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Ken and Robin Talk About Stuff: By Fun You Mean Opaque

Sep 24 2021

In the latest episode of their Edwardian-shocking podcast, Ken and Robin talk power in rpg design, Lady Idina Sackville, magicians as criminal henchmen, and Ken’s Providence bookshelf.

New Legacies (3)

Sep 21 2021

The Dracula Dossier Director’s Handbook (DH) covers the present-day Legacies of the main members of the Crew of Light – Billie Harker, Tabitha Holmwood, Thad Morris and the rest, the descendants of the original group who battled Dracula. However, Dracula Unredacted reveals the existence of several other members of this fellowship who, for reasons sinister or editorial, were excised from the narrative. Once the players discover the existence of Kate Reed or Inspector Cotford, might they not try to track down their present-day heirs?

Dr. James Renfield

One of the most fascinating and unexplained asides in the whole of Dracula is Renfield’s brief moment of lucidity shortly before his death, when he pleads with the Crew of Light for understanding (Dracula Unredacted, p. 331). He reveals that he seconded Lord Godalming’s father at the Windham Club, and shows surprising knowledge of the other hunters, suggesting Renfield was a man of considerable erudition and respectability before his madness.

The Director’s Handbook (p. 38) describes Renfield at the time of the novel, and also speculates he might have been committed to the asylum by a relative. If so, there might be a Renfield legacy in the present day.

Enter Dr. James Renfield – he’s a brilliant medical researcher, possibly working at the modern-day NHS facility built on the site of the asylum that once held his ancestor. Like the original Renfield, Dr. James is in remarkable physical condition – he regularly runs marathons, is an avid mountain-climber, and is in the Territorial reserves – and extremely well connected, socially and politically. He’s on various advisory bodies and boards, and has given evidence before Parliamentary committees on occasion, discussing bioterrorism, the ethics of genetic engineering and similar matters (possible connections: Philip Holmwood, DH p. 43; “Mr. Hopkins”, DH p. 117, Pharmaceutical Researcher, DH p. 128).

He’s a brilliant but intense man, impatient with lesser minds. Few people can keep up with Dr. Renfield when he’s tackling a challenge.

Dr. James shares one other quality with his ancestor – he’s unusually succeptible to vampiric influence. As soon as Dracula (or another vampire) comes within close proximity of the good doctor, his personality begins to change, taking on aspects of that vampire’s personality and goals. He soon becomes obsessive, then degenerates into incoherence and self-destructive or violent acts. Tailor the psychosis to the vampire – a Renfield in the thrall of Countess Bathory might behave very differently to one exposed to the American Vampire, or a resurrected Lucy.

Innocent: His great-great-grandfather has been erased from the family history, but show him a photograph or other proof of the actual existence of R.M. Renfield, and Dr. James is convinced to aid the Agents. This version of Dr. James is a tragic figure – he starts off as a heroic ally of the Agents, but quickly falls under the sway of the first major vampire encountered by the group.

Asset: Renfield’s already working with Edom (just like his ancestor?). Dr. James is actually an excellent candidate for Dr. Drawes (DH p. 50); alternatively, he might be an Edom researcher working on the Seward Serum. Presumably, they keep him far away from any actual vampires to avoid psychic contamination.

Minion: What’s that you say? How could the descendent of the guy who was famously working for Dracula be… working for Dracula? The obvious Minion take is that Renfield falls under Dracula’s spell, and acts to help the vampire in whatever way he can – kidnapping victims as offerings, inviting Dracula into houses, stalking troublesome hunters. Remember that Dracula may not even be aware of Renfield’s existence; Renfield’s compelled to act by Dracula’s psychic presence, not the vampire’s will.

For a nastier twist – Renfield’s willingly working for Dracula. When rumours of the missing Dossier reach the Count, Dracula orders his minion Renfield to trail his coat. Dr. James starts posting messages online, saying he’s looking into an odd family mystery, a disgraced ancestor who’s been excised from the records. Why, he’s got a copy of his ancestor’s coded journal (DH p. 277) – maybe, when put together with other records from the period, it might yield some useful information.

Defining Quirks: 1) Intense gaze 2) Loves cats 3) Hates insects, especially flies.

