Kickstopper: Pelgrane Dredges Carcosa

Pelgrane Press love their literary inspirations for games. They take their name from their first major line, the The Dying Earth RPG based on the Jack Vance novels, their The Dracula Dossier adapts and radically reinterprets the original Dracula for the purpose of Night’s Dark Agents, and of course the GUMSHOE system allowed Trail of Cthulhu to unveil a new take on gaming in the Lovecraftian mythos which, whilst it isn’t entirely to my taste, does at least represent a distinct and different philosophy on how you do an investigative game from Call of Cthulhu or Delta Green, as John Tynes explains extremely well.

It’s no surprise, then, that they’ve looked to adapting the GUMSHOE approach to the work of other authors of mysterious horror stories, and with The Yellow King they’re tackling the work of Robert Chambers. Will this be a game fit for a king, a dog’s breakfast, or something in between? Let’s find out…


Usual Note On Methodology

Just in case this is the first Kickstopper article you’ve read, there’s a few things I should establish first. As always, different backers on a Kickstarter will often have very different experiences and I make no guarantee that my experience with this Kickstarter is representative of everyone else’s. In particular, I’m only able to review these things based on the tier I actually backed at, and I can’t review rewards I didn’t actually receive.

The format of a Kickstopper goes like this: first, I talk about the crowdfunding campaign period itself, then I note what level I backed at and give the lowdown on how the actual delivery process went. Then, I review what I’ve received as a result of the Kickstarter and see if I like what my money has enabled. Lots of Kickstarters present a list of backers as part of the final product; where this is the case, the “Name, DNA and Fingerprints” section notes whether I’m embarrassed by my association with the product.

Towards the end of the review, I’ll be giving a judgement based on my personal rating system for Kickstarters. Higher means that I wish I’d bid at a higher reward level, a sign that I loved more or less everything I got from the campaign and regret not getting more stuff. Lower means that whilst I did get stuff that I liked out of the campaign, I would have probably been satisfied with one of the lower reward levels. Just Right means I feel that I backed at just the right level to get everything I wanted, whilst Just Wrong means that I regret being entangled in this mess and wish I’d never backed the project in the first place. After that, I give my judgement on whether I’d back another project run by the same parties involved, and give final thoughts on the whole deal.

The Campaign

The Kickstarter funding process for the game ran from June to July 2017, and picked up £167,341 from some 2288 backers. According to Shannon Appelcline’s research, this makes it the 4th top-earning RPG Kickstarter of 2017, which is about what I would expect of a publisher of Pelgrane’s level of critical acclaim doing a game like this based on a concept which on the one hand is a bit niche but on the other hand will be of great interest to those who are interested in it.

What Level I Backed At

Bookhound: Game, sourcebook and novel in standard print editions, plus all electronic products. This pledge does not include shipping, which will be added at the Backerkit stage.

INCLUDES:

  • The Yellow King RPG standard print edition
  • The Yellow King RPG PDF
  • Absinthe in Carcosa sourcebook standard print edition
  • Absinthe in Carcosa sourcebook PDF
  • The Missing and the Lost novel standard print edition
  • The Missing and the Lost novel e-book
  • Preview draft PDF, delivered when you pledge

Delivering the Goods

Delivery was predicted for December 2018 and I got my hard copies in October 2019. That’s not so bad, all considered – although I didn’t read the PDF of the draft, because I prefer to just take in the final product on Kickstarters, having it available near-immediately meant that there was something to tide backers over in the intervening time. Plus, the PDFs did drop in December 2018, on schedule, which was reassuring.

In addition, Pelgrane were happy to keep us in the loop on what was going on with the printing process, and it really does seem like a lot of the issues simply were not their fault. First, the US-based printers that Pelgrane usually go to had given them an astonishingly expensive quote for the printing process, double what Pelgrane had expected in light of past experience, largely because the slipcase setup would need to be outsourced to a different printer and because the price of paper had suffered a major increase.

After some rounds of negotiation, it was clear that the printer wasn’t going to budge on the cost, but a different printer seemed well-placed to be able to complete the job much closer to budget. Though Pelgrane had some trepidation (because they know from bitter experience that there’s a lot of teething troubles involved in working with a printer you haven’t run a job with yet), they decided to give that the green light.

Those teething troubles, predictably, ended up manifesting.

First off, there were issues with the proofs, with page alignment and colouration being severely off-base. Then communication with the printer became sporadic, Pelgrane’s point of contact with them having become unwell during January-February 2019 and taking weeks to reply to messages. Still, things seemed to be ironed out, and the customer liaison in question eventually reported that the materials were all printed and would be shipped to Pelgrane’s fulfillment warehouse on May 20th… which didn’t happen.

Queries sent to the liaison got no response; queries to other points of contact at the printer likewise. Eventually, around the end of May and start of June 2019, Pelgrane managed to start talking to the Managing Director of the print firm directly; she told them she had no idea what they were talking about and she’d never heard of them or The Yellow King.

