A column about roleplaying
by Robin D. Laws
A colleague currently running The Yellow King Roleplaying Game recently asked me what happens when one of your players determines to seek out “The King in Yellow,” the fictional play that brings mental dissolution and reality shattering supernatural effects to all who read it.
The answer is: why, you credit the genius of the game designer for expertly luring this player into this elegant and entertaining trap.
The player has just given the teacher an apple, and the teacher is you.
A protagonist of your story has chosen to act exactly like the protagonists of Robert W. Chambers’ four original stories. Like the protagonists of stories others of us have written in filling out the boundaries of Carcosa.
In all four cases, Chambers presents the acquisition and reading of the play as part of the antecedent action. Their doomed antiheroes have already absorbed its decadent terrors. One of them swore never to read it, yet discovers it on his shelves, its contents already burning in his brain.
When I run YKRPG: Paris, I generally start laying hints suggesting that as part of antecedent action the characters no longer recall, they did more than merely read it. Somehow they took a key role in bringing it to publication.
In my one-shot con runs, the book makes an appearance more often than not. The online game I ran for Kickstarter backers ended with a showdown at the printing firm about to flood the streets with fresh copies.
Unlike the Necronomicon, The King in Yellow is no rare, antiquarian tome. It is a recently published book suppressed by authorities in England and France. While Lovecraftian volumes seem to want to remain arcane, the play wants to propagate. Like many a government action, the banning of the book may have been indifferently executed, leaving plenty of copies still in circulation.
In my home series, the Parisian characters acquired and burned several copies. Having them confiscate and destroy the book made for a fine button marking the conclusion to a particular mystery. Sometimes rumors of a copy kicked off the scenario. On other occasions it appeared incidentally, after they were drawn into the mystery by other means.
Of my groups’ many fine qualities, the one that stands out here is their ability to portray their characters as truly afraid of horrific eventualities. They handled the captured books with appropriate care, handing them over to an efficient Teutonic agency for disposal. Still, they couldn’t help but crack a copy open and see that the frontispiece illustration resembled the work of the Landscape Artist. The Poet read enough of it to note unnerving similarities in vocabulary and meter.
If one of your characters wants nothing more than to read the whole play from cover to cover, you’ll find the Shock card pairing on page 69 of the Paris book: The Self Crumbles and Moral Vertigo. Both impose discard conditions that will motivate a character who reads the play to destroy the copy he read.
What’s that you say? More than one character read it? Oh goodness! Well now they’ll have to find one copy per afflicted investigator!
Even if only one character scanned the decadent pages, what’s to say that the book remains on hand waiting to be destroyed? This slender volume sometimes acts as if possessed of a sinister will, coming and going on its own recognizance.
YKRPG is a game about recurrence. When characters over its four-sequence arc continue to not only find but read the book, you might create variants of “Moral Vertigo.” The original card tempts the reader of the play to commit murder.
Another might bend them toward political insurrection, as it does Mr. Wilde in “Repairer of Reputations.”
Other possible effects for alternate cards:
- The character sees ghosts.
- In stressful situations, on a failed Sense Trouble test, the character hallucinates Carcosan threats where none exist.
- When the character discards any other Shock card, roll a die. Odd: card is not discarded.
- When players mention that a particular action would be foolhardy or heedless, the reader of the play makes a Composure test. On a failure, you flash the action forward to the moment after she has gone and made exactly that mistake.
You may sense that players expect a hunt fraught with obstacles. In that case, oblige them. The hunt first leads to an illicit bookstore that sold its last copy hours before their arrival. Then the group finds a forgery. After that they hear that a book collector owns one—but when they arrive at his villa, blood pools around his corpse, the book is gone, and evidence at the scene points to them as primary suspects in his murder.
As with any player-driven quest, you want to extend it just until it reaches the point of frustration, then satisfy the goal just as it is starting to feel impossible. Since this is a horror game, you’ll want to follow that up with a twist, in which finally gaining the long-sought item ushers in a new set of problems.
As seen in the story “The Yellow Sign,” reading the play can summon the king himself. There he shows up inside a corpse he has animated, delivering immediate and fatal punishment. In your game he could appear as a murderous art critic, sadistic general, former regime official, or venture capitalist. He toys with the character for an entire sequence, slowly escalating his menace until a final showdown that may result in the character’s freedom—or destruction.
After a sustained effort to acquire the book, you might throw the player for a loop by revealing it as something altogether different than the rumors suggest.
It might be:
- an elaborate cryptogram teaching one or more spells, taken from the upcoming Black Star Magic.
- a gateway that pulls the reader literally into Carcosa.
- a devouring entity that feasts on the consciousness of its readers.
- a completely blank book, whose destructive power over febrile minds derives entirely from the reader’s own imaginings.
Players who swear to track down the book have embraced the premise and are asking you for surprise and trouble. Satisfy them, doling it out in exquisite doses.
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.