Even if you’re not using the 13th Age rules, these ten icons demarcate and imply the Otherworld setting. (And you can plug Icons into, say, GUMSHOE or the game system of your choice with ease – Ken did it for Night’s Black Agents here). Player characters in Otherworld are assumed to start off in ignorance of the setting, and explore it in play, so they don’t usually begin with any Icon relationships. Let the players pick up Icon relationships as they go along until they have their usual complement of three.

Heroic Icons: Shell-Dwarf Chieftain, Lady Between, Benedash Society

Ambiguous Icons: Burning Prince, Great Huntress, Smiling Merchant, Project SHADE

Villainous Icons: Alchemist, Keeper of the -Shade, Face in the Creepers, Syndicate


The Shell-Dwarf Chieftain

“You travel on my waters with my leave!” roared the little man. “Let us see if you are still as insolent when we put you under them!”

– A Journey to the Otherworld

The turtle-like Shell Dwarfs were the first folk encountered by Professor Bravo on his journey into the Otherworld, and they are still the most widespread people across the perilous jungles. The Shell Dwarfs know how to navigate the treacherous serpentine rivers that slither through the jungle. Their sturdy rafts and house-boats can cross the rapids and rushing streams, and their tough hide protects them from the schools of hagfish and the swarms of bloat-flies that make it difficult for others to travel by water.

The Shell-Dwarf Chieftain rules his people from his floating palace, carved from the shell of a gigantic nautilus. He is distrustful of most of the other folk who live in clearings in the jungle, fearing that they plot to enslave his followers and use them to conquer other lands in the Night Jungle. However, he has a soft spot for travellers from Earth thanks to his friendship with Professor Bravo.


The Alchemist

“I have drunk a tincture of the Purple Lotus, and now through my veins flows a poison more potent than you can imagine.” The Alchemist holstered his gun. He no longer needed it to threaten us. “Wound me, and you shall all perish in agony from the vapours.”

– Vat-Slaves of the Alchemist 

The fast-growing creepers of the Night Jungle bloom with a thousand strange flowers. Only the Alchemist knows all their virtues – and their dangers.

Alchemy was the highest art in vanished Hellan and tree-drowned Cynberis, where it is said that its practitioners could turn glass as hard as steel, or grow food in vats, or prolong their own lives indefinitely. Most of that knowledge was lost to the jungle, and warrior-alchemists like Kelemane have retained only fragments.

The Alchemist alone has gone beyond the knowledge of the ancients. He combines their lore with the wealth of new ingredients and strange juices that can be harvested from the Night Jungle. From his fortress issue forth hosts of vat-bred monsters and noxious fumes; his assassins creep out in secret, poisoning his enemies and blackmailing them with the promise of an antidote.

He comes, it is said, from the same world as Professor Bravo, and plans to return there one day once he has completed his mysterious work.


The Keeper of the Dead

A presence moved through the tombs – a deeper shadow, a presentiment of death, a cold wind that rattled the bones. One skull, more intact than the rest, quivered. A lambent light bloomed in its empty sockets.”

– Kelemane in the Dead City

In ages past, all graves were under the protection of the Keeper. Now that the Night Jungle has swallowed a hundred cities and turned them into nameless tombs, the Keeper’s reach has grown very far indeed. The Keeper is a spirit bound to protect the houses of the dead from thieves and tomb robbers. Those who make the proper offerings and perform the correct rites may be able to bargain with the Keeper or its ghostly servants, perhaps to gain permission to travel through the realms of the dead. Those who trespass in the tomb cities without this blessing are more likely to remain there… forever.


The Lady Between

“The shewing-stone is a relic of a distant land,” hissed the Crone, and she pushed a tiny square mirror into Kelemane’s hands. He gazed into the glass, and saw within a pale figure.”

– Beyond The Moons of Azkar

To the folk of the Night Jungle, the Lady Between is a myth. It is said that mystics and madmen see her in their dreams and that she whispers prophecies to them. Others believe that she is nothing more than a hallucination brought on by over-indulgence in certain lotus-flowers.