As it turns out, a sad story underpins this circumstance: the customer liaison who had been in contact with had been struggling with mental health issues which eventually led to them leaving the company, and they either didn’t have time to do a proper transition or had simply failed to keep track of a lot of what they were doing, leaving payments owed and contracts dangling in the breeze. The books had, in fact, been printed and put in storage – but since nobody at the company knew what they were or who they were for, nothing had happened. The separate printer who were making the slipcases were also annoyed, having not been paid by the main printer for the work as a result of the same issues which caused the break in communication with Pelgrane.

With this all straightened out, progress began again and things were back on track. But it is a cautionary tale about keeping a record of your work in some fashion and a diary of jobs and deadlines in any small business, so that if one crucial person at your company gets crushed by an asteroid tomorrow you’re not going to have a bunch of slipped responsibilities complicate an already difficult situation for you.

Reviewing the Swag

Book 1: Paris

The first book in the core set has the dual task of providing the core system and detailing the first setting of the game – the Belle Epoque Paris of 1895, with the baseline assumption for the setting being that the PCs are American art students residing in the city who get involved in occult mysteries. This is a setting which reflects the portions of Chambers’ own personal history which he drew on in writing The King In Yellow, as well as reflecting several of the stories in that collection. Cunningly, in fact, it means that even the least interesting of the non-supernatural stories in said collection are still useful resources for the game, depicting as they do the lives of Americans immersing themselves in the Parisian art world.

In addition to this, it provides perhaps the most familiar of the three settings in the book; though the historical place and time may involve a bit of a learning curve on the part of participants less familiar with the history of the era, it is at least a history they can learn about with a bit of web browsing and research as opposed to a counterfactual history. Players who have read the original Chambers stories will find the setting immediately approachable; players who have not but have read a cross-section of horror fiction of the era will likewise. The book offers enough of a deep dive into Paris of this era that it would also make a damned handy resource for anyone setting a game or writing a story set in Paris during the time period.

With respect to the system, on the one level it’s GUMSHOE, and so a lot of the points I’ve made about the system before (such as in my Trail of Cthulhu review) still stand – if nothing else, much of the discussion of presentation of clues here makes it clear that what GUMSHOE is actually doing is offering a rigid codification of best practice in investigative scenario design – or rather, a certain school of thought in investigative scenario design where the actual procedural process of investigation is less important than what the investigation prompts you to do. As a result, this rigidity denies scenario designers the option to deviate from that practice in a situation where doing so would actually be an improvement according to the tastes of the participants at the table.

That said, this isn’t mainline, vanilla GUMSHOE – it’s QuickShock GUMSHOE, a new variant oriented towards greatly simplifying the process of combat. This I actually applaud; Laws here devises a clever way of getting combat results in a single round of dice-rolling without it boiling down to a total party kill if the rolls go against the players. It assumes that all available player characters are participating in combat – either in terms of actually fighting or performing some other form of supporting action – with penalties to the PC party if some of them deliberately pass on helping, and harm suffered as a result of combat depends partly on how you rolled and partly on how tough the foe is. (Fighting particularly strong foes or groups of foes will likely take it out of you a bit regardless of how good a fighter you are.)

Rather than the referee making attack rolls for your opponents, the participating players each make a single roll against a difficulty number for the combat (based largely on the strength of the opponent, but variable based on circumstance at the referee’s discretion so the same opponent fought later on might have a different difficulty number associated). If they rack up enough margin of success, they accomplish whatever it is they intended to accomplish out of the combat (the level of success necessary depending on what they wanted to accomplish – killing your opponents outright is more difficult than other goals, simply escaping danger is a bit easier than accomplishing anything else), if they didn’t then they didn’t, boom, encounter done.

Wounds taken in combat, and psychological ailments gained through shock, are represented by Injury or Shock cards. If you get too many cards, your character either dies (their accumulated injuries throwing them off their game enough that the next physical harm that comes their way proves fatal) or their mind snaps under the pressure; taking an idea from Chronicles of Darkness-style Conditions, the cards describe circumstances under which you can discard them. Foes, environmental hazards, and supernatural awfulness are presented with specific minor and major forms of harm they can do, so the injury or shock you get from them is appropriate to the nature of the hazard in question.

This sort of thing will likely please players who find combat to be an annoying time sink in an RPG session, or who really don’t care about the tactical nitty-gritty of combat, but might annoy players who’d prefer a more traditional treatment of combat (or, for that matter, want the possibility of detailed, intricate PC-vs.-PC violence as part of their game, as the corrupting influence of Carcosa sets the PCs violently against each other). Laws is honest enough to admit this in a fairly detailed question-and-answer section about the combat system, and to say that if QuickShock GUMSHOE isn’t to your table’s tastes you may be better off reverting to vanilla GUMSHOE instead.

For my part, I quite like it. Yes, it does pose problems if you want PVP action to be an aspect of a game, improvising a PVP combat system shouldn’t be too difficult working from the basis of QuickShock (make it a contested roll, whoever rolled highest wins, the extent of their win and the extent of the harm done to the other PC is based on the difference between the rolls, boom done). However, PVP action is rare enough in my experience anyway, and some groups would rather it were ruled out entirely anyway; moreover, the system seems to me to be the most significant effort to abstract out combat tactics entirely since Tunnels & Trolls. With so many games breaking into a sweat trying to offer interesting tactical options in combat, it’s refreshing to see an RPG which questions whether it’s even appropriate to the sort of game they want to present to have combat tactics be a significant thing.

