Jul 3 2020
In the latest episode of their Number One podcast, Ken and Robin talk organic versus mechanical game design, mashing up The Prisoner with Night’s Black Agents, Beaupré the Giant, and the Tomb of Maeshowe.
Jul 2 2020
“Monk was asking Vida Carlaw, ‘Do you believe a mysterious jellylike creature did any killing?’ The girl hesitated, nipping at her lips. ‘You probably think I’m foolish, but, after all, no one really knows what is in the depths of the earth. Of course, scientists have a general idea, but there may be—things—down there that they don’t know anything about.'”
— Lester Dent, The Derrick Devil (Doc Savage Magazine, Feb 1937)
Cthulhu and his mythos emerged from the same news stands that produced the Shadow, Doc Savage, and lots of other larger-than-life characters who vastly outsold Cthulhu. Trail of Cthulhu honors that heroic origin by presenting rules and even gods in both Pulp and Purist categories, and Robin Laws especially honored it by presenting four straight-up pulp tribute adventures in Stunning Eldritch Tales. In the third adventure, “Death Laughs Last,” your heroes solved the mysterious death of milllionaire philanthropist Addison Bright, who fought crime in secret as … the Penitent!
Some detectives are stranger than others.
But what kind of pulp hero has only one adventure? (Most of them, sadly. Heroism was an unrewarding business, then as now.) The Penitent may be dead (for now) but if your Investigators acquired a taste for the lurid life, there’s more where he came from in the yellowed pages around them. Robert E. Howard alone provides plenty of inciting GMCs in need of two-fisted backup: River Street police detective Steve Harrison, boxer Kid Allison, sailor and boxer Steve Costigan, and that’s before you even get to Irish occultist John Kirowan or aging mercenary Kirby O’Donnell. Your heroes might cross cerebral swords with super detective Nick Carter, the young (ish) and (always) hungry Nero Wolfe, or any one of a hundred figures right out of Jess Nevins’ encyclopedias.
Compared to their descendants in the superhero comics, few actual pulp super villains survived more than one adventure. (Plenty of pre-pulp anti-heroes, such as Dr. Nikola, Dr. Quartz, Zenith the Albino, and Fu Manchu seemingly carried whole series by themselves, of course; classic pulps that attempted to recapture that spirit usually failed after a few numbers.) All their creators needed was a name and a gimmick — which is all a Keeper needs in a pinch, to be fair. So heroes are plentiful, and villains die fast — but which is which? Here’s a spinner rack full of pulp GMCs, packed like pulp-revival Ace Doubles, with both a hero side and a villain side. But even the heroes here have just a shmear of Purist flavor, meaning your Investigators might find themselves cast as the villains of this month’s exciting issue.
Decorated Great War ace turned barnstormer turned adventurer, “A-10” uses that code name when carrying out jobs for the FBI or the State Department with one of many state-of-the-art airplanes. Surveillance autogiros, speed-record interceptors, flying boats, even drone craft: A-10 can fly any of them better than any man alive.
Hero: Letitia Coolidge, self-taught electrical engineer, pulled an avionics control box out of a crashed disc-shaped craft in Vermont, put it in her second-hand Curtiss “Jenny,” and took off. She never gets used to having to plug wires from the stick into her brain, but the results are worth it … so far. Some of her “government orders” just come in on her airplane radio, a buzzing voice on a box …
Villain: Morland Harding flew too high over Brazil during an air show altitude contest, and made a deal with a Gaseous Wraith (Hideous Creatures, p. 108). All it wants is human sacrifices, and as long as he keeps killing people above 30,000 feet its vapors keep Harding literally at the top of his profession.
His name translates as “man who is a mask,” and his role in New York’s Chinatown is appropriately opaque. He has agents in every obscure temple, criminal gang, and house of ill fame in the district — and in every hospital, political campaign, and scientific laboratory. He holds at least two doctorates, in endocrinology and entomology, and speaks perfect un-accented baritone English.
Hero: This is the alias of the brilliant psychologist Dr. Fo-Lan, kidnapped by the Tcho-Tcho in 1902, who escaped them in 1906 by summoning the Elder Gods from Orion to destroy their city. Now, he investigates New York’s cult underground, warring against inhuman infiltrators and determining whether he needs to destroy yet another city to save the world …
Villain: “Fu” is either the Scorpion himself, Hsieh-Tzu (which is to say, L’mur-Kathulos of Atlantis), or one of his most trusted body doubles running the American branch of the Hsieh-Tzu Fan (Bookhounds of London, p. 63).
