Nov 15 2019
In the latest episode of their hot and tangy podcast, Ken and Robin talk handling player absence, video game money laundering, chili, and the Chapel of Sacred Mirrors.
Nov 8 2019
In the latest episode of their improvisatory, highly customizable podcast, Ken and Robin talk Armitage Files and Dracula Dossier for Fall of Delta Green, Chicago film fest, James Damato, and Cornelius Agrippa.
Nov 7 2019
The Bundle of Holding is currently featuring not just one, but two Trail of Cthulhu PDF deals!
The first, Trail of Cthulhu, features Trail of Cthulhu, Stunning Eldritch Tales, Keeper’s Resource Book & Screen, and the Four Shadows soundtrack. And if you beat the threshold price, you level up to also get The Armitage Files, Bookhounds of London, The Book of the Smoke, Arkham Detective Tales, and Rough Magicks!
Round out your Trail of Cthulhu collection with the Cities of Cthulhu bundle, featuring Out of the Woods, The Long Con, The Many Deaths of Edward Bigsby, and Ken Writes About Stuff Vol 1. Beating the threshold price for this bundle fives you the bonus settings of Cthulhu City, Dreamhounds of Paris, The Book of Ants, and Tomb-Hounds of Egypt.
Check then out at the Bundle of Holding site!
Nov 7 2019
One of the easiest ways to quickly add iconic flavour to an adventure is to rework the monsters. If one of your players rolls a 6 on their Negative relationship with the Dwarf King, you can just hastily glue some beards to those ghosts in room 7 and call them the Spectres of the Tombless Dead. Need to work out how the Emperor plays into an adventure set deep underground? Turn those xorn into, er, Imperial Xorn. This trick is especially useful in the Underworld, which is (a) far from the regular haunts of the Icons and (b) already brimming with weirdness.
For the abilities listed below, use the attack bonuses and damages for creatures of the appropriate toughness and level on pgs. 254-255 of 13th Age. +X is the creature’s attack bonus, +XX is the creature’s damage.
A character with the appropriate Iconic relationships might know something about the powers and weaknesses of an Icon-warped entity.
Magical Spirit: The creature is only partially manifest in our reality; it’s got Resist Non-Magic Damage 16+ in any round it doesn’t attack. Quirk: see-through.
Erudite: The creature can cast at least one spell (+X vs. MD, XX/2 damage, plus the target is Confused or Weakened, save ends). Quirk: long sagely beard.
Illusory: The creature isn’t really real; all attacks target MD. At the end of the battle, all participant regain one Recovery. Quirk: ham actor
Bound: The creature is magically anchored to an object or place; it’s got +1 to all defences while near the spot, but cannot move more than a short distance away. Quirk: little arcs of magical lightning link creature to its cage.
Spiky: -2 to disengage attempts; characters who try and fail to disengage take 3 damage (Champion: 6; Epic: 15). Quirk: Irritable
Blazing: Fire aura deals damage equal to the Escalation Die to any foes who start their turn engaged with this monster (Champion: x2; Epic: x3). Quirk: On fire. If already on fire, complains about it.
Relentless: The creature gets an additional saving throw at the start of its turn. Quirk: Rants and raves about demons.
Bound: The creature is magically anchored to an object or place; it’s got +1 to all defences while near the spot, but cannot move more than a short distance away. Quirk: little arcs of magical lightning link creature to its cage.
Demonic: The creature gains resist fire 12+ and Quirk: Little bat wings, reddish skin.
Beguiling: It’s hard to bring yourself to attack the creature; anyone attempting to do so must make a normal save. Fail, and pick another target for the attack. Add the escalation die’s value to the save roll. Quirk: cute, in a sinister way.
Summoner: When first staggered, the creature can summon a demon guardian as a free action. (Adventurer: dretch, Champion: Despoiler; Epic: 1d4 hooked demons)
Soul-Stealer: A character knocked unconscious by this creature has their soul stolen. A soul-less character rolls one fewer die for all recoveries, and may be vulnerable to other supernatural attacks or possession. Get that soul back before it’s sold! Quirk: Keeps other captured souls in jars, talks to them.
Stone: Initiative bonus halved, -25%HP +2AC, +2PD. Quirk: Contains a relic or valuable item inside its hollow chest.
Begrudging: May add the escalation die to its attacks against the first foe to damage it. Quirk: If it survives the encounter, it continues to stalk the PCs.