That said, Laws is completely correct to note that the system will be highly dissatisfying for players who want detailed, action-packed combat. If you wanted to run a game in a setting where, say, the player characters were active participants in a war, or hunting monsters in a warped version of our modern day world in the wake of a violent revolution and civil war against a dictatorship in which the PCs were a resistance cell fighting the good fight against tyranny, I think it would be wholly and entirely inappropriate, because someone who wants to play a warrior or monster hunter wants to have a decent amount of spotlight time on them doing warrior and monster hunting stuff, and probably enjoys RPG combat for what it is. Keep this in mind, because it’s going to be relevant later on.

Aside from describing Belle Epoque Paris, the other job the book has is introducing the referee to the whole King In Yellow business. Not only does it give an overview of the structure of a Yellow King campaign and an explanation of the sort of arc you could trace between the four settings of the game, but it also gives a breakdown of the Chambers mythos, such as it is – for Chambers never really developed it that much beyond those sparse references in the stories in The King In Yellow itself.

The book is marred by some surprising lapses in proofreading (a bit of text repeated across pages as a result of a layout tweak here, Laws referring to “the title story” in The King In Yellow when he means The Yellow Sign, etc.), but otherwise it’s a promising first building block to the game. I particularly like Laws’ writing style here, where he shows a good knack for flagging areas of the rules you particularly need to understand or explaining why a bit of the rules works the way it does or offering suggestions on tweaks you can do if a particular suggestion doesn’t work for the tastes of your players. Let’s see what’s up next…

Book 2: The Wars

In The Repairer of Reputations, Chambers gives us the story of Hildred Castaigne, a man who believes that he has a cosmic claim to being Emperor of America and that the King In Yellow is plotting a coup to put him in power. In the original story, this coup is foiled – and the conspiracy supporting it may have never existed. In The Wars, the coup was decidedly real, and succeeded, with the result that the world was plunged into chaos.

The setting of The Wars is an alternate 1947, a world war which isn’t supposed to parallel any one specific war but instead takes in aspects of every major armed conflict we’ve seen in the real world since World War I. Primarily unfolding in Europe between two disparate alliances of nations, the specifics of the war are left for the referee to decide, so as to provide space for the events of a Paris campaign to feed into a Wars arc. (There’s even guidance in character generation for how to connect your Wars characters to your Paris characters.)

There are, however, some things which are consistent: the player characters are assumed to be part of the French military (if they’re an international cast, clearly some of them hail from the Foreign Legion), the Continental War is raging in Europe as of 1947, the Castaigne regime of America, with the hideous supernatural backing of Carcosa, has come in to back the enemy alliance, and the PCs’ own side also has hidden supernatural backing of its own.

In a nice touch, Laws legitimately makes the point that having Nazis show up in the game, even in their alt-universe form, undermines the horror by prompting the players to legitimately ask whether this Carcosa-affected timeline is actually better than real-world history because in the absence of the conventional World War I and the overly punitive Treaty of Versailles the prerequisites for the Nazi rise to power isn’t there, with the result that in this timeline the Holocaust didn’t happen. A sidebar is provided offering suggestions on how to include alt-universe versions of Nazi leaders (or Stalin or Beria or whoever, since the Soviet Union isn’t a feature of this timeline either) if your group really, really wants to throw that theme in, but the book in general assumes you won’t go there.

Appropriate tweaks are made to update the system accordingly, including a new set of Stress and Injury cards to suit the setting and a tweak to the combat table (escaping combat is a bit more difficult and it’s a bit easier to opt to just straight-out kill the other side, reflecting the PCs’ status as hardened military operatives). That said, of all the concepts, I think this is the one where you’d need to do the most work to sell the players on the QuickShock GUMSHOE concept. I suspect most players who are particularly excited by the idea of a wartime campaign in which the PCs are all soldiers will, most likely, be keen to have some detailed tactical combat in the mix; similarly, my hunch is that players who are very keen on the way QuickShock gets combat out of the way quickly are also going to be quite averse to a wartime campaign, assuming not unreasonably that such a game would involve a fair amount of combat.

Laws does his best to provide extensive support for running investigative games during wartime, mind, and some of his proposed campaign frameworks look pretty good for that purpose. He doesn’t, however, provide much basis for running a low combat game during wartime – indeed, the section on adversaries this time around includes a mixture of primary adversaries, who are intended to be the major enemies in a particular investigation, and secondary ones, who are intended to provide moments of danger along the way. It would be an oversimplification to call the primaries “things you aren’t meant to fight in a straight-up combat” and “things which totally are there to base combats around”, but not much of an oversimplification.

Still, I feel like throwing trash mobs at the players to pad out the investigation and remind them they’re in the middle of a war doesn’t work so well in QuickShock; sure, the combat’s over in a single turn and all, but precisely because of that such combats are even more transparently a padding effort, and I suspect that they’re not going to scratch the itch of someone who wants their Wars to include a little, you know, warfare. To that extent, I feel like The Wars is the weakest of the settings, and perhaps it would have worked better had the player characters been investigators on the “home front” somewhere away from the front line, with the front line action kept offstage, enigmatic, and esoteric for the most part except for the apocalyptic climax of a Wars arc.