To those able to travel between the two worlds, however, the Lady Between is undeniably real and present. She exists in the borderland between the two, in the interstices of reality. Broken and forgotten places are her only foothold in either reality. She sometimes blesses travellers with flashes of insight or sage counsel as they move from one world to another – unable to interfere directly in the affairs of either world, she must rely on proxies and agents.

Some travellers suggest the Lady Between bears a strong resemblance to photographs of late author Miriam Benedash.



The Burning Prince

“A line of fire on the horizon, like the ember light of the setting sun, marked the edge of his domain…”

– The Children of the River

The Night Jungle grows with surpassing speed. What was a clear path yesterday is weed-choked today, and will be completely swallowed by the willows and creepers tomorrow. Other than a few scattered clearings protected by magic or some quirk of environment, the Night Jungle consumes all the land within its ever-growing borders.

The Burning Prince aims to change all that. He has gathered an army of followers, all fired with his determination to drive back the jungle and reclaim the lands of old. With axe and saw, with alchemical defoliant and fire, they fight an unending war against nature. They are a tide of fire sweeping across the land. When they free some ruined city from the jungle, they loot it for treasure and magic and move on. When they come across an inhabited village or clearing, they offer those who dwell there the chance to join the Prince’s armies, then do exactly the same.


The Great Huntress

“The beast roared again, smashing the trees to kindling as it charged. She stood perfectly still, more like an ebon statue than a woman, until the moment came. Then the spear was suddenly in her hand, and just as suddenly, it was plunged into the beast’s eye.”

The Valley of Spiders

Gigantic monsters – some bred by the Alchemist, others mutated or spawned by the wild magic of the jungle – stalk through the endless forests of the Otherworld. Heroes like Kelemane battle these creatures when they have no other choice.

Only the Huntress willingly seeks out the monsters.

Driven by some secret hatred, she wanders the Night Jungle, searching for new foes to kill. She leaves behind her a trail of devastation and bloodshed; titanic carcasses lie where they fell as testament to her fighting skills. As a warrior, she has no peers.

Some have sought her out, desiring to become her followers, or to learn from her, or to win her aid in some other quest. Their bodies, too, are milestones along her bloody road.


The Smiling Merchant

“He spread a handful of coins across the table. Gold pieces from Jezar, the little wooden tokens of the Shell-Dwarfs, square silvers from the tombs of Cynberis, even a handful of Canadian coins bearing the head of King George.”

A Journey on the Azkar 

The Smiling Merchant’s smile never fades, because it’s carved from wood. The Merchant wears a brightly painted yellow mask when dealing with customers. Sometimes, it is a man who wears the mask; sometimes a woman, or a child, or a strange creature, but it is always the Smiling Merchant who speaks.

The Merchant travels in a huge caravan crammed with relics and curios, guarded by a retinue of Shell-Dwarfs and Thorn Trolls. How this caravan can pass through the thickest jungle is a mystery, but the Merchant always arrives where there is profit to be made.


The Face in the Creepers

“Your death will feed me,” said the jungle, “and so nothing is diminished in your passing.”

The Temple of the Emerald Eye

This malicious nature-spirit claims to be the Night Jungle. Few believe such claims – it is far more likely that the Face is just an elemental trickster that takes the form of a tangle of creeper vines. It is undeniably powerful though, able to animate huge swathes of jungle when it needs to take physical form. It sometimes becomes interested in individual people, tormenting or aiding them as the mood takes it.


These last three Icons have more of a presence in our world than in the Otherworld.


The Syndicate

The Syndicate is a mysterious private company that collects both the works of J. Pierton, and individuals or items who have travelled to the Otherworld. Most of the Syndicate’s agents or pawns are unaware that their work has a supernatural component – they believe they’re working for a secretive corporation, or for the government, or for organized crime. Even the few who’ve made the connection between the Pierton stories and the weirder cases don’t know what the Syndicate really wants. All that’s certain is that they have money, influence, guns, and the willingness to use all three to get what they want.