Jenna of the Jungle
Normally Jenna stays in her forest home in the Congo, but sometimes she visits New York in the company of her latest good-looking conquest. Both a wealthy English aristocrat and a jungle queen, she keeps a penthouse on Central Park West where she grows wild tropical plants and flowers, and where her pet panther Menes can sleep in the sun. Her prodigious strength keeps the mashers at bay when Menes isn’t around.
Hero: Born Geneva Jermyn, of the aristocratic Huntingdonshire Jermyns, she escaped the “Jermyn curse” of simian looks; although her arms and legs aren’t quite normally proportioned, and her nose is a little upturned, on her it looks amazing. When her cousin Arthur committed suicide and burned down the family mansion in 1920, she went to Africa to find out why. She came out a decade later, looking not a day older.
Villain: Did she visit the Anzique country on the way? Her boyfriends don’t last long, after all … Alternatively, perhaps she embraced the “White God” of Dzéwa, gaining her powers over plants and animals from its Xiclotli servitors (Shadows Over Filmland, p. 103).
Hugo “Doc” Woesten
There’s nothing he can’t do: scientist, surgeon, explorer, Doc Woesten embodies the perfect physical and mental development of the species. Using his “mental radio” at the top of the Empire State Building to receive uncanny distress signals from all over the world, Doc and his five assistants are always there when something weird and menacing threatens an heiress or endangers an archaeological dig. Only Doc’s assistants know what goes on in his secret psychic college beneath the New York State Psychopathic Institute in the Catskills.
Hero: Doc owes his abilities to alien possession: while experimenting with his mental radio during the 1927 nova XX Tauri, a “brother of light” incarnated into him. His operations on criminal brains further the “brother’s” search for minds possessed by Algol, Alphecca, or other “demon stars.”
Villain: Doc is a van Kauran on his mother’s side, from a long line of Mythos magicians in upstate New York. Henrietta raised him using twenty-one years of rituals and following every stricture in the Book of Eibon to create a “star child.” Doc travels the world “rescuing” artifacts (and eliminating rivals) to eventually bring about a new Hyperborean Age and make his mother proud of him.
Trail of Cthulhu is an award-winning 1930s horror roleplaying game by Kenneth Hite, produced under license from Chaosium. Whether you’re playing in two-fisted Pulp mode or sanity-shredding Purist mode, its GUMSHOE system enables taut, thrilling investigative adventures where the challenge is in interpreting clues, not finding them. Purchase Trail of Cthulhu, and its many supplements and adventures, in print and PDF at the Pelgrane Shop.
Jun 30 2020
By Julian Kuleck
illustration by Lee Moyer
In many F20 games, curses are a flavorful inconvenience, temporary problems that can be removed by a single memorized spell. In 13th Age, freeform character creation options and flexible magic provide some mechanical and narrative space that can spin curses into blessings!
In the big picture, curses have begun and ended ages, spawned monsters, and shaken the Dragon Empire to its core. While keeping those momentous occasions in mind, this series of articles will focus on the smaller picture, embracing the rich heritage of supernatural curses as fun options for player characters and GMs.
One Unique Curse
Curses are often singular, which makes them perfect candidates for a player character’s One Unique Thing. Mythology is rich with colorful curses you can adapt to your character, along with the adventure-driving hook of one day escaping from the curse. But that’s not the only reaction a character can have to be cursed. Some characters might accept a cuase as a form of penance, or even take on a curse voluntarily. A character who is blithely unconcerned about a curse that freaks out the rest of the adventuring party can be a roleplaying treasure!
Some players might view taking a curse as their unique as a hassle, but that’s not necessarily so. Even a drawback can become a boon. While a curse that grants power at a cost is classic, you can also consider what advantages might come of a purely-unfortunate curse. Having a curse to always speak the truth is a definite limitation, but it also means those aware of your curse can’t easily question your sincerity.