Book 3: Aftermath

An immediate sequel to The WarsAftermath takes us to the USA after a tentative restoration of democracy, with the Castaigne regime having fallen. In principle, it’s the current year, though the economic malaise of the Castaigne dynasty has caused technological development to be somewhat more sluggish than in our world. The player characters are a cell of operatives – ideally including a technician whose day job theoretically involves repairing the Government Lethal Chambers which were a feature of the alternate history of The Repairer of Reputations – who were part of the resistance struggle against the old regime, and must now balance weeding out the dark mysteries left behind by the regime’s fall with lobbying for a new and better world to rise from the ashes.

Aftermath‘s particular complication is that process of political lobbying; with the provisional government as slackly organised as it is, the PCs are in a position to get things done, and after their first Aftermath session are encouraged to choose a political goal to work towards. (Laws seems particularly keen for players to engage with the question of the Government Lethal Chambers – presumably because of the overlap with his Technician stories – but is good enough to offer a range of different suggestions.) The nature of your goal will make you natural allies of some of the factions of the post-Castaigne world and tend to make you opponents of other groupings, which sets up nice complications.

To measure your progress towards your goal there is a system of Chit and Hit cards, which the group collectively earns as they make useful steps in advancing their agenda and as they face political setbacks respectively. Chits can give little situational bonuses, whilst Hits work a bit like Injury or Stress cards since they often provide you with guidance on how to resolve and discard them. Chits and hits also have a positive and negative points value respectively; once you earn enough points, you’ve developed enough momentum for your idea to push it through.

This is not an especially nuanced or deep political system, mind – but it feels like an appropriate system for abstractly modelling the process of getting shit done in a post-revolutionary situation, in which everything’s up for grabs and nobody’s entirely sure which way things are going to jump or how the various little factions are going to shake out into something resembling established political parties and everything’s a bit more informal and ad hoc than it will eventually become.

I’m not necessarily sure that this sort of political worldbuilding is necessarily correct for an investigative cosmic horror RPG, mind, particularly since we’re dealing with a situation where humanity has won a major victory against the colonial incursions of Carcosa, and I think it’d be hard to make the setting feel like a full-blooded horror setting when it takes place in the wake of what is manifestly a triumph – a triumph which could potentially be reversed, mind, but a triumph nonetheless.

I tend to feel that a setting based during the Castaigne regime itself, under conditions of mass surveillance, police state snitching and decadent totalitarianism, would scratch the horror itch much better – and I feel in turn that Laws has allowed the opportunity to turn the setting of his Technician stories into an RPG supplement to override his better judgement when it comes to selecting settings for The Yellow King. It sort of feels like Laws is putting his Chambers fanfic on an equal footing with Chambers’ Paris setting itself, at least in terms of being essential setting concepts to include in this sort of game, and… no, Robin, sorry, just no.

(In addition, what’s with there being a second setting in here with a concept that lends itself to combat being a major feature of the game – the whole “you were a resistance cell in a civil war” thing – when the QuickShock GUMSHOE system specifically plays down combat? Shouldn’t the settings themselves, if anything, play down combat likewise? It’s not as much of an issue in The Wars where the concept strongly suggests you should expect to be frontline fighters or special forces doing special forces shit, but still.)

Book 4: This Is Normal Now

In a timeline disconnected from that of The Wars or Aftermath – but just as connected to Paris as they are – This Is Normal Now presents what is essentially the modern world as we know it, except skewed at an odd angle. Carcosan entities lurk at the corners of society; an alarming percentage of deaths take place due to so-called “Safety Related Incidents”, or SRIs – a polite euphemism for monster attacks which people don’t question too much – but it’s not so far in excess of, say, deaths by cancer or road accidents that it causes a massive outcry. Blah blah, influence of the King In Yellow (both the entity and the play), blah blah investigation, it’s largely the same schtick as the other settings except this time you’re everyday peeps who’d be equally out of place in a Belle Epoque salon, a frontline trench or a rebel safehouse, but would fit in just fine sat around a table at the local coffee shop working out how to avoid the main road out of town because the police have issued an SRI warning for it…

Since this book requires the least in the way of setting material compared to the others – Laws even suggests setting the game in your own home town – it’s also the text where Laws offers deeper refereeing hints and a more extensive explanation as to why The Yellow King specifically and QuickShock GUMSHOE in general are designed the way they are. This includes an oddly defensive bit where Laws seems to want to respond to some criticism of GUMSHOE in general by a) trying to frame the criticisms as coming from people who haven’t read the system (uh, sorry Robin) and b) trying to dance around the idea that some of these criticisms come from Call of Cthulhu fans who genuinely find Call of Cthulhu‘s approach more enjoyable without quite mustering the chutzpah to mention Call of Cthulhu.

