A column about roleplaying
by Robin D. Laws
Now that lots of you have had the chance to check it out, either in its original run on Twitch or now on YouTube, I thought you might enjoy a look behind the scenes at my process for preparing and running “Mr. Wilde’s Wild Halloween.”
These notes won’t make much sense until you check it out; it’s the Halloween game of The Yellow King Roleplaying Game I ran for Misha Bushyager, Sharang Biswas, Ruth Tillman, Wade Rockett and Pelgrane magnifico Cat Tobin. It takes place in the game’s contemporary setting, This is Normal Now.
The premise for the scenario began with the desire to do something on Halloween. This led me to the thought of setting it at a Halloween party, with the players wearing their characters’ costumes.
Rather than use characters’ Freaking Weird Moments to draw them into the horror, I found reality horror inspiration in each costume.
Misha’s desire to be an Empress of Evil implied a group of would-be minions overly willing to perform horrible acts in her name—thus, the Larrys.
Cat’s flapper gear led me to invent the scenario’s central mystery. It provided an opportunity to invoke on a classic Gothic trope: the painting of an identical predecessor.
I knew that a weird scientist would hook directly into the scenario as it developed but didn’t immediately see an introductory moment. Eventually I hit on the idea of a desirable fellow party goer needing repairs to a robot costume. Sharang, it turned out, was way ahead of me, suggesting the very thing I’d hoped—a desire to meet up with someone his character was crushing on. This was a huge gift to me, as you can’t always count on tabletop roleplayers to want to bring a love interest into the mix.
My solo scene for Ruth was less about her costume than an opportunity to hang out with her favorite YKRPG character, the Dream Clown. (Her Black Star Magic scenario features this children’s TV host from the Aftermath reality.) She wound up springboarding that possibility sideways into another bit, the memories of the creepy imagined childhood staircase.
Finally, Wade’s idea that his character, James, would be half-assing his outfit led to the inevitable idea that his real costume, that of the King in Yellow, would be waiting for him at the party.
Splitting the characters up into solo scenes ensures a fair share of onstage time and narrative importance for each participant—a solution to a common problem of one-shots, where you don’t get a second session to give a neglected player more spotlight.
Having sketched these out, I worked out a backstory connected to the Robert W. Chambers story “The Mask.” You’ll find that at the end of this piece.
Then I backed up to the introduction. I wanted to start with matters already in motion, but not so abruptly that we couldn’t introduce the characters to each other and the audience. Here are my bullet points for the opening:
- How are You Getting There?
- Character Sheets and Rules Basics
- Your Group Dynamic
- What are You Hoping Happens at the Party?
Unlike a typical one-shot, this was a performance for an audience, where we wanted to fold in some system tutorial. In the end, it wasn’t that much different from what would happen at a convention table.
Just as in one-shots I run in Belle Époque Paris, I started with the opportunity for characters to encounter the evening’s horrors in an altered state. This shows off general ability tests and the Shock and Injury card system, and dovetails with the overarching theme of reality slippage.
The phantom Bugatti, visible to anyone receiving a Shock card, reenacts the accidental death of the woman in the portrait who looks like Cat’s flapper. This set up a direction not taken, in which the group finds out about her doppelganger’s death by researching the figure in the portrait, and then heads outside to get more information from the ghost.
(If no one had failed their tests, I would have given the vision of the Bugatti to the lowest successful scorers.)
From there you can see the scenario play out my sketched-out solo scenes, then reconverge the characters to commiserate, problem-solve, and investigate their way to the basement and the final confrontation.
Along the way you see my drop in a few of my fave moves:
- the chance to make a deal with the devil
- with the Larrys and their dance, an image that is funny yet increasingly horrible
- an affable, matter-of-fact primary antagonist
Any scenario needs more possible paths than the players wind up taking. Otherwise you’re just ushering them through your plan, and not letting them help build the storyline. In a one-shot I’m happy to throw weird stuff at the players until they start looking for information. There is less clue-seeking here than you’d see if you eavesdropped on my home group—but our sessions tend to devote two or three sessions to each mystery. Here you see the players ignore all mention of a library in order to keep the story moving with the information they have on hand. Thankfully I had a bad guy willing to monologue the absolutely key parts to them during the climax.
The moment when everyone feels weird but no one takes a card was set up to have some of the PCs physically transforming into the costumes, as happens to GMCs at the party. This arguably happens to two of the characters anyhow, so it’s hardly a lost opportunity. Here are the cards that would have gone to characters who failed:
In an ongoing game I wouldn’t escalate the weirdness so quickly, instead doing more of a slow burn. I certainly wouldn’t kill off one of the players for having to leave early in the session! However Sharang’s brilliant characterization prior to his demise at a preset time fit the plot so thoroughly you might suspect us of colluding in advance.
But it wasn’t planned at all. I can prove that by showing you the rest of my notes. You’ll see lots of elements I had ready but weren’t needed.
Boris Yvain (1872 – 1895)
American born sculptor and chemist, parents French and Russian, died in Paris 1895
Gennady Yvain (1877 – 1941)
His brother, establishes Dragoncourt Chemicals, develops a line of preservatives (based on papers discovered in his late brother’s possessions)
Builds observatory as connection to the Hyades, crucial in developing new formulae, built in 1924
Jack Yvain (1900 – 1984)
his son, astronomer and, from the 1940s on, computer programmer
with the help of Carcosa uploaded his consciousness into mainframe at the observatory before his death
upgrades over the years have allowed him to live in increasingly comfortable servers, but he wants bodies, and with the alignment of the Hyades on October 31st he’s going to possess the bodies of multiple revelers
sure for that to work they have to mutate into monstrous versions of their costumes but hey you get embodied with the tech you have
Colette Nicolas (1902 – 1924)
Jack’s fiancee, flees the observatory after beholding the alignment of the Hyades, killed in one-car collision
distant relation of famous Lumiere brothers
at time of her death, her Lesley Gibson portrait is already in progress, it is completed and hung in the observatory in 1926
Jack has dalliances but never marries or has children, declaring the observatory his heir
Lesley Gibson (1874 – 1945)
American born painter, heir to the Gibson Shale quarry fortune
student in Paris at École des Beaux-Arts 1895-1894, friend of Boris Yvain
paints portrait of Colette Nicolas in 1923
Camille Lau – Chairman of the Yvain Observatory Foundation – she answers to Jack’s consciousness in exchange for prophetic stock tips; believes his cover story that the Halloween party is a much-needed fundraiser after the pandemic closures (which it is, but also mass possession) – dressed in stylish party dress with subtle cat ear headband
Ruben Suarez – party promoter; has a weird feeling but knows nothing; dressed as Mr. Wilde
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.