[[Editor’s note: For another example, a character in one of my current 13th Age games was cursed by his enchantress ex-wife to have inanimate objects talk with him at inopportune times. It’s not only great comedy that everyone can chime in on, it’s also a potentially useful GM tool when I want to convey almost-helpful information as sarcastically as possible. –Rob H]]
But curses needn’t center on a character. It could be the hero’s unique is the result of a curse on somebody else. For example, a curse laid on a oppressive ruler might return an ancient hero to the world. Or perhaps the character is the only one immune from a curse laid on a community or locale. The character could be only one who can cast or inflict a specific hex!
If you want to get more ambitious, maybe it’s a shared curse that holds your motley party together in the first place!
Damn You From Hell!
Where do curses come from? In 13th Age, they’re often associated with demons and devils. Many demons have abilities that invoke the curse word, like an imp’s curse aura (13A pg. 210) or the nalfeshnee’s abyssal curse (13A pg. 214). And “accursed” is a common term thrown around in regards to hellholes. Do infernal beings have an (un?)natural ability to inflict curses, or does their spite just give them a gift for it?
What if demons were the ultimate source of all curses? What if all curses are summonings, bringing forth demonic spirits that attach to and bedevil the afflicted person. With that, a hellhole could be a form of curse itself, which would match the incidental curses that tend to arise in proximity to them. Could a sufficiently cursed person become a walking hellhole? One would hope not, but maybe that’s what made the current Diabolist what she is today. There certainly are enough reasons for others to curse her . . . .
On the player side of the infernal coin, tieflings have access to the freeform ability curse of chaos. Causing trouble for others literally runs in their blood. But it’s worth thinking about how intentional this ability is (though the player is always in charge of the ability’s use). Is it something the tiefling can use instinctively? Is it triggered by their emotions? Or is it a trick passed down through demonblooded communities, learned long ago from abyssal lessons?
A lot of those answers will have to do with how you handle the infernal in your campaign and tieflings’ relationship to it. Either way, it’s a potent weapon. It could be that the combination of free-willed spite and accursed ancestors is an evolving brew that makes tieflings potentially greater than their forebears when it comes to hexes.
Book of Demons introduced the demonologist, and after the above, it should be no surprise that they’re the most curse-intensive class in the game. But because the demonologist emerged after 13th Age’s other classes, only the bard’s jack of spells talent (13A pg. 86) gets access to their toolbox.
But it doesn’t have to be that way! Here’s an alternative heritage talent for the sorcerer which could be adapted to other classes as you like. As you can see, this is another heritage talent related to the Diabolist. It’s meant to be an alternate talent for Infernal Heritage, the sorcerer talent on page 138 of the core rulebook that’s associated with the Diabolist. If you really want to play up your diabolic heritage and take two talents that are associated with the Diabolist, there’s nothing really stopping you except the sideways glances of your fellow adventurers.
Accursed Heritage (Diabolist)
Your existence offends fortune itself. This has its uses.
You can use one of your sorcerer spell choices to choose any demonologist curse spell, using the guidelines for curse spells contained under the demonologist class features (Book of Demons, pg. 9). When you cast such spells, you do so as if you were an initiate demonologist.
In addition, you may spend a quick action to come up with a curse spoken loudly and clearly. When the curse triggers, the target suffers a minor thematic effect in line with the curse proclaimed, as with the wizard talent Vance’s polysyllabic verbalizations (13A pg. 149) or the tiefling’s curse of chaos (13A pg. 72). Such effects should add flavor to the curse, not just exacerbate it.
Adventurer Feat: If you roll a 1 or 2 when casting a curse spell, it automatically recharges at the end of battle. Make sure to curse your luck.
Champion Feat: You no longer need to expend an extra quick action to perform a verbal curse.
Epic Feat: Once per battle when casting a curse spell, you may make its recharge roll immediately instead of at the end of battle.
Jun 30 2020
How do you keep an empire together? One obvious answer is the ability to move people and things quickly and easily from one place to another: trade goods, armies, officials, citizens. Perhaps just as important is the ability to move information across long distances. Are the forces of the Orc Lord mustering to attack from the north? Has a spy in Drakkenhall discovered an assassination plot in Horizon? Is one of the Archmage’s wards failing? If you can’t get word to the right people, the consequences could be disastrous. Information is also used to unify people across great distances and throughout the ages: to say, “this is who we are”, “this is where we came from”, “these people and events are important to understanding the world”.