In particular, he seems to try to argue against the idea that people manage to avoid the whole “you got stuck because you missed a clue” thing in older RPGs (he means Call of Cthulhu but doesn’t want to say it, presumably because someone misdescribed trademark law to him sometime and he’s under the impression that he can’t say it) simply by ensuring that the PCs inevitably get the clue in question, either because as referee they don’t require that the PCs make a roll to get the essential clues or because they come up with alternative ways for the PCs to get the essential clues.

Laws runs down the first option – just giving the players the clues – as breaking the rules as written in order to get the desired result. This is a disingenuous argument. I can recall nothing in the Call of Cthulhu rules, or in the rules of any other investigative-themed RPG, or indeed in the rules for any other RPG, which says “the information necessary to get to the next scene must be gatekept behind a die roll”.

Whether or not a roll would be necessary to find that information is a matter of scenario design, not game mechanics, and whilst some games offer sloppy scenario design tips, I can find nothing in any of my copies of any edition of Call of Cthulhu that say crucial clues must be obscured by a die roll. The 7th edition scenario design tips, in fact, borrow from GUMSHOE the concept of an “Obvious Clue” – saying that if there is a clue which the referee wants the player characters to obtain (which, if you are being sensible, will include the clues necessary to progress the investigation, though perhaps not the clues necessary to progress it to a successful conclusion), the referee should just let the PCs obtain it – and if it’s the sort of information which it makes sense for one person to obtain before anyone else, base it off whoever has the highest skill total in a particular category.

By incorporating this idea, 7th Edition Call of Cthulhu takes on the major scenario design idea from GUMSHOE without going through all the faff of distinct stat pools which have separate systems for how each of them work and whatnot – though of course, if Laws were to acknowledge this, it would then be difficult for him to argue against the next logical conclusion that follows on from that – namely, that if Call of Cthulhu has been able to patch in the major advantage GUMSHOE sells itself on, what the fuck is the point of GUMSHOE?

I can actually suggest some ideas here – I often cite GUMSHOE as an example of a system which has clever techniques for sharing out spotlight time, for instance. Don’t get me wrong: I am not arguing here that GUMSHOE is an entirely worthless system, and that once you find a smoother way to integrate its key idea about the provision of information in investigative scenarios it has nothing else to offer. What I am saying, though, is that GUMSHOE is almost exclusively promoted by Pelgrane on the back of its take on investigative scenarios, which I maintain isn’t as interesting as some of the other aspects of the system.

The second option which Laws objects to – the referee brainstorming alternate means for the PCs to eventually get that information – he decries as a needless workaround, a mere waste of time and mental effort on the part of the referee. That’s a huge assumption there – namely, that how the player characters obtain a particular information is of no importance. This, to me, seems to be transparently incorrect. Information obtained by flattering and bribing and generally making a witness feel loved carries with it different consequences from information obtained by bullying, berating, torturing, or otherwise abusing a witness. Buying the crucial book in auction carries with it different complications from stealing it in a heist. The heist has potentially serious legal issues arising; the auction route opens up the risk of hostile parties discovering your identity and coming after you for the book.

The real difference here between the GUMSHOE method and these “workarounds” is that GUMSHOE has you automatically succeed once someone proposes a plausible route to get the information in question, which is fine if you want a game to be fast-paced and the player characters to never experience significant roadblocks and setbacks which force them to take a different approach and a second pass at obtaining the information in question, but it’s less good if you appreciate a bit of unpredictability in the course of your games – the random factor where something which you expected to be simple becomes difficult and the story goes in an enjoyably unexpected new direction as a result.

(As an aside, Laws argues that GUMSHOE as a system is disinterested in how the characters get the crucial information and is more interested in what they do with it… but arguably, GUMSHOE also decides what they do with that crucial information. The key clues which you are given automatically in GUMSHOE are the clues necessary to get you to the next scene, which implicitly answers the question of what they do with that information; the answer, always, is “they go to the next scene”.)

What particularly bugs me, however, is that Laws decries such “workarounds” here when, in fact, the QuickShock GUMSHOE system requires the referee to think up workarounds in advance when it comes to combat. As Laws explains here, because combat is resolved in such an all-or-nothing way in a single turn of rolling, if you don’t want the party to all get killed as a result of an unlucky set of rolls in combat you need to come up with reasons – workarounds, in other words – as to why any particular set of assailants don’t take the step of just plain offing the PCs in question. (Indeed, by a strict reading of the system PCs cannot be killed unless they have accumulated enough Injury cards, and they can’t be taken captive without their player’s consent either.)

This, I submit, is all well and good to a certain extent – but if it happens repeatedly, as may well be the case if the players make poor strategic choices or simply have really shitty luck with the dice, I feel like it’d start to pall. At the very least, once players realise combat works like this in QuickShock then violence will tend to lose a lot of its menace unless they’ve accumulated a bunch of Injury cards – and since you can normally judge from your pools and number of Injury cards whether you’ll definitely survive a fight, that feels like it’d take away a lot of the threat of violence and even make it more likely PC groups will make foolhardy decisions to fight, gambling that the system (and referee) won’t be so harsh as to dump 2-3 Injury cards on them at once (and they’d be largely correct in that).