Rune-Inscribed: Gains Resist Energy 12+ against the first type of energy-based damage it suffers. Quirk: Magic rune serves as key to some ancient dwarven door or treasure chest.
Armoured: -2 to attacks, +2 AC. Quirk: Grizzled grognard.
Immortal: This creature has been around for many Ages, giving it great wisdom. It can talk, and is much clever and wiser than others of its kind. Oh, and it can’t due through physical damage – it can be reduced to 0 hit points only by a suitably thematic attack. Quirk: irritatingly long-winded.
Fae: Vulnerable to iron, but elusive – it cannot be intercepted and doesn’t provoke opportunity attacks by moving Speaks in dodgy Shakespearian verse.
Stargazer: At the start of the battle, roll a d6. While the escalation die matches that value, the creature gains +2 to all defences and may add the escalation die to its attack rolls. Quirk: Claims to have foreseen the future of the PCs.
Elven Grace: At the start of each round, roll a d6. If the roll is equal to or lower than the value of the escalation die, the creature gains an extra action and the die rolled increased by one step (d6 to d8, d8 to d10 etc). Quirk: Snooty
Disciplined: If there are two or more creatures with this trait all fighting side by side, they all gain +1AC.
Quirk: Martial martinet – snaps to attention, marches up and down, calls out attacks like a drill instructor.
Royal: The pride of this creature cannot be diminished by mere damage.
If it’s not staggered, reduce all damage taken by 5 (Champion: 10; Epic: 15).
Quirk: Lazy and condescending to the commoners.
Gladiator: If this creature is engaged with a lone foe, it may add the escalation die to its attacks.
Quirk: Can you smeeeelllllllll what sort of pop-culture trope this creature is cooking?
Glorious: Gains a fear Quirk: Speaks with solemn gravity and authority.
Great Gold Wyrm
Dream-creature: The creature isn’t really real; all attacks target MD. At the end of the battle, all participant regain one Recovery. Quirk: Speaks with the voice of someone important to the player characters.
Fire-Breathing: Once per battle, the creature may make a free fire breath attack (C: +X to hit (1d3 nearby foes in a group), XX/2 fire damage). Quirk: Hot-headed and quick to charge.
Glorious: Gains a fear Quirk: Seeks to inspire everyone, even foes. (“You can hit me better than that! Keep trying!”)
Smiter: Once per battle, the creature make a smite attack, gaining +4 to hit and dealing an extra d12 holy damage (Champion: 2d12; Epic: 4d12). Quirk: Hunts down evil with extreme prejudice.
Elemental: Roll a d4. 1: Earth – gains +1AC while in contact with the ground; 2: Air – can fly; 3 – Fire: Anyone engaged with the creature at the start of their turn takes fire damage equal to the value of the escalation die (Champion: x2; Epic: x3); 4: Water – any critical hits have a 50% chance of turning into normal hits. Quirk: Seeks balance between elemental forces.
Plant: -5 penalty to attempts to disengage from this creature; also, it can hide in forests and other overgrown environments, attacking from ambush. Quirk: Speaks slooooooooooooowly.
Regenerating: Heals 5 points of damage at the start of its turn, up to five times per battle. Healing back up to full doesn’t count towards its total; fire and acid damage turn off regeneration. Troll stuff, right? (Champion: Heals 10; Epic: Heals 25). Quirk: Unrelenting in all aspects of its life.
Savage: If the creature’s attack roll is equal to or lower than the escalation die, and it’s a miss, reroll. Quirk: Pick some absolutely trivial aspect of the PCs’ appearance or background, and complain about it constantly. (“I’ll kill you! And your hat! I’ll especially kill your hat!”)
Skeletal: Resist weapons 16+. Quirk: Philosophical and detached; mordantly humourous.
Zombie: On a natural 16+, both zombie and target take +1d6 damage (champion: 3d6; epic: 4d10). Quirk: Eats brains.
Spectral: Resist Damage 12+, except force or holy damage. Walks through walls. Quirk: Gets confused and forgets it’s not the (roll 1d12)th Age.
Alive But Creepy and Spooky: If slain, comes back to life with 10% of its starting hit points. Well, comes back to undead. It only self-resurrects once. Quirk: Fired from a Hammer Horror movie for over-acting.
Brutal: Increase the creature’s crit threshold by 3 if it’s not staggered. Quirk: Loudly proclaims impending triumph of orc lord.
Overwhelming Assault: Every time the creature misses, increase its damage by +1d6. Quirk: Sadistic and willing to use dirty tricks against PCs.