Investigative Abilities: Forensic Pathology, High Society, Outdoor Survival, Pharmacy, Research

General Abilities: Athletics 9, First Aid 10, Hand to Hand 6, Infiltration 6, Shrink 6

 

Ken and Robin Talk About Stuff: The Bubble Wrap of Roleplaying Games

Sep 17 2021

In the latest episode of their thoroughly cetaceous podcast, Ken and Robin talk robustness in RPG design, the whale sculpture that prevented a train crash, folk horror scenarios that don’t repeat The Wicker Man, and mystical psychologist Claudio Naranjo.

The Plain People of Gaming: Fruit of a Poison Tree

Sep 14 2021

It’s been some time since the Poison Tree campaign was announced, even by the sometimes leisurely standards of Pelgrane. It’s currently on my desk undergoing development and additional writing. The core concept of the campaign is unchanged from those early articles – a series of connected adventures across the generations, from 1650 to the present day, tracing the ghastly fate of the cursed Whettall family. Right now, the final adventure roster is looking like:

Chapter 1: 1650

Chapter 2: 1715

Chapter 3: 1752

Chapter 4: 1775

Chapter 5: 1890

Chapter 6: 1914

Chapter 7: 1952

Chapter 8: 2023

(with plenty of scope for ambitious Keepers to drop other scenarios into the gaps – notably, there’s a period in the 1920s where one branch of the Whettall family become occult investigators operating out of Miskatonic university, so you can graft virtually any Trail adventure onto the campaign…)

I always enjoy the development phase of a book like this. It’s when you get to look at the text as a whole, and start to spot patterns and correspondences. You get to add in moments of foreshadowing (or excise accidental overlaps between adventures). You get to weave the chapters together, dropping hints and callbacks.

One of the tasks was updating the Poison Tree text to the modern GUMSHOE sensibilities. While Trail of Cthulhu’s rules haven’t changed, our understanding of best practises when it comes to structuring GUMSHOE scenarios and presenting information have improved, so I’ve added innumerable Leads-in/Leads-Out entries and Scene Flow diagrams. We’re also still wrestling with the question of how best to handle character generation for the campaign – there will definitely be a set of pregenerated investigators for each chapter, but how they’ll be presented and whether or not they’ll be the default option remains to be determined. Still, all questions should be resolved and rewrites completed well in time for a late-autumn harvest…

And after that, it’s onto an even longer-promised project…

New Legacies (2)

Sep 14 2021

(My apologies for the long delay between installments. I’d intended to post this and the other pieces in the series in early 2020. I wonder what could possibly have distracted me in, oh, say around March of that year.)

The Dracula Dossier Director’s Handbook (DH) covers the present-day Legacies of the main members of the Crew of Light – Billie Harker, Tabitha Holmwood, Thad Morris and the rest, the descendants of the original group who battled Dracula. However, Dracula Unredacted reveals the existence of several other members of this fellowship who, for reasons sinister or editorial, were excised from the narrative. Once the players discover the existence of Kate Reed or Inspector Cotford, might they not try to track down their present-day heirs?

Gwen Parton

The Parton family played a key role in the events of Dracula, although their involvement was heavily redacted in the published version. Sir Robert Parton, the president of the law society, was possibly involved with Operation Edom. It was he who put Dracula in contact with Peter Hawkins of Exeter when the Count asked for a lawyer to be dispatched to Transylvania. Later, Parton’s daughter Juliette was a victim of the Count’s unholy hungers, possibly with Parton’s knowledge. Certainly, Parton helped cover up the circumstances of his daughter’s death, removing witnesses like his brother Quentin (exiled to Scotland for his health), and lying to Inspector Cotford. Juliette’s coffin was never found.

(It’s equally likely that Parton was part of the Satanic Cult of Dracula, of course – Cotford’s cryptic last entry on p. 270 of Dracula Unredacted mentions ‘Parton’ at the unholy banquet at Coldfall house, but it’s unclear if he meant the late Juliette or her father Sir Robert.)

Gwen Parton’s descended from Sir Robert’s brother Quentin, although she has little knowledge of that side of the family. Her branch of the Partons have lived in Scotland for generations. Gwen’s in her early 30s, with innumerable piercings and tattoos; she’s drifted in and out of various punk-rock bands, artistic collectives, fringe political groups and activist circles since dropping out of university. Her secret shame – her family’s still very wealthy, and have helped her out of financial difficulties several times.

