred years ago. By clearing it for farming, its pioneers triggered catastrophic climate change, turning it into a desert hellhole. Too proud to admit either defeat or fault, they tunneled beneath the surface, undergoing rapid hyper-evolution. Now blind, bald, hunched, and bleeping and burbling in a sonar language standard human ears cannot fully apprehend, Myrtans worship the stern fungal god Bletch, rigorously enforcing the many sanctions of their faith. Rumor has it that We-9Y, the psychotropic communion brew quaffed during its solemn festivals. confers extraordinary sensory powers. That users untrained in the psychic arts of Myrt often drop dead after a handful of doses does not deter questers after heightened perception.
You hear that Quandos Vorn has entered the We-9Y market in force. From this one can safely assume that he can at times be found in the tunnels of Myrt, or clues to his whereabouts might be found there. Persons less intent on vengeance than yourselves might note with caution the extent to which off-world trade in We-9Y has stoked divisions in Myrtan society. But what trouble could a little civil war cause you, now that you finally have a solid lead to Vorn’s whereabouts?
A column on roleplaying
by Robin D. Laws
Your Mutant City Blues characters may spend their on-stage time putting down major cases with an extra-human slant. But just like their TV procedural counterparts, we see them only when they’re working the interesting cases. We can assume that they investigate plenty of routine cases between episodes. Most of their arrests stem from easily solved, and therefore less than compelling, crimes. In real police work, the most obvious suspect is almost always the guilty party. (That’s why it’s tough to be innocent when you fit the profile of a usual suspect.) The criminals you mostly deal with aren’t masterminds. Far from it—they’re easily tripped up in the interrogation room, don’t know their legal rights, and fall again and again for basic interrogation ploys.
Nor are all the cases you work major crimes. Other squads are happy to bounce cases to the Heightened Crimes Investigation Unit at the slightest hint of mutant involvement. So you get not only the big cases, like murders, kidnapping and high-dollar heists, that seem to have an extra twist in their helixes. You get to track down mutant vandals, petty thieves, flashers and street corner drug slingers.
Any of these cases might lead into a more complicated crime with a mystery at the heart of it, one fitting the GUMSHOE modus operandi. If so, your GM kicks off a scenario with it, or drops it in at the relevant moment. Most of the time, the day-to-day efforts comprising the bulk of your career hang as an implication in the background.
Add cop show flavor to your character portrayal by using minor offstage cases as springboards for banter. Scenes in which partners exchange dialogue on the way to an interview are a staple of the genre. Roleplaying groups often engage in banter and digression to give themselves time to think when they’re stumped. Combine these two functions by doing your digressions in character, making them less digressive.
Invent a routine case and drop it into your dialogue as an exercise in dark police humor. Find powers on the Quade Diagram and meld them with tales of typical police work. Regale your fellow mutant officers with such gems as:
- How you identified an invisible peeping tom.
- The animal rights activist who spit acid all over a furrier’s inventory.
- The guy with gills you caught hiding in a building’s water tank.
- The landlord who hired a guy to scare his rent-controlled tenants into leaving by attacking them with rats, via his control mammals power.
- The landlord who called to complain that a tenant was interfering with the thermostat, making the apartment warmer than he needed legally to pay for. The landlord accused the tenant of using his reduce temperature power to blast chill air at the thermostat. You told them to take it to small claims court.
- “Stupid arson squad had me working overtime on that warehouse torching. I was halfway through my list of suspects with fire projection, when they found the accelerant.”
- The extortionist who wanted protection money not to blow a new condo’s glass balconies into the street. Maybe you caught him by showing up at the payoff site and spotting the dude with the asthma inhaler. (You’ll recall that asthma is a defect associated with wind control.)
- The guy who confessed to a fatal stabbing in a prank gone wrong. He went after his frat brother with a knife, because the bro had blade immunity. It was a trick they’d pulled a dozen times to impress the college girls. But the frat bro didn’t tell him his identical twin was visiting that night, the twin was a norm. So it all ended in a puddle of blood and an involuntary manslaughter collar.
- “My sister wants me to talk some sense into my nephew, who’s been jolting. If I knew how to talk to kids, maybe I would have had one. I don’t suppose if I introduced you, that you’d do the heavy lifting…?”
- The citizen who accused his ex-husband of chopping off his finger. It turned out that the guy did it himself, which he could afford to do because he regenerates. Later the two reconciled and the citizen dropped the charges. Later still you get another call, and this time the falsely accused has really chopped something off the hubby. But this time it’s not the finger.
Mutant City Munchausen
You could also steal a trick from a classic game by friend-of-Pelgrane James Wallis, The Extraordinary Adventures of Baron Munchausen. In that game, you challenge your competitors to weave entertaining anecdotes from a simple premise. While essaying a squad car banter scene with another Mutant City Blues player, you might toss them a premise and see what they do with it. It could relate to a case, another aspect of mutant life, or some off-duty cop matter. For extra points, pick an idea that highlights the contrast between your characters. Or pitch an idea that might draw the other player into a shared sub-plot.