Savage: If the creature’s attack roll is equal to or lower than the escalation die, and it’s a miss, reroll. Quirk: Superstitious, laden down with amulets, performs rituals before battle.
Furious: Every time the creature makes a successful save against a condition or ongoing damage, increase its damage by +1d6. Quirk: Mocks weakness of PCs.
Radiant: The creature’s surrounded by a holy aura; any nearby allies get a +5 bonus to saves. Quirk: Annoyingly serene.
Winged: It flies. Quirk: Annoyingly serene.
Redeemed: The creature’s usually associated with evil; this one serves the Light – and has a spear of light attack to boot (R: +X to hit, +XX holy damage). Quirk: Annoyingly serene.
Divine Emissary: The creature bears the symbols of a god associated with one of the player characters; that character is weakened in combat with the creature. Quirk: Annoyingly serene and knows all your embarrassing childhood secrets.
Prince of Shadows
Pickpocket: On a natural 1-5, the creature steals an item from the target. Quirk: Talks like a used car salesman.
Backstabber: If at least one other ally is engaged with the same target as this creature, it deals an extra 2d6 damage (Champion: 4d6; Epic: 8d6). Quirk: Whispers threats in your ear as it stabs you.
Whisperer: Every time this creature inflicts a critical hit, move one of the target’s Icon relationships one step towards Negative. The relationship die resets to normal after it’s next rolled. Quirk: Malicious gossip.
Elusive: When hit, the creature may make a normal save (11+) to turn that attack into a miss. Limited Use: 1/battle. Quirk: Shadowy and wears a dark cloak, regardless of the nature of the creature. So, yeah, it’s a dire bear in a dark cloak, a hydra in a dark cloak, a koru behemoth in a dark cloak.
Three-Headed: If the creature has a bite attack, then add “Natural 16+: Make another bite attack on a different target as a free action”). If it doesn’t have a bite attack, +2MD. Quirk: Argues with itself.
Fire-Breathing: Fire-Breathing: Once per battle, the creature may make a free fire breath attack (C: +X to hit (1d3 nearby foes in a group), XX/2 fire damage). Quirk: Apocalyptic prophet.
Sorcerer: Gain a spell attack (C: +X to hit, XX/2 damage, and the target is Confused or Weakened, save ends). Quirk: Talks in arcane mumbles.
Poisonous: The creature’s attack now deals 5 ongoing poison damage, save ends (Champion: 10 ongoing; Epic: 15 ongoing). Quirk: Communicates only in gestures.
Nov 7 2019
We’re on the road a lot during convention season, and the convenience of having our whole range of games on one device makes PDFs hard to beat for frequent travellers. With that in mind, we’re releasing a brand new Leyla Khan PDF adventure, The Best of Intentions, for Night’s Black Agents: Solo Ops, along with the PDF of the long-awaited sandbox 13th Age campaign, Shards of the Broken Sky.
- The Best of Intentions PDF – A new stand-alone Leyla Khan adventure for Night’s Black Agents: Solo Ops
- Shards of the Broken Sky PDF – The flying realm of Vantage crashes to earth, offering opportunities for glory, plunder, and/or heroic sacrifice in this 13th Age sandbox campaign
- Night’s Black Agents: Solo Ops PDF – The modern-day spy thriller Night’s Black Agents, adapted for one player, one GM games using the GUMSHOE One-to-One system
- Night’s Black Agents Director’s Screen and Resource Guide PDF – Full-colour, 4-panel Director’s Screen for Night’s Black Agents
- Mutant City Blues 2nd Edition – Pre-order the updated and expanded mutant-powered police procedural GUMSHOE game, and get the pre-layout PDF now
- Even Death Can Die – Pre-order this adventure collection for Cthulhu Confidential and get the pre-edit draft PDF now
- View from the Pelgrane’s Nest – Cat Tobin with what’s new in the Nest
- See P. XX: Sympathetic Monsters in Investigative Horror – Robin D. Laws on introducing thoughtful or morally good creatures in your RPGs
- Call of Chicago: The Phasmatological Society – Kenneth Hite on the real ghost-investigating group favoured by M. R. James
- The Plain People of Gaming: Core Competencies – Gareth Ryder-Hanrahan suggests a new General ability competency rule to encourage a reticent new player
- Find Your Writing Bugaboos with the Magic of Highlighting – Robin D. Laws with a trick for training yourself out of overusing an overused word in your writing
- Church of the Dead – The Sacred Temple of the Paparo in Naples is the focus for this Night’s Black Agents adventure seed by Adam Gauntlett
- A Little Goes a Long Way – Using Historical Settings in Roleplaying Games – Conrad Kinch on the key aspects to remember when using real-world history in your games
- FINEST EFFECTS: Background Investigation – Cropped from the massive horror of The Borellus Connection, this Handler-eyes-only article gives alternate entry vectors to operations for your players
- Trail of Cthulhu in the Bundle of Holding – For a limited time only, check out the Trail of Cthulhu and Cities of Cthulhu Bundle of Holding offers
- 13th Sage: Overseer of the Eye Mother – Wade Rockett stats up a horrifying, eye-themed blasphemy for 13th Age
- Book of the Underworld cover story – Rob Heinsoo on the evolution of the latest 13th Age cover
- The Iconic podcast has made it into their third season! You can listen to the most recent episodes here:
Nov 7 2019
A column about roleplaying
by Robin D. Laws
Pity the poor monsters. With Halloween over, they’re nursing hangovers and anticipating fallow months of scant employment over the holiday season.