Benedash Society

Even within Pierton fandom (which is, for example, to Robert Howard’s Conan fandom as a terminally ill geriatric is to the Cimmerian), devotees of author Miriam Benedash are a small minority. She only wrote a handful of Night Jungle books before suffering a nervous breakdown, and her brief career is remembered only by a few fans and critics. The Benedash Society is tiny and closely knit. They share everything on their private, invitation-only message boards – and in recent months, they’ve uncovered evidence of weird events that are somehow connected to their literary heroine and her works.


Project SHADE

Project SHADE was an offshoot of the MKULTRA experiments of the 1970s, based out of Fort Holdstock. The aim of the experiments was to determine if certain chemically altered states of consciousness could enhance tactical awareness and decision-making ability. The project was officially shut down in 1974, as was Fort Holdstock.

If you spend too much time on conspiracy theory websites, you’ll learn that several subjects vanished into thin air, or that Fort Holdstock is haunted or overrun by mutant plants, or that SHADE was recently reactivated and transferred to the control of the Department of Homeland Security.

All nonsense, of course – just like the idea that reading too much about topics related to obscure fantasy writers could somehow draw inexorably you into their reality, until finally you cross some invisible threshold into their Otherworld.

This month, in Page XX, pre-order The Strangling Sea, grab the PDF of The Eyes of the Stone Thief for 13th Age, get the latest news about the TimeWatch and Dracula Dossier Kickstarters, and playtest some one-shot story games.

  • Our new releases include The Strangling Sea, Eyes of the Stone Thief in PDF, Hideous Creatures: Tcho-Tcho, the Spear of Destiny for KWAS subscribers, and Children of the Icons for 13th Age Monthly.
  • In our articles find out who won the RPG Geek Series Pitch competition (and read all the entries!), Kenneth Hite stats up the original Dracula adventurers, Robin D Laws works out who gets the drama tokens in Game of Thrones, and Rob Heinsoo and ASH LAW stat up a shadow mongoose.
  • Our poll: which Pelgrane HBO show would you watch?

Check out Page XX now!

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Co-ordinating this month’s See Page XX from Ireland has been tricky. An abundance of beautiful art and music has been flooding in for the Dracula Dossier (if you’re a backer, you can see this in the latest backers-only update), using up all of the Irish internet pipes as both Gareth and I excitedly try to download it at the same time. Fortunately, this hasn’t stopped the relentless production machines from turning, and this month we’ve got Robin’s foray into 13th Age, The Strangling Sea adventure, up for pre-order. We’ve also released Eyes of the Stone Thief in PDF format; which is considerably more portable, if not quite as useful as a weapon.

In the subscription corner, we’ve got the April edition of KWAS, Hideous Creatures: Tcho-Tcho, now available in the webstore, as is the April edition of 13th Age Monthly, Children of the Icons. KWAS Vol. 3 subscribers now have the latest edition, The Spear of Destiny, on their order receipt pages – this will be available to non-subscribers at the end of May – and KWAS Vol. 2 subscribers have now got the bonus content, Foul Congeries 2, on their order receipt pages. And we’ve got two brand-new story games available to playtest, from our upcoming story games anthology (more details next week!)

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Dice imageIf you are interested any of these games, please email me with the game you wish to playtest in the subject line.


When the Dark is Gone

System: Standalone, freeform

Author: Becky Annison

Deadline: June 15th


Imagine the children in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.  They visited a magical land, fought battles alongside talking animals and centaurs and won a war against a powerful and evil enemy.  Then they returned home, no-one believed them and they were back to war time rations and maths homework.  What did that feel like? How did they live with the memories of what they experienced?

Did they end up in therapy?

When the Dark is Gone is a GM’d story game for 3-4 players, who take on the roles of Clients in a real-world, modern-day setting, whose serious psychological disorders are damaging them and those closest to them. The game is set in their group therapy session – one final attempt to get their lives back on track.

Rise and Fall

System: Standalone, freeform

Author: Elizabeth Lovegrove

Deadline: June 15th


Dystopias come from somewhere, and they go somewhere. They appear because someone is able to convince others that they are reasonable, and they disappear because someone is able to exploit their weaknesses. They rise, and they fall.

