GUMSHOE Scenario Sparks

by Bryant Durrell

The Yellow King RPG can be daunting for a Keeper: four different settings, potentially lengthy campaign arcs, and to top it all off the canonical kick-off asks the Keeper to improvise connections between the Deuced Peculiar Things invented by the players and her carefully crafted scenario. I’ve always struggled a little bit with crafting GUMSHOE scenarios because I tend to get stuck on the obvious Investigative abilities. Meanwhile, I know my players will want to use Painting from time to time rather than just relying on a series of clues revealed by Occultism and Research.

I recently kicked off a long-term Yellow King RPG campaign, so solving this problem was a matter of some urgency. I’d been running a lot of RPGs with extensive randomization tables recently, and I’d noticed that creating a random event table forced me to explore a wider range of possibilities. I thought that perhaps I could use that kind of forcing function to flesh out a scenario.

I started out by sketching out a mystery more or less as recommended in the rules. First, I wrote down the basic spine of an adventure: Hook, Development, Antagonist Reactions, Alien Truth, and Climax. Second, I needed a premise. My theme for the Paris era was masks. Since I wanted to get right to the meat of each era, I embodied that concept as blatantly as possible: I decided there were a bunch of thrill seekers with living masks running around Paris. By unwisely using certain Carcosan rituals, a savvy occultist could mold one of these masks into a duplicate of a living person. I expected to jolt my players into asking questions about identity and self.

From there, I mind mapped my ideas around the spine. I left the Hook blank, since it was going to be tied to someone’s Deuced Peculiar Thing. The mind map wasn’t terribly dense, as can be seen in the picture. I just wanted enough detail to hang a plot on. Some details were only hints; for example, I knew there was a sinister figure behind the masked thrill seekers, but I didn’t want to nail down the specifics until I’d seen the characters.

But this didn’t solve my core problem! If I just improvised a story around this skeleton, I’d wind up with repetitive Investigative ability use and bored players. Back to devising a technique that would force me to be creative.

Since my problem was failing to cater to all the Investigative abilities, I gritted my teeth and pasted a list of the abilities into the corner of my notepad. Then I started working my way down the list, adding a potential clue next to each ability. As one can see, I was meticulous for about the first ten abilities. After that I started to skip around a little bit, with an eye towards making sure I was covering a good range of abilities even if I didn’t add a note for each one.

This worked very well for me. While devising the clues for Art History and Painting, I wound up adding a potential Vermeer theft subplot. Coming up with a Sculpture clue made me think about how the masks were created, and the source of clay for Greek ritual masks wound up being a key pipe clue. The Natural History clue — a cat with a dog’s face — wasn’t a pipe clue, but it’s a great bit of cosmic creepiness that was guaranteed to disturb pet-loving characters.

When I sketch out my second scenario, I’ll also note which character has which Investigative ability. That way, I can balance my potential clues across all the players and reduce my creative workload a bit. I’ll also balance clues across the three types of Investigative ability.

How did all this work out in play? As we created our characters, one player decided that his character Herbert had been seeing this weird person following him for months, both in his home country America and in Paris. That was perfect for the masked villains. Since Herbert’s Deuced Peculiar Thing only involved a single person, I quickly dropped the idea of a pack of mask wearers, although our villain had an interest in drafting the player characters into his service.

By the end of the scenario I’d only used a few clues from my sheet; every other clue I tossed in was either ad hoc or sketched out between the two sessions it took us to play through the scenario. (I didn’t work in the Vermeer, much to my regret.) However, the forced creativity exercise pushed my initial scenario design into places I wouldn’t have taken it on my own, so the scheme was certainly successful.

The lightweight skeleton combined with a rich set of prospective clues also had an unexpected effect of creating a dense feel to our campaign’s Paris. I had so many potential scenario directions, it was easy to improvise based on the direction the characters went. I want to capture the classic blurred line between the play and reality; by treating one player’s Deuced Peculiar Thing as if I knew it even before he’d said the words, I made good progress in that direction.

Bryant Durrell makes a living keeping servers healthy; in his copious spare time he watches wrestling, writes, and pretends to be fighting orcs. You can find him on Twitter as @bryantd and he blogs (rarely) at Population: One.

The Yellow King Roleplaying Game takes you on a brain-bending spiral through multiple selves and timelines, pitting characters against the reality-altering horror of The King in Yellow. When read, this suppressed play invites madness, and remolds our world into a colony of the alien planet Carcosa. Four core books, served up together in a beautiful slipcase, confront layers with an epic journey into horror in four alternate-reality settings: Belle Epoque Paris, The Wars, Aftermath, and This Is Normal Now. Purchase The Yellow King Roleplaying Game in print and PDF at the Pelgrane Shop.


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