Here at Pelgrane we love our monsters twelve months a year.
But what happens when you love a monster too much to want your GUMSHOE characters to fight it?
We think of horror stories as featuring monsters as antagonists. Right from the start though, with Frankenstein, the genre has called into question the nature of monstrousness. For every out-and-out fiend, like Dracula, we get a beleaguered beast, like King Kong, we should merely have left alone.
Recapitulating horror tales where we empathize for the Other requires some translation to work in the GUMSHOE format. Investigative horror assumes that the protagonists learn about, and then vanquish, monstrous beings. For this to work the players have to want to see the creatures defeated.
Our key horror games handle this issue by keeping the creatures clearly predatory. The Lovecraftian beasties bedeviling Trail of Cthulhu investigators want to stick our heads in jars or drag us down into the watery depths. The Outer Dark Entities of The Esoterrorists revel in their planned destruction of our world. If they’re misunderstood, it’s by the poor human saps who think they can gain power by letting them through the membrane.
This doesn’t mean that we can’t evoke the more creature-friendly strand of the horror tradition. We do have to exercise some care, ensuring that players can continue to sympathize with their own characters when the monsters they confront turn out to be misunderstood.
Plenty of horror tales have us root for the Other as an instrument of just vengeance. They don’t feature investigators attempting to thwart them. Freaks wouldn’t make a lick of emotional sense if it centered around a team of cops or private eyes trying to protect the cruel Cleopatra and Hercules from terrible comeuppance at the hands of the sideshow performers.
If you’re structuring a GUMSHOE scenario so that the targets of the creatures deserve an awful fate, your players will eventually ask why they’re trying to stop them, instead of helping them.
For example, you might want to explore a social issue through the vengeful ghost trope. At first it might seem appealing to show ghosts of workers killed in 1911’s notorious Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire fatally haunting sweatshop operators. But if you depict the vengeance as righteous, players won’t feel particularly motivated to protect their victims. If you depict the ghosts choosing the wrong targets, you’re making villains out of the people whose tragedy you meant to highlight.
You can answer that question by making your vengeance-seekers unsympathetic from the jump. Sure, Freddie Krueger wants to get back at the children of the people who burned him to death, but they did that to him because he was a serial killer. This, of course, solves the issue by entirely sidestepping it.
A monster can evoke sympathy even as it nonetheless has to be stopped. It might be justifiably enraged after being dislodged from its lair, or transported to the Broadway stage in chains. Still, its inevitable rampage threatens innocent lives, and the investigators have to discover the means to either pacify or destroy the creature before many more are killed. This allows the investigators to feel a sense of pathos when the beast meets its destruction.
Alternately though, you could design the mystery so that they’re trying to find a way to save both the creature and its potential innocent victims. Maybe they need to find the amulet allowing them to pacify the fish-man, luring it safely back to its lagoon. Or the scenario occurs in the creature’s island, grotto or isolated valley, with the heroes figuring out a way to stop the real antagonists, the showmen who want to capture the so-called monster.