- So what’s the deal on that entangling hair kink club case you’re working?
- Hey, did I hear right that you’re dating a telepath? If you don’t mind my saying so, that’s crazy.
- Are you still thinking about studying for the sergeant’s exam? I bet they skew the scores against lixers. They’re aren’t enough of us to work mutant cases, so they want to keep us outta the desk jobs.
- It sucks that the perps in that barhead bar brawl case walked. We should go pay a visit to the property clerk who screwed the pooch on the chain of evidence and put the fear of God into him.
…or, When Your Car Battery Goes Dead Outside the Jorgamundr’s Lair, It Ain’t No Coincidence
A Column on Roleplaying
by Robin D. Laws
Your assignments for the Ordo Verititas take you into zones where the membrane between our reality and the terrifying realm of the Outer Dark nears the breaking point. In such places you may encounter signs and symptoms of this damage bearing only an acausal relationship to the conspiracies and entities you hunt. The Esoterrorists, and the monsters they foolishly truck with, don’t directly cause these phenomena. Nonetheless, by rolling up the target terror cell, and, more importantly, conducting a veil-out to disguise its true nature from an unsuspecting populace, you can restore the membrane. This brings about a rapid drop-off in TMP (Thin Membrane Phenomena) in the afflicted area.
Though unrelated to your primary mission, these low-level manifestations can nonetheless exact a toll on the psyche. Repeated exposure can in extreme cases compromise agent mental condition, and with it successful mission execution. On the up side, they can help you narrow your quest when more concrete leads grow scarce. The closer you come to people, places and things related to the Outer Dark, the more of these manifestations you will encounter. When their frequency increases, you know you’re on the right track.
Common manifestations include:
- Enhanced pareidolia. The pattern-seeking of the human perceptual array encourages us to see familiar shapes, most notably faces, in random visual assemblages. In CMZs (Compromised Membrane Zones), this effect increases, independent of the viewer. Ordinary random patterns take on the terrifying faces of the entities you are chasing, or of innocent people murdered during the current case. Agents report seeing enhanced pareidolia effects in clouds, ice crystals on windows, knots of wood, peeling house paint, stains from water or other liquids, or even, as in the accompanying photo, in the cooking froth from starchy vegetables.
- Sudden animal death. Maddened wild creatures may burst from the wilderness to drop dead at your feet—after briefly menacing you of course. Likewise with household pets.
- Where the animal does not inexplicably die before your eyes, partial remains might later be discovered, as if from inexplicable predation. In one case, all of an informant’s aquarium fish were found by agents to have been skeletonized. The manifestation affected multiple tanks, and occurred in the room of the witness’ home where an interview was taking place. It occurred in an instant, when neither agents nor the informant were looking directly at the tanks. In more typical instances the head of the animal is found, but nothing else. Cattle mutilation (less commonly reported to also target horses and large working dogs) might be regarded as a subset of this phenomenon, or a separate one. Agents are cautioned to distinguish between this complex of CMZ collateral symptoms and direct predation by Outer Dark Entities, many of which require considerable quantities of protein to remain in this dimension for prolonged periods.
- Extreme vermin infestation. Pest animals suddenly infest an area that should not be vulnerable to them. They do so either in unlikely numbers or out of season for their vermin type. Reported cases from our incident reports include rats, bats, cockroaches, ants, and worms.
- Carcass materialization. A dead animal spontaneously appears somewhere it should not. For example you find a rat or writhing maggot mass in your milk carton.
- Localized weather. CMZs often suffer markedly worse climatic conditions than the immediate area. You may also encounter supernaturally brief flashes of inclement weather. Ordo Veritatis case files record sudden and meteorologically inexplicable bursts of hail, lightning, freezing rain, fog, tornadoes, and typhoons. Overcast skies cover Compromised Membrane Zones so inevitably that their presence becomes unremarkable.
- Fortean precipitation. This phenomenon was discovered by documenter of the unknown, and eventual Ordo Veritatis asset, Charles Fort (1874-1932.) An unlikely substance, object or animal falls from the skies, without apparent source. Examples drawn from case files include beans, roof tiles, mud, oil, excrement, shrapnel, shredded morgue documents, debris from long-vanished airplanes, and the proverbial frogs. When blood precipitates during an investigation, protocol requires you to test its origin. It may be that of an animal, human, or Outer Dark Entity. Some apparent blood falls turn out to be other substances entirely, from liquefied autumn leaves to stage blood.