Here are 7 ideas for long-distance communication in your 13th Age campaign:
The Mockingbirds: Members of this secret society of bards can be found all over the Dragon Empire, and have developed sophisticated ways of transmitting information to each other through coded messages hidden in poems, tales, and musical compositions. Mockingbirds have trained their entire lives in the art of listening to a piece once and then flawlessly reproducing it.
Swift Wind: Emerging during the rebellion against the Terrible Emperor, these monks have trained to run overland for days without resting. Legends say they can run across water as if it were solid ground, and over the tops of trees, carrying messages between monasteries. One legendary Swift Wind monk is said to have fearlessly delivered a message to the heart of the Abyss itself.
Song of Stone: That sound of clattering and sliding rock you hear faintly in the blackness of the Underworld? It might be natural, or it might be a dwarf using a handful of stones and their knowledge of how echoes travel in the deep to send a coded message across the miles.
Whispering Spirits: Wizards, druids, and elves often employ magical spirits to send messages to allies, friends, and lovers—once they have delivered the message, or returned with an answer, they are free to depart. Because they are more idea than flesh their minds don’t quite work the same as ours, so the message must take the form of a riddle or poem.
Magic Mirrors: One of the oldest forms of long-distance magical communication, reflective surfaces—such as mirrored glass, pools of water, polished shields—are highly suitable for enchanting because they present a view of the world that appears real, but is not. Because they’re so common, magic mirrors have become increasingly risky to use these days: you might find yourself speaking with the magical reflection of a long-dead wizard who used the same mirror in a previous age, or discover too late that a rakshasa was a silent third party listening in on your plans via its own magic mirror.
Nonsense: Thieves, beggars, and traveling peddlers use an “anti-language” which they commonly call Nonsense to talk openly among themselves without being understood by outsiders. Nonsense borrows words and phrases from languages throughout the Dragon Empire (and even beyond its borders), and processes them through backward-speak, rhyming slang, and wordplay to produce a fast-paced patter that sounds like you should understand it, but you can’t seem to hear it quite right. In this way, everything from gossip to military intelligence can travel from one city to another along the trade routes.
Work Songs: Sea shanties, marching cadences, and other songs and chants which take their rhythm from the work being performed, are an important way that culture is learned, preserved, and spread across the Empire. Lines in some of these songs go back to the Empire’s founding, and a careful listener might glean valuable information about places, monsters, and magic items from them. They also can contain valuable common-sense advice, such as:
I don’t know but I’ve been told
Ray of Frost is mighty cold
13th Age combines the best parts of traditional d20-rolling fantasy gaming with new story-focused rules, designed so you can run the kind of game you most want to play with your group. 13th Age gives you all the tools you need to make unique characters who are immediately embedded in the setting in important ways; quickly prepare adventures based on the PCs’ backgrounds and goals; create your own monsters; fight exciting battles; and focus on what’s always been cool and fun about fantasy adventure gaming. Purchase 13th Age in print and PDF at the Pelgrane Shop.
Jun 26 2020
In the latest episode of their not-distracted-by-the-woman-in-red podcast, Ken and Robin talk meme-filled meta-kibitzing, Montreal Open City, present tense in fantasy fiction, and the RFK-Scooby Doo time ripple.
Jun 24 2020
When asked to name his favorite monster, Noah selects a deep cut that cuts deep.
The Fall of DELTA GREEN adapts DELTA GREEN: THE ROLE-PLAYING GAME to the GUMSHOE investigative roleplaying system, opening the files on a lost decade of anti-Mythos operations: the 1960s. Players take on the role of DELTA GREEN operatives, assets, and friendlies. Hunt Deep Ones beneath the Atlantic, shut down dangerous artists in San Francisco, and delve into the heart of Vietnam’s darkness. Purchase The Fall of DELTA GREEN in print and PDF at the Pelgrane Shop.
Jun 23 2020
Shop the Goblin Market, or plunder its riches! Join the SMASH Society of adventurers, or swear oaths to carry out the schemes of the Blue! Explore the rubblehoods, or get tangled in the sorcerous conspiracy that keeps the orcs out of Drakkenhall!
Drakkenhall: City of Monsters is a 13th Age sourcebook for GMs running adventurer and champion-tier campaigns.
