A column about roleplaying
by Robin D. Laws
The Yellow King Roleplaying Game rules debut a new iteration of GUMSHOE, which we’re calling QuickShock GUMSHOE.
The name combines two of the features of the new rules set:
- combats take way takes less time than in standard GUMSHOE
- mental setbacks a character may suffer in the course of a scenario are represented by Shock cards (in place of the depleting Stability pools from standard GUMSHOE)
You can also take Injury cards, representing physical harm. But QuickInjury just didn’t seem as appealing a name, brand-wise.
I’ll get back to those features in a moment, but let’s first look at a third point of departure between classic and QuickShock GUMSHOE: Pushes.
In YKRPG, Investigative abilities no longer have pools or ratings. You take the ability, or get it as part of a package of such abilities, and you’re done. No point allocation, no other decisions to make during character generation.
That speeds up the character creation process, a goal I’ve been pursuing since The Gaean Reach and its ability packages.
Instead of points variously arranged between Investigative abilities, you get two Pushes. You can spend a Push exactly as you would a point spend in classic GUMSHOE: to get any non-informational benefit from an Investigative ability.
Mostly you can refresh your Pushes once per scenario.
This recognizes the general rarity of Investigative point spends in play. Most players use them maybe once or twice per scenario. This approach, lifted in its entirety from Cthulhu Confidential, spares players a relatively complex decision set at the beginning of a game, and simplifies the process of getting special benefits during play.
I’m not even sure I want to call this a part of QuickShock, as it’s entirely modular. You could borrow it right now and plunk it into any GUMSHOE game, gaining the same advantage, without adjusting anything else about Trail of Cthulhu, The Esoterrorists, Night’s Black Agents, or whatever other current rules set you’re using.
The rest of QuickShock does all fit together, and would require considerable adjustment to retroactively install into any of our existing games.
Classic GUMSHOE combat takes a more-or-less familiar approach to RPG fights, with initiative, a series of rounds, damage dealt to foes when you hit, and a hit point-adjacent resource slowly ticking down into a danger zone for PCs and enemies alike.
QuickShock instead collapses the fight into one Fighting test per player.
(It also treats Fighting as a single ability, with no distinctions between weapon types or ranged versus close combat. You could however conceivably re-complicate QuickShock to bring multiple combat abilities back in.)
Order in which tests get taken matters only in generating suspense, and in how you choose to narrate. Unlike initiative it doesn’t alter the outcome of a fight.
Against tough foes even a winning combatant may have to spend a few points from a supplied list of abilities, called a Toll. This represents the attrition you’d undergo in a fight that musses you a bit without any other lasting consequence.
The GM no longer rolls dice for your foes. Instead players test against a Difficulty number for a foe, which varies depending on which setting of the game you’re in, and most crucially, the collective objective you’re fighting for.
You might be trying to kill your opponent, as is the case in most RPG fights. But you could be pursuing other goals, from escape to grabbing an object and getting out of there, to blowing through an enemy position, to laying down a non-fatal beatdown and walking away.
After everyone makes that one Fighting test, describing what they’re doing, and the GM adds narration reflecting their success or failure, the running total of results is tallied. If it meets or beats 0, the players win and achieve their goal. If not, the foe wins.
Even when the bad guy triumphs, characters only die if they now have too many Injury cards.
Too many = either 3 or 4, depending on whether the game takes place in the dangerous Horror mode or the more forgiving Occult Adventure setting.
Whether or not the group won, characters who failed their Fighting tests take Injury cards. Each foe profile supplies a Minor and Major Injury card. If your margin (difference between target and result) is greater than 2, you take the Major Injury.
Each type of foe dishes out a distinctive brand of hurt, more flavorful and consequential than a loss of Health points. How you get rid of them also varies from card to card.
A fight outcome you see all the time in movies and fiction finds the heroes beaten by the bad guys and dealt a setback, without any of them winding up dead. With their emphasis on dealing and taking damage, traditional RPG combats can give you this result in theory. In practice they rarely ever do. With QuickShock that outcome, the most common form of defeat in the source material, is also the most common one in the game. This opens up all kinds of narrative possibilities we traditionally struggle to pull off—like multiple fights against the big bad until you finally bring it down.
You can also take Injury cards when failing other tests, against for example Athletics or Health, when confronted by physical danger outside of combat. A tree falls on you, or you tumble down into a crypt, or you succumb to poison. The GM picks a pair of Injury cards that matches the situation, and you hope your General ability spend plus roll beats the Difficulty, so you don’t get a card.
In YKRPG, mental and emotional hazards can land you with Shock cards, which work exactly the same way, but employ the Composure ability.
For added context, check out this post for some sample cards.
You could in theory do a QuickShock game with only Injury cards. We might do that in future when we tackle a genre where your mental resistance doesn’t matter as much as it does in horror.
I wouldn’t want to see every GUMSHOE game use QuickShock. Night’s Black Agents, for example, needs more rule handles for its guns versus vamps premise to wrap itself around. But for YKRPG I’m more than pleased with the results and looking forward to seeing it reach more game tables.
Collage illustration for The Yellow King Roleplaying Game by Dean Engelhardt
The Yellow King Roleplaying Game is Pelgrane’s mind-shattering, era-spanning game of reality horror based on the classic stories of Robert W. Chambers. Coming in December 2018.