- Electronic equipment anomalies. Clocks gain or lose time. Harsh whispers in Sumerian or Proto-Indo-European emanate from cell phones. Phantom fingers type threats or indecipherable messages on laptop keyboards. Televisions and personal stereos pop suddenly on, their content either directly disturbing or ironically innocuous. The tendency of batteries, particularly of cars, flashlights, and mobile communications devices, to go suddenly dead becomes so commonplace in a CMZ that you should plan for none of these to work when you need them most. Beware also the effect that may cause the vehicle you drove to your final confrontation to move or vanish.
- Materials degradation. Ambient Outer Dark energy degrades molecular bonds, rapidly aging commonly used construction materials. ODE manifestations are drawn to older, already decaying structures as it is. However even newly built homes, offices and installations can fall prey to this effect. Wallpaper glue weeps and melts. Stairs crumble, as if riddled by wood rot. Locks wear out or seize up. Screws and nails work themselves loose from surrounding wood or drywall.
- Psychic imprinting. Locations absorb extreme negative emotions, which can be released when ambient Outer Dark energy levels increase. You may witness ghostly replays of an area’s noted past murders and violent accidents. Some agents report complex interactions with events, as if drawn back in time to take part in them. Curiously, evidence of their actions in the past may later surface. Through this means an agent active in the late 1990s found herself in the background of the Zapruder footage of the John F. Kennedy assassination—an anomaly whose veil-out cost the organization significant effort and financial resources.
GMs, when you need a random creepy thing to reintroduce a mood of horror simply generate a random number and pick a creepy omen from this list. Or choose a manifestation thematically related to the current case. Give this column to your players in advance, or let them clearly deduce when an effect is key to the case, and when it is a collateral one like those covered here.
In The Zalozhniy Quartet, there’s a scene (not really a spoiler) where the PCs are outmatched and are ‘supposed’ to flee, leading into a tense chase. Expecting player characters to take a particular action is always hazardous design – you can set up a situation where there’s only one valid route for the PCs to follow, and they’ll still stall and try a hundred alternate approaches before doing the obvious. In this case, waiting for the players to decide the situation was untenable and choose to retreat wasn’t an option – the scene involves a direct confrontation with… things they’re not equipped to deal with.
In my initial draft, I suggested a bunch of ways for the Director to make it clear to the PCs that running away was their best – indeed, only – option. Sense Trouble rolls. Having the bad guys beat up the PCs with ease. Having the NPCs soldiers accompanying the mission heroically sacrifice themselves, giving the PCs a chance to escape.
The solution, as pointed out by Robin, was to make the overwhelming odds a Core Clue, obtained with Military Science. The player character – a veteran of a hundred black operations and brush wars – instantly sizes up the situation, and realizes that hanging around is suicide. They’ve got to run. Making it a core clue changes the dynamic from “the GM forces the PCs to act” to “the PCs, by dint of their superior skills and experience, fight their way out of a lethal ambush and escape to safety”.
What makes this especially interesting, from a scenario design point of view, is that Military Science isn’t often used passively. It’s the sort of skill that a player brings up when they’re spying on a furtive meeting between two mercenaries, or when they’re trying to bluff their way onto a military base. Writing a scene that takes a skill normally used as an active, ‘I ferret out the clues thusly’ and just handing a clue to the players can produce interesting results.
Esoterrorists – Document Analysis: While paying for take-out at a nearby diner, you spot a cheque in the drawer of the cash register. The handwriting on the check matches that of the author of the Esoterror manifesto you’re in town to find. The check was right on top of the drawer – the target might still be right here in the restaurant.
Recalled Information & Flashbacks
Revealing facts to players as Core Clues (or as a benefit for spending points) is the core of GUMSHOE. A Mutant City Blues player uses Ballistics, and you describe how they work out that the killer must have been standing on the third floor balcony of the building across the street. Searching CCTV camera footage with Data Retrieval gets them a photo of the gunman, and running that through a police database with Research gets them a name.
Or, in Trail of Cthulhu, they use Occult, and learn that the owl sigil they found is associated with the Minervan League, and then use Credit Rating to get an invitation to a League-sponsored lecture.
You can go further than that. A Ballistics clue could equally point the characters towards a roleplaying scene.
“At that range, with the weather that night, it would have been a hell of a shot. You know one guy who could have pulled it off – an old army buddy of yours, an ex-sniper who’s now a shooting instructor. He probably knows all the good marksmen in this region. Maybe he knows the shooter; it’s definitely worth talking to him”
“You’ve seen this symbol before. You remember reading a book in the restricted stacks of the Orne Library, back at good old Miskatonic. The owl sigil is used by a sect called the Minervan league. In fact, you recall that that particular book was donated to the library collection after the death of its previous owner. Thinking about it, he lived near here. Maybe his family know more.”