In addition, it feels to me that if opponents can beat the PC party in a fight, but cannot capture, kill, or otherwise incapacitate them, then that’s a situation which can only really wash comparatively early in a scenario. The longer a game continues, the more the PCs establish themselves as a threat, the more people the PCs piss off, and the more the PCs generally create a credible reputation for being Serious Business, the more ludicrous it seems if opponents are unwilling, even under risky circumstances, to just do away with them or incarcerate them. It begins to weigh on suspension of disbelief, just a pinch. Eventually players may find it frustrating: if your foes are unwilling to kill you, after all, that suggests that they simply don’t take you all that seriously. Being worth killing is a sort of back-handed, bloody-knifed compliment.

Not allowing capture of PCs without player permission strikes me as particularly odd. Why do players get a veto over capture, a situation which temporarily inconveniences their PC, but not death, a situation which permanently takes their PC out of the game? Sure, being captured and unable to act can suck, but a) if everyone gets captured then at least everyone’s in the same boat so it’s not an unfair situation between players and they can all work together to escape and b) who says capture necessarily means utter incapacity?

Sure, when you’re dead you at least get to design a new PC whilst everyone else is playing, but odds are in a game like The Yellow King it’ll be very difficult if not impossible to get you back in the action the same game session, whereas splitting the spotlight between the captured PC and the others trying to rescue them can keep everyone involved in the session. At the very least, capture is a chance to do some intel gathering from the inside. (“They said something about a festival in the fields outside town tomorrow night…”)

Why, then, should capture be treated like this, when death, which the vast majority of people would rank as being clearly worse than capture from an objective point of view and I suspect most people would rank as being higher on their list of fears than capture, doesn’t have the same rules-mandated veto, and nor does any other bad thing which might happen to a player character? It just doesn’t strike me as being the sort of thing which needs to be treated differently from any other potentially-triggering subjects – in other words, as part of that “let’s establish what everyone’s red lines are” conversation that you should be having before kicking off a tabletop RPG campaign anyway (especially a horror-themed one), and as part of the general process of respecting people’s red lines should they discover them newly mid-play (“Sorry, I didn’t mention this earlier but I realise I’d have a real problem if the game went in this direction”). Why do the rules start from the assumption that capture is a red line which needs special permission to be broken, whereas death or permanent madness is a fine and dandy outcome?

I suspect that this is an instance of overcompensation as a result of personal experience – Laws has run into an unusual number of players who have an unusually visceral reaction to their characters getting captured, therefore he decides that players need to have a veto over this particular Bad Thing happening to their character, rather than considering whether this is merely a peculiarity of the player circles he operates in.

That said, to a certain extent QuickShock‘s system here does answer my “why is a TPK through combat an acceptable outcome of an investigation when getting stuck and moving on to other matters isn’t?” question about the GUMSHOE system; TPKs are indeed rarer in this system. On the other hand, it’s still entirely possible – if people go into combat and everyone’s got two Injury cards, and everyone fails their Fighting roll (or is unable to pay the enemy’s Toll), everyone gets an extra Injury and everyone dies. The system therefore still admits the possibility, even if it is unlikely.

What is substantially more likely is that multiple PCs might die in the same fight. In my experience, especially in games where players are trying to play psychologically plausible characters, this can be just as derailing to a campaign as a TPK, if not more so. In a TPK situation, everyone can roll up new characters and at least they have a strong investigation to look into as their first case – namely, solving the mystery behind the massacre of the previous PCs.

When multiple PCs have died at once, however, I’ve tended to see PC parties become entirely demoralised. Yes, The Yellow King requires that each PC possess a Drive that convinces them to investigate stuff in the first place, but if two or three close friends are now dead because you insisted on investigating that might, perhaps, prompt a character to question their Drive. Whilst new PCs can be added to the party, the new party’s chemistry is inevitably never quite as interesting as the old party chemistry, because the original PCs were all designed together as a unit whilst introducing a new PC midway through a campaign inevitably involves patching someone into the chemistry that’s already been established, and the character links between the more long-lasting PCs inevitably feel more real than any links with the new PCs.

In fact, in any RPG I find that PC death can prompt a party to back off from engaging with the core part of the scenario in order to take stock, in a manner which seems entirely plausible based on the internal logic of the setting and isn’t even narratively inappropriate. (In some respects, it would be far more narratively inappropriate for the characters to just bodge along like nothing happened.) It’s also often fairer to the player who must go to one side and stat up a new PC for the surviving PCs to put the brakes on, so that things don’t progress very far before the remaining player gets to rejoin the action.

In short, in my opinion PC death can be just as disruptive to the flow of a session as the PC party getting bogged down for lack of a particular clue – if not more so, because outside of fantasy RPGs where Raise Dead is dispensed by handy clerics in every major city, PC death tends not to have the same workarounds that “missing a clue” does. Why is PC death acceptable in GUMSHOE when missing a clue isn’t? Why should PC death be at all possible outside of the narrative climax of an investigation? Surely having a PC die because they slipped and fell when trying to jump between rooftops – an entirely possible situation if they do so with two Injury cards already to their name – is just as bathetic as the PCs getting stuck because they missed a Spot Hidden roll?

