Page XX: When Letting It Go Wrong Is Totally Right

A column on Roleplaying

by Robin D. Laws

A recent test session of The Yellow King Roleplaying Game (Kickstarting later this year, plug plug) shone a spotlight on a conundrum that can crop up in any GUMSHOE horror game:

How much should the GM intervene when the players have fallen all too desperately into a terror spiral?

As a game of investigation, GUMSHOE assumes that the PCs can investigate their way out of whatever trouble they find themselves in. In a horror game, that includes situations that in a scary movie could easily end up with everyone, or nearly everyone, dead.

In a baseline terror tale, a haunted house might exist only to destroy the protagonists.

A GUMSHOE haunted house, by contrast, presents a puzzle. Find the clues that unravel its mystery, and you learn how to reverse onrushing doom and defeat that haunted house.

But what happens when the haunted house works too well on the players, and they forget to look for those clues?

This session took place within the second of the four Yellow King Roleplaying Game sequences, The Wars. In this setting the players portray soldiers in an alternate reality battle zone. In this scenario the role of haunted house was played by an old hunting lodge the squad had been ordered to clear and hold.

Before play began, my conception of the improvised scenario was that the players would encounter ghostly manifestations of the people they had killed and seen killed over the course of the war. These would be caused by a being from the Yellow King’s world of Carcosa, which anchored itself to our reality through an object associated with myths of fear and terror. In this case, borrowing an image from a lesser Robert W. Chambers horror story, it would be the skull of a medieval sorcerer.

For starters, the squad showed up at the lodge to find it occupied by an enemy force, which they killed in a firefight. I then had each player describe a flashback about a key death their characters witnessed before the conflict had hardened them. Sue, playing a soldier conscripted from the peasantry, described an assault on her farm while she was fox hunting.

Flashbacks dealt with, we returned to the main action. On the bodies of the slain enemies the group naturally found the first indications that something supernatural was afoot. However, this did not immediately set them on a clue-finding path.

(This was only the second scenario featuring these PCs, so most players were still having big fun portraying their characters as unwilling to believe in the supernatural. Never mind that wolf monster they established a psychic link with last time. That had to have been a one-off.)

When it came time for Sue’s character, Jeanne, to meet her personal ghostly manifestation, why naturally that had to come in the form of a creepy fox.

Other manifestations occurred, but the foxes grew into the evening’s most terrifying element. For this we had YouTube to thank, because a search for “fox sounds” reveals that the noises they make are extraordinarily freaking creepy.

As escalating manifestations continued to eat away at the character’s Stability reserves, and the foxes kept coming in ever greater numbers and screaming screaming screaming, the session evolved into a particularly effective haunted house story. Not only that, the protagonists had a novel, unusually solid reason to stay in the house: they were soldiers, ordered to hold it.

But was it too effective? The session became all about the hunkering, as opposed to the information gathering that could have led to a means of ending the haunting.

Unlike some hunkering situations, I had a way for the outside world to communicate with the characters: the text-based black box that substitutes for radio in this alternate reality. The team had decided they were under attack by an enemy psy-ops unit and used the black box to inform HQ of that.

This gave me the chance to hint them into active mode: HQ ordered them to go out and hunt down the psy-ops squad. Of course, they’d find something else once they explored the surrounding area—I was thinking an old graveyard with an inscription that would trigger a telltale use of the History ability.

Although I repeated this hint a couple of times, the team stayed hunkered and running ever lower on Stability*.

At that point, I could have doubled down on the hinting, breaking the fictional wall to remind them that GUMSHOE is about investigating and maybe they should do some of that. I am not at all averse to wall-breaking when necessary. But was it?

I decided not, as the group was clearly gripped by the way the session had spontaneously developed, even though:

  • it wasn’t a representative GUMSHOE game
  • it didn’t match my initial plan

The so-called wrong thing was actually the right thing, because it was working.

Ultimately the lieutenant irrevocably lost her mind, Jeanne fragged her with a grenade, and the rest of the group escaped being eaten by a newly swapped-in cause for the manifestations: a predatory toad-like creature surrounded by the white sky and black stars of Carcosa.

In the post-session review, the players seemed happy with the way it all went south, observing that this episode felt more King in Yellow than the one previous.

I didn’t want them to feel that they’d played wrong, and so didn’t mention that some investigation might have turned things around. Good thing none of them have access to the Internet and thus will never read this column.

Joking aside, they of course didn’t play wrong. They leaned into what the session became, and that was playing right.

If I’d tried even harder to yank them toward my preconceptions, that would have been GMing wrong.

*Well, to quibble with myself, the YKRPG equivalent of Stability. The system works differently than past GUMSHOE horror iterations.

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