Innocent: Gwen’s still looking for the right cause – she’s got plenty of energy and passion, but has yet to find something that she really believes in. Taking down Edom/Dracula might be that crusade, especially once she learns about her family connection to the curse.

While a failed rock musician might not seem to be an ideal ally for vampire hunters, Gwen brings several advantages to the table. Her great-great-grandfather Quentin was sensitive to Dracula’s presence, like Renfield – she might equally be able to detect the count. She’s got access to a network of online journalists and other contacts who might be able to dig up useful intel. She can draw on her inheritance for ready cash. And when all else fails, she’s got a pair of well used and very stompy boots, and has special weapons training in smashing a pint glass into someone’s face.

Asset: If Edom’s running Gwen, it’s at arms’ length. She might be a deep-cover agent – maybe Edom’s worried that the stolen copy of Unredacted will fall into the hands of some troublesome investigative journalist or online conspiracy blogger, and they’ve sent Gwen into that world so she can grab the dossier when it surfaces.

Another option: “Gwen” is actually Juliette Parton, the original Edom vampire. Her appearance is as far as one could get from the respectable young Victorian woman she used to be; she only ever goes out at night, and she’s loud and aggressive enough to deflect suspicion.

Minion: Gwen’s a member of the Satanic Cult of Dracula, like her ancestors before her. Given her relative youth and attitude, she’s likely a low-level talent spotter, recruiting criminals and other useful assets for the Conspiracy. She might be a connection between the vampires and mundane criminality. In this scenario, the Agents run into some low-grade goons, beat them up, get pointed at Gwen Parton – and then spot an old family painting or heirloom/discover the Parton trust fund, and unravel the connections between those low-grade goons and the Parton legacy…

Defining quirks: 1) Stompy boots 2) Goth crucifix that happens to be made of solid silver 3) Shifts accents from Edinburgh punk-rock girl to upper-class Oxbridge as needed

Investigative Abilities: Art History, Intimidation, Streetwise, Urban Survival

General Abilities: Conceal 4, Hand-to-Hand 6

Asteroid Pirates

Sep 13 2021

When your Ashen Stars characters next seek a person, piece of information, or illicit technology, place the object of their search in the fleet of the Asteroid Pirates. These rough-edged survivors of the post-War Bleed seek their fortunes in ships whose hulls are part alloy, part hollowed-out microplanetoid. Arrayed together, aided by sophisticated wavelength spoofers, the fleet can easily be misread for an ordinary asteroid belt. They use this stealth tech both to evade their hunters and ambush their targets.

(If the PCs need to locate the fleet to gain information, the Energy Signatures investigative ability reveals its presence. Tell the player that the character was almost fooled, as a less brilliant counterpart would certainly have been. When the presence of the fleet simply poses a danger, require a Difficulty 4 Sense Trouble check to distinguish it from an asteroid belt before it’s too late.)

Outsiders call them Asteroid Pirates. Members of the fleet refer to themselves as the Free Stones. Only some of its constituent ships engage in piracy. Others strictly work salvage, though the distinctions between these two trades can blur. At least half of the fleet engages in service activity, as the fleet operates with the economy of a small, star-roving settlement. Particular ships serve as shops, restaurants, spas, repair shops, or provide other goods and services. The pirates and salvagers trade their purloined/recovered goods with the rest of the sector, and spend that income on the fleet’s other ships.

Ships that operate as public businesses connect to one another by projecting tube-shaped forcefields between their airlocks. Customers can walk from ship to ship as they would through the streets of a planetside town. However the ships can change their relative configuration at any time, requiring frequent consultation of one’s communicator to find a specific destination. Some proprietors pay the owners of more popular establishments for the right to tube-lock with them, increasing their foot traffic. If you want to get to Van Gar’s Psychic Kinesiology Center, you have to walk through Hostius’ Knife Haus, and his blades are priced to go, go, go.

The fleet usually flies in a single-planar arrangement, as seen above. During an attack, the tube-locks disengage. The fleet reconfigures into a sphere, with the lesser armed service vessels protected in the middle and the higher-powered pirate and salvage vessels forming a protective zone around them. Together the fleet can muster more cannon power than a single warship, and strikes with a completely unpredictable fire pattern. Pilots maneuver and target independently of one another, with an unpredictability that challenges even the most experienced tactician.