Rise and Fall is a GM-less story game for 2-5 people in which players create a dystopia, explore its rise to power, how everyday life operates during its tenure, and then how the regime is brought down.




The RPG Geek DramaSystem Contest 2015

by Yohann Delalande

I only discovered Hillfolk a year ago. I was fortunate enough to experience a demo game run by Robin D. Laws himself at the Chimériades, a small French convention with a huge gaming-holiday feel. This experience turned into a real eye-opener.

DramaSystem showed me how to play with characters’ agendas and interpersonal relationships. Finally, I had all the tools I had been looking for to run games based on emotional conflicts. ds2

Then, last February, the stars went right when the announcement of the Bundle of Holding on Hillfolk coincided with a discussion I was having with some fellow members of the RPG Geek community about writing series pitches – Robin’s name for settings you can play with DramaSystem. This is when the idea of a contest suddenly popped up in my mind.

I had already run other contests on this site, so I asked for permission to the community’s administrators and to Pelgrane Press, who both replied positively and were willing to sponsor it. In less than 24 hours, the RPG Geek DramaSystem Contest 2015 was born and launched.

One of the assets of RPG Geek, beyond its huge database of games and designers, remains its international community who constantly strives to uphold some high standards of diversity and inclusion. Everybody is welcome there, whatever their tastes in gaming are. This meant it was the perfect place to hold such a contest.

With such a positive spirit, all the participants were committed to offering their most innovative pitch, but also to supporting each other’s efforts. And although I expected to be positively surprised, we all ended up being absolutely astonished by the fantastic quality of the 22 submissions.

ds1However, as in every contest, there have to be some winners, and despite a fierce competition, three stood out:

  • Our 1st place winner, The Unchosen Ones, co-written by Heather Silsbee and Jon Cole, revolves around the faith crisis a doomsday, ecoreligious cult faces when the apocalypse prophesied by their guru does not match their expectations at all.
  • Our 2nd place winner, Eagle’s Twilight, written by Charles Picard, brings us back to 5th century AD Britain near the Hadrian Wall when Rome withdraws all its troops, leaving the Britons without any Imperial rule or defence.
  • Our 3rd place winner, Game On, written by Wendy Gorman, throws us into the mid-40s US with the creation of the All American Girls Professional Baseball League, and offers us to explore the difficulties and the social challenges professional sportswomen faced at that time

Obviously, our 22 Series Pitches will offer you a wide panel of diverse gaming experience to discover and play. All of them are hosted in the RPG Geek database and in the Hillfolk resources page – you can see the full list here – and they can all be downloaded for free.

Finally, there is no better emotional reward for a game designer than knowing that their creations are being played. This is why I would strongly encourage you to play them all and to share your experience with us on social media.

13th Age KasarakIgnoring the vagaries of its publishing history, Pierton’s Night Jungle makes a great setting for gaming. If you just want to tell stories in the mode of the Kalamane Cycle, where heroic fantasy heroes battle monsters and weird sorcery, then you can just grab a copy of 13th Age and wait until next month when we’ll summarize the key gameable elements of the Otherworld. However, if you want to recreate the original stories of “Professor Bravo” (or, less ambitiously, the original ill-fated 80s game), the best approach is a GUMSHOE hack.

In this game, the players play people from our world, Earth, who find themselves transported into the Night Jungle. Like Professor Bravo, they discover they are ‘oscillating’ back and forth between the two worlds, jumping from Earth to the Night Jungle again in times of stress.

# of players    Investigative Build Points

2                      28

3                      22

4                      20

5+                   18

Player have 60 General Ability points. You can trade Investigative Build Points for General, or vice versa, at a 1-for-3 rate.

Academic Abilities










Occult Studies



Pierton Trivia


Interpersonal Abilities












Technical Abilities



Forensic Medicine


Outdoor Survival*





General Abilities






First Aid











Most of the abilities are self-explanatory if you’ve played another GUMSHOE game. The new or obscure ones – Courtesy and Command are used when dealing with higher- or lower-status people, especially in the Otherworld. Deceive covers bluffing, impersonation and con games as well as seeing through them. Insight gives, well, insight into other people’s motivations and beliefs – the classic GUMSHOE ability of Bullshit Detector exists at the intersection of those two.