More ambitiously, you can embed scenes inside other scenes, by means of a flashback. Keep flashbacks short, and be prepared to improvise in response to player actions in the ‘past’.
Occult: “You recognise that symbol – it’s the sign of the Minervan League. You know that because in your youth, you were acquainted with a member of the league. You even applied for membership, but weren’t accepted – did an existing member blackball you, or did you back out at the last minute?
Anyway, you remember your friend hinting about the league’s secret purpose. He started to say something about a Great Work… then he fell silent, as if suddenly frightened. What did you do?”
NPCs as Clues
A clue – especially an Interpersonal one – can be incarnated in the form of an NPC from the PCs’ past. Instead of, say, getting information from the waitress at the bar through Flirting, maybe the waitress is an ex-girlfriend of the Flirting player character. She’ll tell you what she overheard – but only if you apologise for what happened the last time she saw you.
If a PC has a high Intimidate, then presumably they’ve intimidated people in the past. So, when the PCs are combing the dark streets of the city, ask who’s got the highest Intimidate – the PC with the second highest rating is the one who gets jumped by the vengeful goons. (Of course they don’t go after the highest rating – that guy’s scary). Beating up the goons yields the next Core Clue.
A Core Clue points the way to another scene. It doesn’t have to be evidence interpreted by the PCs. Anything that opens up a new avenue of investigation works. Mix up the way you present core clues whenever you feel your game is getting repetitive!
GUMSHOE is a game system that privileges bite-size morsels of neat-sounding knowledge. Ideally creepy neat-sounding knowledge, handed out in such a way as to imply a whole universe of such things just beyond the players’ horizon. It’s as though Robin invented it thinking solely of me. Even before Trail of Cthulhu, I liked to make a habit of flavoring my game books with morsels of neat-sounding knowledge, laid out in such a way as to imply … that I knew all there was to know about architecture, or Gnosticism, or astrological decans, or aviation history, and had just picked one or two morsels for the delectation of the reader. Friends, I am here to tell you that is an illusion. I am frighteningly widely (that is, mostly uselessly) read and at have been trying with some success to drown a trick memory under waves of vodka, but I do not know all there is to know about any of those things (except possibly astrological decans, because there isn’t much to know about those in the first place).
With that confession off our chest, let me proceed to show you that such knowledge is an illusion. Better still, it is an illusion YOU can cultivate in the service of being a GUMSHOE adventure writer, whether pro or am. Any GUMSHOE GM can use this foolproof method on pretty much anything. You just need about an hour and a search engine.
In the fourth week of January of this year, my Twitter, Facebook, and email feeds all blew up with the news that there was a Cannibal-Rat Ghost Ship approaching England. A decommissioned 300-foot Russian cruise ship, the MV Lyubov Orlova, broke its chain off Newfoundland on January 23, 2013 while being towed to the Dominican Republic to be scrapped. Its emergency beacons transmitted in the mid-Atlantic, then went silent. About a year later, a Belgian “marine missions specialist” (read: excitable goof) speculated in the press (well, in the Sun) that the ship’s rats had devolved into cannibalism. Hey presto, Cannibal-Rat Ghost Ship. I should not have to explain, at this late date, why or even how this is essentially a perfect Night’s Black Agents story hook.
As with so many perfect game hooks, various killjoys set about pouring cold water (the icy waters of the North Atlantic!) on the story. (I don’t really want to get political about this, but I just love that the Guardian went the extra mile and found someone to assure their readership that the rats would instead set up a socialist utopia.) As with so many debunkers, they let their skepticism out-race the facts on the ground. Er, water. Or, as the Robert Benchley of the 21st century, Mallory Ortberg, put it on Twitter:
“the ocean is a PRETTY big place, I don’t think you can definitively say there are NO rat-ghost ships on their way to England right now”
But the skeptics did one great favor for Night’s Black Agents Directors; the Smithsonian piece provided a link to the MV Lyubov Orlova search blog, “Where Is Orlova?” Which, unlike the slackers in the British media, has apparently been quietly looking for the Cannibal-Rat Ghost Ship since it vanished.
See what you have already? You have a hook. You have the best (i.e., most sensationalistic) version of the story. You have a debunking for the NPC coverup to parrot. And you have a blogful of huge amounts of data and parallel info thanks to the kind of quiet obsessive who makes the Web so Wonderful. Combine that with the Wikipedia article and you have more than enough material for your Cannibal-Rat Ghost Ship adventure, whether the ship heaves up in Norway, or the PCs rappel down onto it from a borrowed Sikorsky, or the Director decides to put the Orlova in her pocket as the floating HQ of a dissident Nosferaterrorist and sprinkle clues (and cannibal rats) over the next six adventures.
It took me about half an hour to become as much of an expert on the Cannibal-Rat Ghost Ship as anyone except perhaps the rats themselves. Go thou and do likewise.