Speaking of physical peril, I note that all four settings in this collection involve a small bestiary of Carcosan monsters. Is this sort of propagation of monsters really what Chambers was all about?  I am left feeling like, despite all Laws’ promises of stepping back from the Lovecraft-and-Derleth-influenced takes on the material that have perpetuated themselves over the years, this whole “secret world of monsters existing just under the surface of everyday life” doesn’t really capture the spirit of any of Chambers’ original King In Yellow stories (only two of which have anything which you could remotely call a monster), and indeed seems to be more of a Lovecraftism (what with his ghouls lurking in the subway tunnels and all).

It might be appropriate for some of Chambers’ later fiction, such as The Harbor Master – but that fiction wasn’t about The King In Yellow, and indeed Laws shares the general assessment of anyone with remotely good taste by pointing out that Chambers’ post-King In Yellow work is kind of shitty and not really worth delving into. Why go to all the work of cooking up this quasi-Lovecraftian bestiary when the thrust of the King In Yellow stories is not about monsters, but about dark things done by and to people who have been exposed to the terrible play?

I guess on some level it provides you with a bunch of things you can have fights with without feeling the same moral compunctions you would about fighting fellow human beings – but I feel like this is exactly the wrong sort of RPG to take that tack with, and the entire design of QuickShock GUMSHOE seems to be based on the implicit axiomatic assumption that combat isn’t what the game is particularly interested in and should be dealt with in a quick and efficient manner so that the group can return to the actual focus of play.

It’s like some primal part of Laws is still, despite all of his accomplishments as a cutting-edge game designer, still unconsciously working on Dungeons & Dragons assumptions, included among them the assumption that there should be regular fights against monsters for the enjoyment of combat-happy members of the group, or Call of Cthulhu/Trail of Cthulhu assumptions, included among them the assumption that there should be some terrible monsters involved in the story.

Or perhaps he is working to the assumption that roleplaying gamers are dullards who, themselves, are unable to step away from D&D or Call/Trail assumptions more than a few steps, and then only with his patient cajoling in the rules texts, and he has to throw in some nice, familiar monster-fighting to make the game sell. This strikes me as a failure of ambition. This world of Safety Related Incidents is an interesting concept, but I see nothing of Chambers in it whilst I see plenty of Derleth, flashes of Lovecraft, a dose of Laws even.

This isn’t the only way I feel that the game ends up deviating from a Chambers-esque vision. The obsession with alternate timelines and the like, for instance, and the exploration of their deviations – yes, I can see why it’s here because of their inclusion in The Repairer of Reputations, but Castaigne’s weird visions of a 1920 that never was are not something other characters really explore or interact with, and nor does Chambers go into fine detail about them in other stories; all this wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey stuff is far more reminiscent of Doctor Who than decadent Yellow Nineties proto-cosmic horror.

Were I to do an RPG from scratch with the intent on properly staying true to Chambers’ distinctive style, I would probably eschew the investigative RPG format altogether. Instead I’d make it a solo epistolary games – one of those hybrid RPG-writing exercises that you have out there these days, where the game product is essentially providing a framework and prompts for your process of writing IC letters or a diary and combining aspects of roleplaying and storytelling (which are, of course, distinct skills, the former being the portrayal of a character and the latter being the presentation of a narrative). Have the game be based around the protagonist having read the play; prompt the player to come up with their interpretation of some dark idea or notion from the play that now obsesses them; let them explore where that obsession takes them. This, I feel, would be much closer to a Chambers story than anything offered here.

Absinthe In Carcosa

This supplement for the Paris setting takes the form of a weird guidebook to the city – cobbled together from tourist guidebooks (some of which published shortly after the assumed 1895 date of Paris campaigns) and extensively annotated by the mysterious compiler. As well as providing the player characters with a handy guide to the city, it also constitutes its own mystery, what with the unnamed author having evidently compiled the book at some point in the future to send back in time for the PCs’ use.

That’s cute, but it doesn’t feel right for a Chambers-themed RPG. It’s all a bit too Doctor Who, with too much of a pat explanation for the document, rather than having a Chambers-esque air of the inexplicable; it overplays its hand so much that it becomes almost impossible not to immediately work out what its deal is, whereas it’d be more interesting to have a guidebook whose mysteries were more ambiguous so that individual referees could come to their own conclusions about its origins.

The Missing and the Lost

Oh dear. RPG designers, when they write novels, often reveal why they’re more known as game designers than novelists. There’s exceptions like Mike Stackpole, but generally once they get successful as novelists they stop being game designers – or at least, stop doing game design stuff on more than a hobbyist basis rather than making a profesison of it – because the pay in the RPG industry is absurdly bad compared to the pay rate writing in more or less any other field whatsoever. In general, If you can make it writing any other type of content, there is no reason other than sheer love for the hobby or utter self-hatred to write for RPGs on a professional basis.

This novel, set in the Aftermath setting and featuring Laws’ Technician character, isn’t outright incompetent, mind – but it’s got workmanlike, serviceable, and basically kind of bland prose and technique, and as such reads more like Chambers fanfic than something hoping to be a peer of Chambers’ work. Given the high literary standard of the original King In Yellow stories, it seems even more absurd to spend time on Chambers pastiche than it is to expend time reading Lovecraft pastiches.

