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

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

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

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


DramaSystem series pitches do not typically describe particular Game Moderator characters. They are better invented during play than set out for you in advance. This allows you to tailor the GMCs to the player characters, ensuring that act as foils rather than drivers of the action.

However in Hillfolk one-shots, I do find myself returning to a particular GMC again and again. He occurs when the players do not include a chieftain character. When the group does include a chieftain a one-shot, as I’ve noted before, usually becomes a struggle to depose the chieftain. When that’s not the case I often find a use for an ineffectual, doddering old chieftain. His job, like any DramaSystem GMC, is to raise the dramatic stakes and incite PC action. Typically a naïve believer in outmoded values over hard realities, Graybeard mostly urges characters to foolish courses of behavior. Though his plans are bad, he does zero in on the burning desires of the characters he seeks out. He typifies that most dangerous figure: a persuasive idiot. In narrative terms, he embodies the need of a storyline for its characters to get into trouble. This brews useful conflict between the characters he’s urging on and the others who oppose their goals.

That’s all you need to establish about Graybeard before you know exactly what you’ll need him for. That way he’s free to be the doting father of a power mad daughter in one run of the game with one group, and the decrepit upholder of cruel patriarchal values with another. If Graybeard has shown a common agenda throughout his various incarnations, it’s in selecting the absolute least qualified player character as his anointed successor. To make the imminent import of this clear, Graybeard speaks with great difficulty, fighting a wracking cough.

In a one-shot, Graybeard also gives the GM a fun cliffhanger ending as an option to keep in pocket if needed. More than one of my runs has ended with the sudden death of Graybeard, leaving a power vacuum for the second episode with that address. Now, of course in a one-shot there’s not really going to be a second episode. But players can imagine it nonetheless. Open endings tend to go down better than the fast and brutal escalation that characterizes an episode meant to have a conclusive ending. My watchword for giving a new DramaSystem group a good time has become “leave them imagining more.”

Over many runs, Graybeard has been a great help in that regard. Surprisingly, despite all the coughing and the full weight of foreshadowing it ought to bring, groups usually react with surprise to his final keeling over. It’s funny how a trope you’d spot a million miles away in a movie or TV show still has the power to surprise at the gaming table.

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.

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 his January Rolling Stone profile of Pope Francis I, writer Mark Binelli supplies a classic bit of color reportage:

Outside St. Peter’s Square, hawkers are selling everything from Sistine Chapel tours to airbrushed paintings of Tupac, Bob Marley and the pope. I ask one of the vendors, a tall Belizean with a shaved head, if the increased crowds under Francis have been good for business. He scowls and shakes his head, then answers in perfect, New York-inflected English, “Naw, this guy, all he does is talk about the poor, and so he’s bringing in these poorer tourists from places like Argentina. They ain’t got no money, these people! When Ratzinger was pope, Germans would pull up on a bus. They’re organized, they spend! Now everyone wants a discount.”

The reminder that vendors of religious souvenirs might be motivated by less than the utmost spiritual concerns put me in mind of The Dying Earth. It just so happens that the area around Shin’s Stadium near the Marketplace of Kaiin now teems with pilgrims. These hopeful believers have erected a tent city in hopes of getting near to the Glandive. This earthly representative of a once-moribund—one might frankly say obscure—creed has energized a new generation of worshipers. Her previous earthly incarnation, that of a doddering, querulous old woman, attracted an ever-dwindling core of adherents. With her passing, the matriarchs of Glandive pronounced that the unceasing spirit of the Glandive has rooted in the pleasing form of a young woman with silken gold hair. The newly charismatic and outgoing Glandive inspires travelers from all over Ascolais and Almery. None doubt the purity of her vision, encouraging charity and empathy toward all—none, at least, who do not desire a good kicking from intemperate followers. With her rising popularity has risen a brisk trade in memorabilia, from small ceramic portraits of the new Glandive, to locks of golden hair. (Warning: hair samples not guaranteed to originate on the head of the Glandive herself.) All of these items are considered to be powerful amulets conferring luck and protection from swindle and robbery upon their owners.

The head of the cartel selling these amulets, Imgo the Gaunt, surprisingly does not answer to the Glandive or her matriarchs. An independent operator, he fiercely defends his trade against unauthorized talisman hawkers. He doesn’t pursue relic sellers elsewhere in the city, but around the tent zone and the still-modest Glandive temple, his mighty-thewed enforcers ensure that only his merchandise winds up around the necks of the pious.