Orienteering is a combination of navigation, cartography, and working out spatial relations – it’s doubly important when trying to make your way through the perilous labyrinth of the Night Jungle, or when you’re trying to work out which place on Earth corresponds to a location in the Otherworld.

Pierton Trivia measures knowledge of the Otherworld novels and spin-offs and those involved in publishing them, as well as the fandom around them.

Craft covers improvised repair and operating machinery.

Contacts works like Network in Night’s Black Agents or Correspondence in Trail of Cthulhu.

Travelling is for avoiding Health loss or other penalties when trekking through the jungle.


Otherworld Abilities

Player characters from Earth can’t take these Investigative Abilities at the start of the game, but can buy them with experience points. If you’re allowing players to roll up Otherworld characters, then they can take these abilities as well as any other investigative ability marked with a * in the list above.


Alchemy: Brewing up potions and poisons from the strange fruits of the Night Jungle, as well as identifying them by their effects.

Beast-Lore: Knowledge of the monsters that haunt the Night Jungle – and how to kill them.

Land-Lore: Knowledge of the various lands swallowed by the Jungle, and what remains of them.

Other-Seeming: How to blend in when you’re outside your home reality. Putting points into this ability lets a character hide the fact that they’re from Earth. The idea that creatures from the Otherworld can cross into our reality, just like Professor Bravo crosses into theirs, is hinted at several times in Pierton’s stories; this ability works the other way for them, letting them blend into modern society.

Sorcery: The perilous use of magic. In Pierton’s novels, sorcery carried terrible costs and was solely the province of malicious or insane wizards.

River-Trade: Navigating the network of rivers that are the main trade routes through the jungle, and dealing with the Shell-Dwarfs who control the waters.



A character’s Oscillation rating measures their ability to jump between realities. Most people – on both Earth and the Night Jungle have a rating of 0. Player characters start with a rating of 2.

Oscillation is capped at 10.

Oscillation Spends

Spending a point of Oscillation lets a character start the process of travelling from one world to another with an effort of will. This usually takes several hours – the character feels more and more disconnected from their current reality, and glimpses elements of their destination, until finally they jump completely. Spending extra points of Oscillation can:

  • Make the transition faster
  • Bring large or heavy objects across
  • Temporarily manifest conditions from the other side (need to get a cellphone signal in the Night Jungle? Need an alchemical potion to work to full effect on Earth?)
  • Manifest in a chosen location in the other world (you need to have visited or at least be familiar with the location)
  • Follow someone else across (you end up near wherever they’re going)
  • Resist involuntary transitions


Refreshing and Improving Oscillation

Oscillation pools refresh after each adventure. The GM may also declare that the characters have unconsciously jumped, and give them a few Oscillation points in compensation. (This is a great way to deal with missing players – if Bob doesn’t make it to this week’s session, then Bob’s PC involuntarily travels to the opposite reality to the rest of the group. Next week, he shows up again with a refreshed Oscillation pool).

Oscillation cannot be increased by experience points; the only way to improve it is by visiting sites of power and possessing potent relics, especially items that came from one world but spent long periods in the other. Finding something as potent as Professor Bravo’s Diary might improve Oscillation by 3 points.

Avoiding Fate

If a character with Oscillation is reduced to -12 Health, they’re not killed. Instead, they Avoid Fate by instantly and uncontrollably jumping to the other world. A character can Avoid Fate in this fashion a limited number of times.

Oscillation Rating      Fates Avoided

1-2      1

3-5      2

6-9      3

10       4

NPCs who Avoid Fate may find themselves stuck, unable to travel again until they increase their Oscillation rating. Player characters aren’t usually subject to this limitation.

This month, in Page XX, Eternal Lies gets a new, alternative ending; The Eyes of the Stone Thief for 13th Age crushes doormats everywhere; there are six new releases in the store; and we present what might be our most packed Page XX ever!