As they say in the Bleed, anyone who claims to lead the Free Stones is lying, and any Free Stone who denies influence may well possess it. They claim to operate as an anarchic collective, coming to decisions by spontaneous gestalt. You may decide that this is true, or that an unofficial council of wealthy or accomplished captains exerts de facto leadership as needed.

Free Stones range in profile from disaffected ex-Combine officers to society-shunning oddballs to outright space scum. Between them, the hundreds of crew members of the asteroid fleet might have an answer to any question your player characters care to ask.


Ashen Stars is a gritty space opera game where freelance troubleshooters solve mysteries, fix thorny problems, and explore strange corners of space — all on a contract basis. The game includes streamlined rules for space combat, 14 different types of ship, a rogues’ gallery of NPC threats and hostile species, and a short adventure to get you started. Purchase Ashen Stars in print and PDF at the Pelgrane Shop. Ship plans appear in Accretion Disk.

Ken and Robin Talk About Stuff: I Can Turn Him Into a Skink

Sep 10 2021

In the latest episode of their elegant podcast, Ken and Robin talk unity in game design, the Trylon and Perisphere, Aldebaran vs. Betelgeuse, and the Battle of Blair Mountain.

Images of Unremitting Horrors

Sep 7 2021

 

 

(*** As a warning before you read on – some of these images are quite disturbing. They’re all entirely computer-generated, but still… they’re uncanny. ***)

 

 

I’ve been keeping an eye on neural nets and automated generation of content, in the manner of a fisherman keeping an eye on a storm front full of robot sharks. (I heartily recommend https://www.aiweirdness.com by the way, especially posts like A 10,000 Year Warning or Sea Shanty Surrealism). There’s a new toy to play with in the form of Art Machine.

In my experience, AI art isn’t that great yet at giving you specific scenes. Here’s “The sailing ship Demeter crashing on the shore of Whitby during a fierce thunderstorm in 1894.”

It’s got the elements – the storm, the waves, the sailing ship – but can’t figure out composition. Maybe, if I spent ages fiddling with the prompt, I’d get a more coherent image.

What it’s absolutely marvellous at, though, is creating things that should not be. So, I spent a nightmarish morning feeding in descriptive text from the Book of Unremitting Horror, and seeing what squirmed through the Membrane and out onto my screen.

 

 

 

 

 

Here’s my initial try -the Bleeder.

 

This Blood Corpse looks a bit like someone failed to frame the photograph properly.

 

 

 

 

 

The AI picked up on the “blossom” part and the “walking torso” part, but didn’t put them together

 

 

Clootie – and as the first google hit is the original art, the AI based its image on Dave Allsop’s

The Death Tapper got ‘demon flea’ – two clear concepts for the AI to latch onto

The Dementia Larva’s just an icky blob

For monsters that didn’t have much description like this Dream Tearer, the AI got creative

The Drowner has a sort of Ophelia feel to it, which works

Feral Drowner

And these Feral Drowners are fantastic.

Kooks. Aaaaag.

The Man in a Bar

The AI drew the malformed spawn of the Motherlode instead of the monster itself.

There’s no description of the Mystery Man, but it still came up with a great image based on the traits I gave it.

Sometimes, the AI gets hung up on one word. The Organ Grinder’s description mentions dentures, but it’s not supposed to be ALL teeth.

A rather impressionistic take on Outsiders, but it works.

These Ovvashi remind me of evil puppets.

The Practice

Practice Nurse – I should have edited the prompt for a single monster.

This Residue Demon is just creepy as hell

The Shatterer came out looking quite well.

The Sisterite ended up as pure Giger

I really like the Sleep Hag

And here’s the rather creepy snuff golem

Ken and Robin Talk About Stuff: Armed for the Wedding

Sep 3 2021

In the latest episode of their well-circulated podcast, Ken and Robin talk scenario diagnostics, the Kent State massacre, choosing settings for The Yellow King, and Raimondo di Sangro’s anatomical machines.

Ken and Robin Talk About Stuff: The Price is Scarecrow

Aug 27 2021

In the latest episode of their immaculately pasteurized podcast, Ken and Robin talk playtesting, globe-trotting CIA operative Louise Page Morris, letting fiction go long, and germ theory denialism.

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