A sapient monster might serve as an unwilling antagonist. A lycanthropy victim might be the one who contacts the investigators, begging them to find a way to cure her condition before the full moon next rises. She’s been through the whole routine of chaining herself up at night, but somehow that always fails, leaving her roaming the moors again. So far she’s only devoured cattle but she’s sure that eventually she’ll stumble across the wrong hiker and tear him apart. The real antagonists might turn out to be the sorcerers who cursed her, man-eating werewolves who don’t want the cure getting out, or the sinister researcher intent on using her blood as a pharmaceutical ingredient.
Your tragic monster might have already gone down the path of murder and destruction, while retaining enough self-awareness to regret it. The cannibal clone of a researcher’s dead husband has enough conscience to regret his flesh-eating compulsion. But then, only human meat grants him sustenance, and he isn’t up for suicide. Again, your scenario could give the players a moral choice between finding a cure or simply killing him.
You could twist this into your take on the Jekyll and Hyde dichotomy. The heroes discover that the killer they’ve been tracking is one of two personalities occupying the same body. Killing or imprisoning the monster means that the affable, helpful and entirely innocent alter ego suffers punishment too. Do the investigators prevail on the good half to make the ultimate sacrifice? Again, solving the mystery by finding a cure provides a less fraught conclusion for players who rebel when presented with no-win situations.
The easiest version of the sympathetic monster is one in which evil humans know of the creature’s existence and are framing it for their own crimes. The snake folk mind their own business in the remote mountains, until meth cookers familiar with his legend start dropping corpses covered in fake fang marks. When the investigators find out that the real monsters are people, they might take care of them on their own. Or, if they’ve established good relations with the reptile people, they might invite them to help clean up the nest of killers threatening their quiet, isolated lives.
GUMSHOE is the groundbreaking investigative roleplaying system by Robin D. Laws that shifts the focus of play away from finding clues (or worse, not finding them), and toward interpreting clues, solving mysteries and moving the action forward. GUMSHOE powers many Pelgrane Press games, including Trail of Cthulhu, Night’s Black Agents, Esoterrorists, Ashen Stars, Mutant City Blues and Fear Itself. Learn more about how to run GUMSHOE games, and download the GUMSHOE System Reference Document to make your own GUMSHOE products under the Open Gaming License or the Creative Commons 3.0 Attribution Unported License.
Nov 7 2019
At this time of year, my immune system shuts down in protest at winter as a concept, so I’m recovering from a nasty headcold, and pretty much living in my favourite GUMSHOE hoodie at the moment. The illness may be due to travel; I’m just back from my first Big Bad Con in California, followed the next weekend by The Kraken in Germany, where Robin was one of the guests of honour. Their proximity to each other really highlighted how very different they are – BBC was (in large part thanks to the quite amazing Babble On Equity Project), a genuinely diverse crowd, concentrated in the story games/larp/itch.io design space, whereas The Kraken had a lot of familiar faces, and a focus on the Cthulhu & Runequest, more traditional RPG design space. Both were excellent, for entirely different reasons, and I’m still processing the discerning conversations I had at each. Unfortunately, not being able to speak meant I couldn’t run my scheduled events at Gauntlet Con 2019, so Gareth Ryder-Hanrahan fearlessly stepped up to do the What’s New With Pelgrane panel by himself. Thanks Gar! We’ll be posting the audio of this on our social media over the coming weeks, so keep an ear out.
NEW! The Best of Intentions PDF
New out this month is a stand-alone PDF adventure for the second GUMSHOE One-2-One game for one Director and one player, Night’s Black Agents: Solo Ops. Play burned MI6 agent Leyla Khan, dragged into a perilous web of occult horrors and organised crime when a scouting mission in Prague goes sour. Will this be Leyla’s chance for redemption – or will she be dragged back into the darkness of the vampiric control she thought she’d escaped?
NEW! Shards of the Broken Sky PDF
It took us an epic six years to finish, but you can access the PDF of the sandbox 13th Age adventure right now! The flying realm of Vantage has crashed to earth, affording a rare glimpse into its mysteries – and secret. Will you rescue its survivors, and restore its magical wards, which were keeping a dozen ancient evils in check? Or are your players the type to loot everything that isn’t nailed down while trying to stay one step ahead of the apocalypse?
Work in progress update: Swords of the Serpentine
This was one of our biggest playtests to date, resulting in a small mountain of post-playtest feedback. Kevin Kulp’s been working hard on reviewing this, and has now incorporated most of the playtest comments, as well as the comments from Misha Bushyager’s sensitivity read, into the main manuscript, along with short designer sidebars to provide design intent, as requested in the playtest.
The manuscript is currently sitting at a solid and very respectable 180K words, meaning the core book will be somewhere in the 340+ page range.