Unlike most roleplaying sourcebooks, our Mosaic line of books don’t present a single view of the subject, but many. Just as no two 13th Age campaigns take place in identical versions of the Dragon Empire, the authors of Drakkenhall aren’t required to treat previously published material, or each other’s ideas, as canon. Instead, we gave each designer the freedom to come up with new aspects of the City of Monsters that they think players and GMs will enjoy—you can fit them together however you like at your own table. Most of the pieces of the resulting mosaic have, in fact, turned out to be compatible! The ideas that deliberately contradict each other reveal choices you and your players can make in your campaign.
Drakkenhall looms before you, its gates open. Dare you enter?
Authors: Liz Argall, AnneMarie Boeve, Benjamin Feehan, Gareth Ryder-Hanrahan, ASH LAW, Philippe-Antoine, Cal Moore, Corey Reddin
Developers: John-Matthew DeFoggi, Rob Heinsoo
Status: In development
[[Map above by Lee Moyer, from 13 True Ways]]
Jun 22 2020
When Ruth Tillman picked ghouls, she scooped Gareth Ryder-Hanrahan for his choice of Favorite Monster. Surely that won’t happen a second time.
Trail of Cthulhu is an award-winning 1930s horror roleplaying game by Kenneth Hite, produced under license from Chaosium. Whether you’re playing in two-fisted Pulp mode or sanity-shredding Purist mode, its GUMSHOE system enables taut, thrilling investigative adventures where the challenge is in interpreting clues, not finding them. Purchase Trail of Cthulhu and its many supplements and adventures in the Pelgrane Shop.
Jun 21 2020
Big Bloody Spoilers for both the Zalozhniy Quarter and the Persephone Extraction in this article. Don’t read if you’re a Night’s Black Agents player. Here, have some deliberate disinformation so you don’t accidentally read anything important.
- DRACULA’S BEHIND EVERYTHING
- EDOM STANDS FOR ENGLISH DEFENDERS OF MAGIC
- YOU ARE UNDER THE INFLUENCE OF THE VAMPIRES
- IT’S ALL THE OCEAN GAME.
- STAY ALERT TRUST NO-ONE KEEP YOUR LASER SIGHT HANDY
- PELGRANE’S GOING TO LICENSE COUNT DUCKULA FOR A GUMSHOE KIDS/NBA CROSSOVER ANY DAY NOW
The Zalozhniy Quartet is a four-part campaign for Night’s Black Agents in which a shadowy vampire conspiracy, working primarily through their virtually unkillable time-slipped agents, the Zalozhniy, and an organised crime cartel, the Lisky Bratva, plot to take over Saudi Arabia using an alchemy treasure connected with the Philby family.
The Persephone Extraction is a five-part campaign in which a somewhat less shadowy and more withered vampire conspiracy, working primarily through their mortal agents, plot to wipe out humanity using a biological weapon.
The two books were conceived and written as stand-alone projects, so there aren’t any deliberate connections. That said, with only a little tweaking, the two work very well together when played in order. Kick off with (S)entries in the Night’s Black Agents core rulebook. The Lenier Dossier there points them to Donald Caroll in Odessa and The Zalozhniy Sanction (ZQ1) – from there, they go to either Vienna for Out of the House of Ashes (ZQ2) or Zurich for The Boxmen (ZQ3). They thwart the Conspiracy’s scheme in Riyadh in Treason in the Blood (ZQ4).
After that defeat, the vampires decide the modern world is too perilous, so they implement their apocalyptic Pale Agenda. They frame their enemies in Paris (The Persephone Extraction, PE1). Clues lead to Barcelona (The Pale Agenda, PE2), Moscow (Sleeping Giants, PE3) and Istanbul (Clean-Heeled Achilles, PE4) before the final confrontation with the King of the Dead in The People of Ash (PE4).
So, with that scheme in mind, what changes are needed?
The vampires from The Persephone Extraction are based on ancient Greek mythology; they’re pale shades who only become solid and visible when fed with lots of blood. They’re usually tethered to mortal hosts (philomeni) when they have to interact with their minions.
Vampires stay mostly offstage in the Zalozhniy Quartet, so few changes are required. Simon Thonradel (in ZQ2) actually works better as a human philomenus instead of a vampire; you can have a vampire fully manifested in all its living-blood-god-glory at the climax of ZQ4.