  • Our new releases include Ken Writes About Stuff Vol 3, the collected KWAS 2, Dreamhounds of Paris and Book of Ants in PDF, Hideous Creatures: Tcho-tcho, and Candles, Clay and Dancing Shoes for 13th Age Monthly.
  • In our articles Robin D Laws discusses his home DramaSystem game, Rob Heinsoo offers the coin zombie, and a mass combat system for 13th Age, and Cat and Simon talk about the games we’ve played this month.
  • Our poll: decide which Trail supplement you’d like to see Ken write: China or Chicago

It’s all in Page XX!

Here are some of the games that Pelgranistas have been playing and enjoying this month:


I recently went to the small (but perfectly formed) UK RPG convention, Concrete Cow, and had some great gaming experiences there. Firstly, I played in the introduction to the epic The Poison Tree campaign that Scott Dorward, Paul Fricker, and Matthew Sanderson are writing for us, which was more than ably run by Scott. When running for players who’ve played a lot of Mythos-type games, it can be hard to find new ways of freaking them out, but Scott never fails to manage it. The intro was wonderfully creepy, blending a strong sense of cosy, familial normality with otherworldly wrongness. It felt very different to other Trail of Cthulhu adventures we’ve published, with a much stronger focus on inter-character drama, and I can’t wait to play more of it.

In the second slot, I facilitated a playtest of Elizabeth Lovegrove’s game, Rise and Fall. We’ll be publishing this in our upcoming book of story games – we’ll be announcing that shortly. In Rise and Fall, you collaboratively create a dystopia, and then play through its rise, establishment, and fall in a number of short scenes. The players came up with a not-too-distant future set in the UK, where a UKIP-like far right party allied with powerful corporate interests to create a Britain where the introduction of the “Grandfather Bill” meant anyone whose grandparents weren’t born in Britain was marginalised and disempowered. Thought-provoking and uncomfortable, yet very enjoyable to play, I’m really impressed with this game, in terms of the theme and how it’s structured.

In the final slot, I got to play my first ever game of InSpectres. This was really good fun; our franchise was based in Milton Keynes, where the convention was running, and we had to investigate a mysterious herd of cows in one of its rougher neighbourhoods. My character was heavily inspired by Parks and Rec‘s Leslie Knope (which was unfortunately lost on everyone else, who hadn’t seen the show), and we got a lot of laughs out of a very sparse set-up. I think I already have InSpectres, but if not, I’ll definitely be picking it up now that I’ve played it – it’s a great conceit, and it’s very easy to pick up and play with minimal effort.


I went to ConcreteCow, too, the second time I’ve had that pleasure. I was in all of Cat’s games – all of which I enjoyed, and a special thanks to Neil Smith for putting up with our wine-fuelled nonsense.

In Scott’s game my feeble attempts at a accent enouraged the others to do the same, and “amniotic fluid” are the best two words you can say with in Welsh dialect, though I can’t speak to its historicity.

Rise and Fall uses scenes to answer questions about the dystopia the group devises. It also specifically addresses whether characters in the scene are of low, mixed, or high status. This lead to scenes with low status which obliquely reference dystopian tropes. Here’s an example scene.

One player, Graham Walmsley, asked a question: How did informing begin?

He then chose two players (me and Mike Mason) to act out the scene.

This scene featured a Polish plumber, Lech, and his boss . The boss (played by Mike Mason) explained very plausibly how Lech could benefit financially. from mentioning uncivic behaviour “You’d report a bomb, wouldn’t you?” and how it “might affect his annual performance review” if he didn’t comply. It was chilling.

By the time we got to the Fall, we were aching to bring down the monster we’d created. It was one of those games where the players were so good it wasn’t a certain confimation that the game itself was solid (though I thought it was).

So, last week I ran Rise and Fall for my home group as attendance wasn’t up to running Scott’s game. I’ve played Microscope, Intrepid and other GMless games which feature joint creation of background and society, and so it was interesting to compare this game. We created a generation ship governed by an elite who deferred to a computer AI, and it featured horrible biotech (using wombs to create meat), enforced speaking of Latin (and the Quietus who removed their tongues) and ended with a suprised revoutionary being eaten by his followers. Rise and Fall is concise, creates a focussed, one session game which does exactly what its supposed to do. I was very impressed. You can read another actual play report of Rise and Fall here.