The core book adventure, which got well playtested at Gen Con, has been revised and is now sold. Kevin’s currently finishing a simplification of the enemy stat block, and once that’s done and the rest of the playtest comments are incorporated, it’ll get a full read through for inconsistencies, and we’ll start commissioning the interior art, and being copyediting.
Work in progress update: Mutant City Blues 2nd Edition
Travel and illness have impacted the delivery time, but the index is nearly finished, and the first draft PDF is now on pre-orderers bookshelves. I’m hoping to be able to get the index finalised and the manuscript to the printers this week, so it’ll be with pre-orderers in early February.
Work in progress update: Book of the Underworld
Lee Moyer has taken Rich Longmore’s pencils and combined them into a really magical cover for Gareth Ryder-Hanrahan’s 13th Age Book of the Underworld. You can see the result in Rob Heinsoo’s cover reveal here. Meanwhile, work continues apace on the interior art direct and development.
Pelgranes in the Wild, part XX – Metatopia
I’m in New York at the moment on my way to Metatopia , the game design festival in New Jersey. If you’ve got a game to playtest, watch out for myself, Ken Hite and Kevin Kulp, as we’ll be around for the weekend playtesting and panelling.
Pelgranes in the Wild, winter edition – Dragonmeet 2019
Coming up at the start of December is the Pelgrane home convention of Dragonmeet. If you’ve seen the flyer, you may have been concerned at our absence, but never fear – we’ve been assured that our booth is booked in our usual corner, and Ken, Robin and Gareth have all booked their flights to come over, with Ken & Robin scheduled for their usual KARTAS Live session. For family reasons, we’re down Dragonmeet regular Rob Heinsoo, who’ll be sadly missed, although it does mean more ice wine and sticky toffee pudding for the rest of us!
Hopefully we’ll see you there, but if not, until next time…
Nov 7 2019
You are Leyla Khan and you’re running from your past. Once, you fell under the psychic thrall of a vampire, and he forced you to do terrible things. Your memory of those awful years is mercifully tattered and incomplete. You know enough to hunt and kill your former masters, and that’s all that’s important. Now, you wage a solo war against the Un-dead.
Now your past has found you. A scouting mission in Prague goes sour, dragging you into a perilous web of occult horrors and organised crime. Is this a chance for redemption – or are they dragging you back into the darkness you thought you’d escaped?
The Best of Intentions is a thrilling stand-alone adventure for Night’s Black Agents: Solo Ops, pitting a lone player against the vampires and their malign conspiracies in the shadowy world of international espionage.
|Stock #: PELGON02D||Author: Gareth Ryder-Hanrahan|
|Artists: Jen McCleary, Miguel Santos||Pages: 44 pages B&W PDF|
Nov 7 2019
By Conrad Kinch
I was a seven year old Kinch when I got my first gaming book. It was “Redcoats & Minutemen: The American War of Independence” by Jon Sutherland, a choose-your-own adventure book from a little-known series called Real Life Gamebooks. My parents thought fantasy was a bit frivolous, but the 18th century was alright, and while I eventually managed to snag a copy of Dungeons & Dragons for my birthday, I spent a good six months rushing about North America in my imagination (and a tricorne hat). Despite my best efforts, the Americans always seemed to win – but God knows I tried. But my love for “real world” roleplaying was born. Since then I’ve run games in the Old West, the Napoleonic Wars, Prohibition Era America, 1970s London, the Second World War, 11th century England and 17th century France, amongst others.
The years have not withered, nor the years condemned our worlds infinite variety.
There’s a lot to be said for playing in the “real world”. There is an internet full of free source material available, the players will already be familiar with the basics and while not everyone knows what an ork sounds like, most folk know a French person when they hear one.
My top tips for Game Masters wishing to dip a toe into historical roleplaying are as follows:
Talk the talk
Roleplaying games are mostly aural experiences. Some groups use figures and props, but mostly we hear RPGs. We experience them through words and play them by speaking and listening. It’s no accident that many successful roleplaying games have a specialist lexicon of their own. By using different words, we are transported into a different world. Some RPGs manage this really well, Vampire: The Masquerade for example, while others like Shadowrun are less successful. I never knew anyone who could say “Chummer” with a straight face – but this will vary from group to group. Bookhounds of London hits a nice balance by using mostly standard English, but having specialist slang for particular aspects of bookselling. Delta Green has a plethora of secret agent idioms, but you don’t need to master them all in one go.