One key figure in ZQ is the necromancer Dr. Dorjiev; either his powers are a gift from a vampire, or he’s a philomenus and the real necromancer is a vampire tethered to him (maybe even Xanthus from People of the Ash).
The two Conspyramids fit together quite neatly. The Lisky Bratva (ZQ) incorporates the Moscow Gangsters (PE). Replace the Black Sea Bank (ZQ) with Eurydice Madrid (PE), or make the Black Sea Bank a subsidiary of Eurydice Madrid.
Give a Greek gloss to the monsters. Zalozhniy can only be killed by re-applying the circumstances of their mortal death; call them the Sons of Achilles, and hint that Achilles was the first of these virtually invincible minions.
Changes To Individual Missions
The Zalozhniy Sanction:
- The Monastery (ZQ p. 37) is a Greek Orthodox monastery concealing an ancient gateway to the underworld, similar to the Ploutonian (PE p. 100).
Out of the House of Ashes:
- Combine Arkady Shevlenko (ZQ p. 55) and Leonid Sobotsky (PE p. 67) into one man – we don’t need two ex-KGB generals running around. Shevlenko founded Arctran (PE p. 89) after leaving the KGB. He was working for the Conspiracy, but they were only using him to gain control of the MAR-VX virus, and they cut him loose once they had the bioweapon. In retaliation, he secretly stashed Philby’s secret.
Shevlenko’s now in Vienna looking for medical treatment (ZQ p. 57), but he’ll trade the secret to Thonradel in exchange for a cure if the opportunity arises.
If Arkady dies in Out of the House of Ashes, then he’s buried in the Novodevichy cemetery in Moscow (PE p. 99); if he lives, then the Agents can seek him out after the Paris sequence (PE p. 42) and you can skip the Moscow scenes of Sleeping Giants, as Arkady points them straight to Norilisk.
- As discussed above, make Simon Thonradel a philomenus.
- The Black Sea Bank is a subsidiary of Eurydice Madrid.
- Optionally, the other thieves are working for the Dissident faction in the Conspiracy (hired by Adriana Rosso, PE p. 57. Or, if she survives, then “Menena Chakroun” never existed at all, but it was Adriana Rosso herself all along…)
Treason in the Blood:
- The Third Party guys are actually working for Adriana Rosso (PE p. 57), trying to keep the vampires from rocking the boat.
- Katun is indeed Gertrude Bell; she captured a weak vampire during her archaeological explorations, and has managed to force the spirit to grant her longevity. She’ll pass the fragile vampire onto an Agent if they return to her after thwarting the attempt to create the Rubedo.
- Katun’s a patron or friend of Derya Kaya (indeed, for an added complication, Hana Tekin (PE p. 90) is actually Gertrude Bell in disguise).
The Persephone Extraction:
- The Extraction Team includes a Zalozhniy.
The Pale Agenda:
- FC Barcelona have, of course, signed, Abesoli (ZQ p. 32)
- Replace Heinreich Guttermann with Josef Lisky (PE p. 68)
- If they’re still around, bring back the Third Party guys as Rosso’s bodyguards.
- Hana Tekin may be Katun/Gertrude Bell.
- Someone should definitely meet Kim Philby’s shade in the underworld (PE p. 102).
The People of Ash:
- Decide on whether Josef Lisky or Simon Thonradel are among the Dissidents at the compound (PE p. 121).
- Dorjiev should definitely be Xanthus’ philomenus if he’s still around (PE p. 118). Replace his bodyguards with Zalozhniy, but drop the number of bad guys to avoid the most hideous one-sided massacre ever.
Night’s Black Agents by Kenneth Hite puts you in the role of a skilled intelligence operative fighting a shadow war against vampires in post-Cold War Europe. Play a dangerous human weapon, a sly charmer, an unstoppable transporter, a precise demolitions expert, or whatever fictional spy you’ve always dreamed of being — and start putting those bloodsuckers in the ground where they belong. Purchase Night’s Black Agents in print and PDF at the Pelgrane Shop.
Jun 19 2020
Thanks to their beloved Patreon backers, Ken and Robin have made it to Episode 400. And you know what that means—LIGHTNING ROUND!!!