This week I’m running Scott’s game, for a full table. I’m not as good as I would like at encouraging roleplaying between players in GM-led games, and I think this game is set up to encourage that kind of play. (Incidentally, if you have any advice on encouraging players used to player-GM interaction to talk to each other in character, I am all ears.)


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We’ve had our heads down for the last month trying to wrangle the growing piles of Dracula Dossier text into more printable book forms, and that’s been eating into our time to do other things, like making some changes to the shop and website. But they’ll be coming soon, probably in the next few months. Time has continued to tick over while we’ve been busy, marking the end of the second volume of Ken Writes About Stuff, now available as a collection in the webstore. If you subscribed to that, you’ll also be getting a bonus PDF (Foul Congeries #2), once Ken’s finished with his Dracula Dossier commitments – we’ll let you know when we’ve added that to your order receipt page. That means there’s now a third subscription available, kicking off with Hideous Creatures: Tcho-Tcho (which will be available as a stand-alone PDF in the store later in April). Tomb-Hounds of Egypt is now available as a stand-alone PDF, as are Dreamhounds of Paris and its companion volume, The Book of Ants. And 13th Age Monthly subscribers have Candles, Clay & Dancing Shoes on their order receipt page.

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DisruptorsStunning Weaponry in GUMSHOE

Most GUMSHOE games discourage the use of TASERs and other real-world stunning technology. They’re incredibly effective in law enforcement, but it’s less exciting for play if either player characters or their opponents drop instantly after a single hit. Robin D. Laws’ investigative space opera Ashen Stars is a notable exception, where (in the model of good sci-fi and Star Trek episodes everywhere) disruptors have the ability to drop an unprotected target immediately unconscious.

The time travel game TimeWatch takes a slightly different approach. Stunning technology was important to the game—when Genghis Khan is coming at you, you’ll want to protect yourself without necessarily killing him and changing history—but I wanted rules that both felt satisfying and gave characters some difficult choices in terms of staying conscious. You can easily adapt these rules to any TASER or stun-gun in any GUMSHOE game.

The PaciFist Neural Disruptor

Future, Chronomorphic, Hackable, Subtle, Standard; Close range, Stun 5

PaciFists are ranged stun-guns usable with both the Scuffling (for point-blank use only) and Shooting abilities, and are specially designed for covert TimeWatch agent use. They are chronomorphic, blending in to a historical era by changing their physical shape and appearance. Agents can usually decide what shape their PaciFist assumes: a walking cane, a six-gun revolver, a mobile phone, a pipe, or whatever appropriate form the agent wishes.

PaciFists have a rating of Stun 5 (see below). They only work at point-blank and (if used with the Shooting ability) close range, and are ineffective at farther ranges. That’s their tradeoff for making no noise and having no visible beam; the only way to tell a PaciFist has been fired is by the slight scent of ozone and a toppling, unconscious body, which makes them perfect for undercover work.

Making a successful Tinkering test (typically a Mechanics or System Repair test in other GUMSHOE games) can overcharge a PaciFist, boosting its effect up to either Stun 6 or near range, your choice, for its next shot. Rolling a 1 on the d6 during an overcharged attack burns out the weapon regardless of whether the attack was successful. Fixing a burned out weapon requires 10 minutes of work time and a successful Tinkering test.

Non-PaciFist disruptors (such as you might find in Ashen Stars) typically work at longer range but aren’t subtle, making both light and noise when they fire (as any good raygun should!) TASERs and stun guns (such as you might find in Esoterrorists or Night’s Black Agents) work at the same range as PaciFists do, but are visible and make noise.

GM Advice: Neural Disruptors and Fun Gameplay

The rules for non-lethal fire represent a compromise between genre fidelity and playability. In classic science fiction stories, future technology such as stun rays typically take out a target in one shot. Writers always contrive to keep this satisfying.