Names and forms of address are a good way to start, particularly if you’re playing a game set in a more formal milieu.
For example, up until relatively late in the 20th century, most middle class people did not use first names at work, but referred to each other by surnames. Using a first name was a way of indicating friendship or intimacy and would only be used by family and close friends. Using this as a clue in an investigative game would be a great way to cement the convention in players minds and make them aware of it.
Start small, introduce a couple of words or phrases in each session and let the players get familiar with them before adding any more. The trick is to think of period words (and historical content more generally) as a seasoning, a little goes a long way. Listening to Shakespearean actor Ben Crystal’s rendition of Hamlet in Shakespearean English with original pronunciation is an extraordinary experience, but you couldn’t play a game like that. You should aim to introduce just enough period diction to give the flavour of the time without the game bogging down.
Decide exactly how much history you want
The Three Musketeers (1973) is a historical film, but so is Master and Commander (2003) and Braveheart (1995). But they are very different kinds of films and while each is satisfying in their own way, they make different use their historical settings. Braveheart, for example, plays fast and loose with the history to craft an enjoyable revenge story, while Master and Commander tells a much more grounded narrative.
No more than when you choose to run a fantasy or science fiction game, you should have a clear idea of tone and type of game you want to run. More importantly, so should your players, and they should be on board with the idea. This gives everyone an understanding of how much the setting is going to be a factor in play. I think I’d quite like to play a Pendragon game in the style of Monty Python (or the joyful nonsense of A Knight’s Tale), but I would make sure that the players knew what they were getting into.
Pointing out the flaws in someone else’s work is easy, and sometimes fun, too. There are whole YouTube channels devoted to filleting historical films on the basis of historical accuracy, but it’s a lousy basis for a roleplaying game. The GM should make an effort to do the reading and know the setting well, but there’s little to be gained from nitpicking people who are playing a game to be entertained. All it does is break the immersion in the game and make people feel foolish. There is a time and a place for “Well, actually…” type comments, but they should relate to the core activities of the game.
For example, I ran a game set in a British army regiment in Portugal during Sir John Moore’s expedition of 1809. Climbing the greasy pole of promotion, which was mostly (but not exclusively) by purchase at the time, was a key part of the game. The players were given the regulations and were expected to know about them in detail because jockeying for position was a core part of the game. Picking a player up on a point of promotion would be perfectly legitimate, but having a go at one for talking about his father smoking cigars (which were relatively unknown in Ireland at the time) would not be.
If it’s a small point and not germane to the main business of the game, there’s little reason to make a fuss. Far better to keep the game rolling. Also, if you don’t have an immediate answer for a question and there isn’t a compelling reason to say no, you should go with whatever answer best serves your game. For example, I have no idea if Elizabethan gentlemen had “stag do’s” (bachelor parties for our American cousins), but the question came up during a game set in London in 1599. I had no idea and I couldn’t find a quick answer, so I said yes. The evening of roleplaying that followed was delightful.
A roleplaying session is an effervescent thing that exists collectively between the GM and the players. It can lose momentum and die very easily, so be careful about shutting down players ideas unnecessarily. The alternative is also true, if a player comes across a particular nugget of historical information that’s interesting, you should do your best to incorporate it into the game. Anything that drags players deeper into the game and makes them more invested in the setting is a good thing.
The aim should be to create an enjoyable collaborative experience, rather than deliver a history lesson. Resist the temptation to make your friends feel small by showing off your knowledge of Georgian table manners and focus on delivering something that has period feel, even if some of the details are off.
Little & Often
One of the most effective ways I’ve found to immerse players in a historical setting is to use multiple avenues of approach. Have some film and TV recommendations ready for your players. Photographs, period drawings and paintings can quickly create a sense of place and time without too much work on the GM’s part. Music from the period is generally only a YouTube search away. If you can keep creating and reinforcing that sense of time and place in small ways, eventually you won’t have to work so hard to do it. A few words will put your group in the mood.
Over time, I’ve found that it’s worth focusing on a few small details and using those to suggest the rest of the setting. Three is a good number.
For example, in a game set in the USSR during the Second World War, we made much of the fact that Red Army soldiers weren’t issued socks, but were given foot wraps (long strips of cloth wrapped around the foot). It’s best if the details you focus on can be used by players to some advantage. In our game, foot wraps were used to make a makeshift ropes to bind and gag an unfortunate prisoner. The fact that captured German army socks were much prized became a running joke in the game. I think it also gave the players some idea of the relative material deprivation their characters were living in.