Your PCs might be engaged by the matriarchs to drive Imgo and his gang off, or by Imgo to prevent competitors from horning in on his action.

New creature for The Esoterrorists or Fear Itself

A hole opens up in the road outside your house. You pay no attention to this. Guarded by construction fence, it shows every sign of being regular repair work. Maybe they’re fixing the water mains. Or resurfacing the pavement. But then it gradually dawns that you never see anyone working on it during the day. It couldn’t possibly have opened up during the night, could it? You’d have heard them, and been disturbed by the noise. What construction projects get done in the darkness?

Projects by the workmen do. These beings from the Outer Dark materialize beneath busy urban areas. Drawn to neighborhoods in flux, they absorb and reflect anxieties of homeowners and renters alike. The nature of the change matters not. They show up where foreclosures are rampant, and where rising rents threaten to price out longterm residents. Anyone who gazes down into their holes becomes a psychic power battery. Once empowered they sneak from their tunnels, unlock your doors, and to stand over your bed at night, drinking your essence. As you start to die, your symptoms mimic those of hazardous chemical exposure. Doctors may try to find the source of the contamination, but no matter how many soil tests they perform they never turn up the real truth.

To end an infestation you have to descend into their tunnels. Once underground one finds a labyrinthine dig defying ordinary geometry. Stopping them means finding the original gateway to the Outer Dark. The workmen, with their helmet-like heads, glowing eyes and skulking bodies, individually pose no greater threat than an ordinary person. But there are so, so many of them. And if they take you out in their subterranean home ground, you join their ranks, slaving eternally for more scraps of emotional residue…

Abilities: Athletics 6, Health 6, Scuffling 6

Hit Threshold: 3

Weapon: +1 (pick-axe or shovel)

Alertness Modifier: +1

Stealth Modifier: +2


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.’

Yung Chang’s documentary China Heavyweight, now streaming at a video service near you, follows the impact of a high-school boxing program meant to recruit amateur fighters on two young men who buy their coaches’ promises of a way out of their poor tobacco-farming community. In addition to providing a window into cultural change in today’s China, its fly-on-the-wall style allows us to see real-life examples of the dramatic structure at the heart of Hillfolk.

In the game’s DramaSystem rules engine, conflicts between people who care about each other identify one participant in the dialogue scene as the petitioner and the other as the granter. The petitioner seeks an emotional reward or concession from the granter, who chooses either to grant it, or to withhold it. This structure underlies all dramatic storytelling, and is powerful because it boils down the ways we really interact with one another.

The style of documentary that simply shows us people behaving over time lets us see this in action.

In one scene, restless young would-be “boxing king” Yunfei Miao seeks his hardworking mother’s blessing to pursue his boxing dreams. Struggling to contain her anger, she sees nothing but disappointment from him, and withholds her approval. If this were a DramaSystem scene, Yunfei would be the petitioner and his mother the granter. She shuts him down, and he earns a drama token.

In another scene, Yunfei tells his coach he’s taken a construction job. After briefly protesting that the young man still has the potential to win, he resigns himself to Yunfei’s decision. Here Yunfei seeks his coach’s emotional acceptance and, after some resistance, gets it. In this case, the coach’s player would get a drama token, for granting Yunfei’s request.

In another instance, the two young boxers sit on a bench in a shopping district girlwatching. The shier of the two, He Zhongli, both fears and admires Yunfei’s apparent superior skill getting phone numbers. He seems to be petitioning Yunfei for tips, but under the surface really seeks permission to be shy. Yunfei, lost in his own cockiness, scarcely notices what is being asked of him. In a DramaSystem scene, He’s player would snag a drama token from Yunfei’s.

Next time you’re watching a character study doc shot in this style, watch for the petitioner/granter structure and the movement of invisible drama tokens across the screen.

NASA’s Cassini probe has detected any icy object in Saturn’s rings that may be a nascent moon.

The small object may already be falling apart, making for a story less less impressive than the “baby moon” headlines suggest. So let’s fix that by ripping it from the science headlines for Ashen Stars.

The lasers snag a contract to investigate and retrieve the object of an unusual theft. The Xeno-Eco Foundation a balla-run organization created to curb environmental crimes in the Bleed, hires the crew to find out who stole a moon. Remote probes located in the Athos Outzone detected the formation of a new moon in the rings of the gas giant Ninurta. They also spotted what looked like a battered hauler entering the rings, capturing it with a tractor beam, and taking it away. In accordance with Combine anti-poaching laws, the Xeno-Ecos want the moon pirates identified and their ship destroyed. As a bonus, they hope that the lasers can restore the moon to its rightful spot around Ninurta.