In a game, limiting firefight shots so that they either result in a miss or in instant victory is generally unsatisfying. It‘s fun to mow down insignificant opponents in one shot, but not to be taken out with one hit or to do the same to a central opponent.

Accordingly, the rules are configured to allow you to still instantly zap minor opponents, but to require several attacks to down a PC or major antagonist (depending on how much Health they’re willing to spend, and how lucky they get). This still feels faster and more decisive than the standard RPG combat, and thus retains a touch of futuristic flavor, while still keeping tabletop play fun.

Neural disruptors such as PaciFists are useful in a time travel game, because the players have more creative options when they know they can surreptitiously knock a mind-controlled Albert Einstein out cold while not killing him in the process. If your TimeWatch campaign is grittier, focus on firearms and beam weapons and be willing to accept some accidental and history-changing lethality.

How Does Stunning Work?

PaciFists, TASERs, stun guns, tranquilizer darts and neural disruptors work by knocking you unconscious without causing extensive Health damage. Resisting stunning works much like resisting unconsciousness. The Difficulty number, however, is set by the Stun value of the weapon used against you instead of by your current Health.

When hit with a stunning weapon, you must make a Stun test. Roll a die with the Stun rating of the weapon as your Difficulty. You may deliberately strain yourself to remain conscious, voluntarily reducing your Health pool by an amount of your choice. For each point you reduce it, add 1 to your die result. If you strain your Health below 0 or below -5, you will also have to make a Consciousness test after the Stunning attack is resolved. If you are attacked by more than one stunning weapon in a single round, you make a separate Stun test for each attack.

If you succeed in a Stun test, you remain conscious but are briefly impaired; you suffer a non-cumulative 1 point penalty to the Difficulty of any actions (including other Stun tests) you attempt until the end of your next turn. If you fail a Stun test, you are knocked unconscious for a period that varies by weapon, but which is usually 10-60 minutes or until awakened by someone spending 1 Medic point on you (which does not otherwise restore Health.)

Dr. Leah Breen is mind controlled by a parasitic alien hive-mind, and she is trying to stun Mace Hunter with her PaciFist so that she can infect him as well. Mace’s Hit Threshold is 4, but Dr. Breen spends 3 Shooting points to make sure she hits him. Dr. Breen’s PaciFist is a standard Stun 5, so Mace must now make an Stun test at Difficulty 5. Mace trusts his luck; he spends 2 Health, dropping his Health pool from 8 to 6, and rolls a d6. Luckily he rolls a 3, and with the +2 bonus from his expended Health he exactly makes the Stun test.

Mace tries to run, but is briefly impaired from the Stunning attempt, and fails his Athletics test due to the 1 point penalty he suffers until the end of his next turn. Dr. Breen catches up with him quickly. Her player asks the GM if she can make a Tinkering test to boost her PaciFist up to Stun 6 for one round. The GM thinks that seems reasonable, but warns her that her weapon may burn out on a particularly bad roll. Dr. Breen overcharges her weapon, then spends her last 2 Shooting points to shoot Mace again, rolling a 5 and hitting easily.

Mace’s Stun test is now Difficulty 6, but Mace still has a 1 point penalty from the first shot that applies to anything he attempts for the next round. Worried, he burns 5 Health and brings his Health pool down to 1, gaining a bonus of +5-1=+4 on his Stun test. With a target Difficulty of Stun 6 and a net +4 bonus, he’ll only be stunned on a roll of a 1… and that’s what he rolls. Mace Hunter falls to the ground unconscious for 10-60 minutes, and Dr. Breen moves in with an eager and squirming parasite.

Creatures with a Health rating of 3 or less immediately fall unconscious when successfully hit by a neural disruptor, no Stun test allowed. (In other words, GMs who want mooks and minor supporting characters to go down in one shot should give them 3 or fewer Health.)

Stunning works well on humans, but may be less effective on large animals, monsters, mechanical devices, robots, humans from parallel universes, and aliens—most commonly due to the creatures’ increased Health, but rarely due to a natural resistance to stunning. Don’t try to use a neural disruptor on a rampaging wooly mammoth. It will only end in tears, tusks and trampling.

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