A column about roleplaying
by Robin D. Laws
The Yellow King Roleplaying Game can be run at any scale, from one-shot to its ultimate form: four interconnected sequences set in 1895, an alternate mid-century war zone, a warped, post-authoritarian present day, and our own not at all disturbing contemporary reality.
As you contemplate getting going with the latter, you may be wondering how to structure your series. The real answer is that, like most creative endeavors, you’ll see how to do it when you start doing it. (Aided by the copious support given in the game book, of course.)
For the other answer, keep reading for a suggested framework of episode ideas. By the time we’re finished a month from now, you’ll have more episodes than you probably need. Take inspiration with the ones that spark with you or that contain elements you know your players will enjoy. Leave yourself room to adjust as you go rather than committing to an entire episode list ahead of time. This creates the space you’ll need to respond to player choices and input, placing them at the center of your series. Though some episodes self-evidently land during particular points in your arc, most can easily be shuffled around to build on the direction you find in play.
Episode 1: Beginnings
Start by improvising a scenario inspired by one or more of the characters’ Deuced Peculiar Things. Open with the art students recovering from absinthe hangovers at their favorite cheap cafe. They can’t entirely remember what happened last night, but have a terrible feeling that they’ll regret remembering.
Give players time to interact, establishing relationships between the main cast members. When this loses steam, introduce minor manifestations of a Deuced Peculiar Thing to lead them out of the cafe and into an investigation.
As a fallback premise, that the Sculptor’s latest statue has achieved animation and gone on a deadly rampage. Or the Poet has written a verse—or “written” a verse that really comes from a certain forbidden play—that alters the minds of those who hear it.
The game’s focus on reality horror allows you to improvise all manner of hallucinatory events, not all of which have to exert permanent effects: that murder was only temporary, or perhaps a premonition that can still be averted.
During this first mystery the art students learn about:
- the play and its malign influence
- the existence of the king and Camilla and Cassilda, at least as fictional characters
- the intertwining of their destinies with this weird phenomenon
If you think they’ll want to receive specific missions from a patron, introduce that GMC as part of your wrap up.
This series opener gives them the chance to put a stop to one particular manifestation, and motivation to keep digging deeper.
Episode 2: Genre Literature Homage
Establish the game’s literary side with a Carcosan spin on a classic tale from 19th century literature, ideally French.
The Ghost of the Garnier scenario in the Paris book follows this template.
If one or more players are already familiar with it and you need something different, you might consider:
- events at the Notre Dame Cathedral echoing Hugo’s 1831 novel The Hunchback of Notre-Dame
- an adaptation of Maupassant’s story “The Horla,” about a psychic vampire epidemic. See p. 157 of the Paris book
- a wave of sightings of Jules Verne-style airships above Paris
- homages to the serials Les Vampires or Judex, displaced backwards in time by a few years, or Georges Franju’s Eyes Without a Face, which conveniently has a pallid mask already in it, also pushed back in time to the Belle Époque. Or look at Franju’s 60s remake of Judex.
Episode 3: Secondary Villain
Build a scenario around the introduction of a powerful villain outside the royal court of Carcosa. Although as always you have to be ready for the characters to dispatch your antagonist before you’ve realized her full potential, conceive it so they can solve the immediate crisis without having to do that. This recurring baddie could be:
- a legendary vampire
- a well-connected delver into weird science
- a powerful sorcerer possessed of, or pursuing, immortality
- a rebel Carcosan who aims to topple the king, without being a particular friend to humanity
Episode 4: Creature Feature
Slip in a straightforward and self-contained scenario of good old-fashioned monster problems, featuring any supernatural being from the Foes chapter. Each of these entries is written with an implicit plot hook for just this purpose. When in doubt, pick that most Parisian of entities, the gargoyle.
Episode 5: The Occult Scene
Review pages 126-133 of the Paris book, which profiles the leading personalities of the city’s metaphysical scene. Pick the figure who most interests you and wrap a mystery around him. Possible instigating incidents include:
- a break-in at Edmond Bailly’s occult bookshop
- a demon invented by conspiracy huckster Léo Taxil starts claiming victims
- a sinister figure who might be the ghost of the notorious cult leader Abbé Boullan comes for Oswald Wirth and Stanislas de Guaita, the occultists who exposed him
Episode 6: Bring in the Royals
Bring in an Deuced Peculiar Thing that hasn’t had much spotlight time, connecting it to a threat to the lives and minds of innocent Parisians. To solve the mystery and end the threat, the art students must deal with a peculiar and magnetic personality who eventually turns out to be the King or one of his daughters. This might happen in the relative safety of a dream visitation, or in an absinthe delirium. The royal, seeing in the character(s) a resonance that will continue through history and realities, makes an attractive but dangerous offer.
Episode 7: Arts & Artists
An opportunity for the characters to do what they’re putatively in Paris for, training as artists, takes a turn for the Carcosan. Take inspiration from a Symbolist, Decadent or Academic painting, or springboard from the profiles of cultural worthies from pages 115-125.
- Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec seeks protection from a knife-wielding doppelganger
- dapper gossip columnist Marcel Proust needs help finding out which of the people he knows too much about is trying to kill him
- a costume from Sarah Bernhardt’s latest production walks out of her wardrobe on its own steam, perhaps strangling a victim on the way to the stage door. Yes, it’s a tattered yellow robe. Why do you ask?
Join us next month as we continue to sketch out our arc with Episode 8 and beyond.
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.