The twist comes when the lasers use stellar forensics to track the missing moon to its new location just outside the absorption zone of a black hole. The hauler that stole it belongs to the ragtag, wayfaring fleet of a nufaith colony. Its adherents believe that Ninurta is the material manifestation of an evil goddess destined to devour the known galaxy. Whenever Ninurta births a moon, they believe, it is their duty to take it away and destroy it, before it blossoms fully into a marauding engine of death that will eventually undo the big bang and unravel the universe. As the lasers arrive, sect leaders have commenced the multi-day ritual, after which they’ll tip the baby moon into the black hole.

How do the lasers reconcile the conflict between ecological protection and sincerely held religious belief?

A Calgary dentist who two years ago bought John Lennon’s tooth at auction says that he looks forward to cloning him in the near future. After finding a jurisdiction with loose bio-ethical regulation, he intends to raise the child in a music-friendly environment—though without exposure to drugs and cigarettes.

Rip this story from the headlines for Mutant City Blues with a case involving a murder at a gene sequencing lab. The HCIU catches the case because it specializes in prenatal screening for mutations. Co-founder Allen Gould turns up dead in the underground parking lot beneath his office at Sequencing Services LLC. Initial indications point to a business dispute between the vic and his partner, Helen Mack. Further digging reveals Gould’s scheme to divert especially promising samples to an illegal cloning program. Did Mack kill him when she found out, or was it Gould’s shadowy partners in the clandestine cloning operation? A moral dilemma arises when the detectives discover that several clonings have already taken place. Women get implanted with super-powered fetuses in the Grand Caymans and then return home to Mutant City. Sometimes they’re surrogates, in other cases the women who intend to raise them bear them. Although the murder of Dr. Gould clearly falls under their jurisdiction, the scheme itself occupies a legal gray area, far above their pay grades. Still, the way they handle publicity arising from the arrest will likely shape the political outcome. Can the detectives influence how the children born as a result of the scheme are treated? Do they even try, or do they keep their heads down and move on to the next homicide on the whiteboard?

Mutant City Blues is an investigative science fiction roleplaying game where members of the elite Heightened Crime Investigation Unit solve crimes involving the city’s mutant community. Pick up Mutant City Blues in print and PDF at the Pelgrane Shop.

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. 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.
  9. 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.
  10. 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.

huth_GR_gazcover_frontPlanets of Peril and Vengeance, Arranged From A-Z

An impossibly distant future. A vast sprawl of planets, each without parallel, with its own bizarre customs, bedeviling procedures, and wily inhabitants.
As one of the implacable revenge-seekers populating The Gaean Reach Roleplaying Game, you know that correct intelligence on these worlds makes all the difference between grim success and howling failure.
As a GM running The Gaean Reach Roleplaying Game, this exhaustive cataloging of the planets and places of Jack Vance’s classic science fiction cycle will keep your players hopping.
As a fan of Jack Vance who wouldn’t know a d6 from an intersplit engine, this indispensable guidebook gathers the beauty and danger of his incomparable worlds into one handy reference.

  • Plan your next jaunt to the glass towers of Alphanor, the Groaning Ocean of Ladaque-Royale, or the Oxygen Marshes of Cuenos Notos, where frolics the delicious five-horned darango.
  • Compare the amenities of such establishments as the splendid (if overpriced) Hotel Tarquin, the notorious Wild Isle resort, and the blackmailer-ridden Sin-San’s Tavern.
  • Contemplate the technical specifications of interstellar space-yachts, packets and liners.
  • Learn of the Reach’s currencies, surveillance technologies, and computing devices.
  • Study with academic detachment weapons ranging from the subtly lethal air-tube to the ostentatiously combustible flame-staff, from the workaday projac to the highly illegal Dys Model G Skull-splitter.

Brought to you by renowned excavators of Vancian lore Christopher Smith Adair, Peter Freeman and Jim Webster, this book will not protect you from accusations of weaselry.

But it can tell you which planet you might best escape to when such charges fly.

Stock #: PELV02 Author: Christopher Smith Adair, Peter Freeman and Jim Webster
Artist: Chris Huth Pages: 72pg, 6 x 9, Perfect Bound

Pre-order Now

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