Running a good historical roleplaying game is just like running a good roleplaying game of any sort. So long as you concentrate on the players and keep the story moving, you’ll do just fine. May you always toast the correct Monarch, remember to call your best friend Watson rather than John when others are present and know your Jacobites from your Jacobins.
Happy historical roleplaying.
Conrad Kinch (@aquestingvole) is a poor hand with a sabre and an only passable pistol shot. He is fondly remembered by all those who have never lent him money. He lives in Dublin. His novel “The Fox Wife’s Tail” is available now.
Nov 7 2019
The BORELLUS CONNECTION manuscript was too nightmarish and vast to be constrained by any binding our printer could conceive; therefore, we were obliged to remove some material from the book. It’s preserved here as a series of Page XX articles. As Orne’s mysterious correspondent in Philadelphia warned us, “no Part must be missing if the finest Effects are to be had”; therefore, we have categorised these cuttings as FINEST EFFECTS.
All materials tagged FINEST EFFECTS are Handler’s Eyes Only – prospective players of the Borellus Connection campaign are instructed not to read these articles.
Over the course of the Borellus Connection, the players come into contact with the outer fringes of Orne’s criminal network, and follow the connections until they reach Orne himself. If the players follow the clues in individual missions without realising the wider context, they’ll get to that terrible confrontation at the end of the campaign. However, ambitious players may wish to investigate the network between operations. Orne’s paranoia about detection means that digging up clues is extremely difficult – witnesses disappear, safehouses vanish overnight, arrested crooks either keep silent or die mysteriously in prison – but you can use these background investigations to foreshadow upcoming elements of the campaign (“you pick up a rumour about some German gunman called de Kleist who shot up a Turkish smuggling ring a few years ago – he may be connected to Orne”) or give the players alternate entry vectors to operations.
Another possible line of inquiry is the mostly-defunct Order of Almousin-Metraton, the occult secret society of necromancers.
Investigating the Network
Accounting: The French Connection launders its profits in Nassau, then deposits them in accounts in Switzerland and Lebanon. When Orne needs to spend his drug money to further his occult research or bodysnatching schemes, he either gets an advance from local drug lords (“give my servant two thousand dollars now, and I’ll ensure you get an added heroin shipment straight from Marseile next month”), or taps his funds in the Lebanese banks. Accounting can follow the money.
Criminology identifies the various gangs and criminal syndicates with their fingers in the opium trade, giving clues about local groups who might be involved in Orne’s schemes. Combined with Streetwise, it’s good for gathering rumours about shadowy players and sinister, occult-tinged enforcers like Charrière.
Pharmacy can be used to test heroin purity. Most heroin, even before it’s cut for sale, reaches only 70% purity; the French Connection’s old chemist, Joseph Cesari, was known as ‘Mr. 98%’ for his exceedingly good product. Orne, if he put his mind to it, could do even better, but he often experiments with his product (see Essential Smack, p. XX), so a purity of around 90% indicates Orne-made junk.
Traffic Analysis lets the Agents track drug shipments; they can guess how often shipments are made, trace legitimate chemical purchasers, work out when local jugglers will run out of product and have to obtain more from distributors, or correlate international arrivals with sudden activity in the distribution network, giving clues about the smuggling methods used by the network.
Investigating the Order
Art or Archaeology spots old signs of the Order in places. Portraits of scholars or great thinkers might have the distinctive A/M sigil hidden somewhere in the painting, or scratched on their tombs. (If the ascending node is slightly larger, that indicates that the subject was once an initiate of the Order. If the descending node is larger, the subject’s saltes were taken by a Brother and are available for trade.)
Architecture can identify common traits that recur, regardless of the local style of building or the age of the structure – extensive underground cellars, drains for disposal of failed experiments, secret doors, star-windows in high attic rooms.
Occult recalls rumours of a secret society that’s supposed to include every famous mind in history as members.
- The society’s ultimate goal is, depending on the writer, to uncover the secrets of the past, to achieve union with God, or to bring about future enlightenment
Traffic Analysis orCriminology applied to the above clues concludes that the Order of Almousin-Metatron consists of at least two groups – low-ranking hangers-on and associates who operate on a purely local level, but copy the symbols and rituals of the Order to proclaim how connected they are, and an inner higher-ranking cabal that doesn’t need to show off as much.