I frankly didn’t get all that deep into the novel, beyond the point where it was clear that it was literally Laws writing up the action of an Aftermath game (or if it wasn’t, it was doing a damn good impression of it), but in the span of pages I read I noticed just how unsuited Laws’ style was for writing horror. In particular, he goes in deep on the worldbuilding to an extent more suited to hard science fiction than horror, opening the book with extended tangents on how the Government Lethal Chambers the Technician repairs are supposed to work.

This is a mistake because he ends up giving an in-depth technical explanation which exposes his lack of understanding of basic technological principles more than it enlightens the setting. There’s a setting feature in Aftermath that people assume that the Lethal Chambers use poison gas to kill people off, when in fact they use blades to hack them up because if there were a leak of poison gas it’d be a major public health hazard.

This only goes to show that Laws is no chemist. There are ample examples of gases which could be stored beneath a Lethal Chamber, pumped in to kill an occupant, but at the same time cause no great danger if they leaked to the surrounding area. The very nature of gases is that any chemical efficacy they have is greatly depleted when you go from a small, confined space to the outside environment, because when they diffuse into the surrounding area their concentration plummets.

It is true that the Lethal Chambers might pose a public health hazard if their gases leaked into the outside area if those gases were of the nerve gas type where exposure to even very small concentrations were fatal, but that isn’t how competent chemists would design such a Chamber. If using such gases were even contemplated, you wouldn’t store them in a big reservoir in their active form – you’d store their precursors, and mix the precursors in the kill chamber itself to produce the gas. Or, alternatively, you’d use any number of gases which can be easily produced in sufficient concentrations to kill in an enclosed space, but are little danger to people on the outside should the Chamber leak.

The most effective way I can think of is to have some sort of charcoal burner deliberately rigged to produce carbon monoxide. Not only is carbon monoxide a perilously painless and easy way to go, but also it really isn’t that dangerous if you get a whiff of it out in the open air; to work, it needs to be present in sufficient concentrations to substitute itself for all the oxygen in your bloodstream. A leak to the outside would, in such a system, result in fairly negligible amounts of carbon monoxide getting out – especially since you’d only be producing it when the Chamber was active – and you’d be unlikely to have any sort of problem unless you went right up to the leak and breathed deeply.

Alternately, you could use a liquid nitrogen based system – releasing large amounts of liquid nitrogen into the Chamber so as to rapidly displace oxygen from it and cause asphyxiation. Again, a leak to the outside world would be no real biggie; a small leak would be near-unnoticeable, a sudden gusher would at worst endanger anyone who was hanging out in the immediate vicinity of the liquid nitrogen tanks, but hardly cause the widespread danger that the Technician talks about in this book.

Perhaps I am being too nitpicky about this, but the problem is that by going into this level of technical detail about the Lethal Chambers, Laws specifically invites me to analyse them on a level where his explanations make no sense. Maybe we are supposed to assume that dire Carcosan influences prompted the use of blades because it is a more pleasing method of sacrifice for the dark powers of the King’s court, but the explanation still requires the Technician and the world in general to have a staggering lack of knowledge of basic chemical principles.

In addition, the book continues what I found to be a rather shallow treatment of the Lethal Chambers in Aftermath. It seems to me that the debate around whether to keep or dispose of them in that setting really misses the central point, which is that the big problem with the Government Lethal Chambers isn’t the abstract idea of whether or not people should be given control over the moment of their deaths, but that the Lethal Chambers very obviously make it too easy.

As numerous people with various types of mental illness can attest, it is possible to suffer instances of severe suicidal ideation when actually, in the abstract, you would greatly prefer to live; having the Lethal Chambers out there so you can kill yourself as quickly and simply as strolling inside and mash the “KILL ME NOW PLZ” button is a positive danger to people in this position, and also lacks any sort of safeguards against people being pressured into using the Chambers when they don’t actually want to (say, by a family who want an inheritance off them and have persuaded them to see themselves as a burden).

This level of nuance is absence from the political debate both in Aftermath and the section of this novel I read, and whilst I guess you can see a parallel with the general lack of nuance in the gun control debate in the United States, it still feels like a failure to engage with the premises of the Lethal Chambers as presented. Of course, if the Lethal Chambers are just there as disorientating background elements of a weird story, they don’t need to be engaged with on that level – but both Aftermath and the general approach to discussing them here specifically call for digging in deep on the subject, when in fact the subject doesn’t really bear looking at with that level of scrutiny to begin with.

Higher, Lower, Just Right or Just Wrong?

Eh, I could have gone Lower on this one. The core game was interesting to read once and had some system ideas which got me thinking, even if I wasn’t always so keen on the idea itself, much like GUMSHOE as a whole, but on the whole I kind of wish I just went for the PDFs.

Would Back Again?

I would trust Pelgrane to deliver on a Kickstarter, but I would also need it to be a concept I was really excited about. Most likely a non-GUMSHOE game, or possibly a GUMSHOE game if it were a concept that leaned into the strengths of the system and away from what I perceive as its weaknesses (like it supposedly being for investigative games, except the challenging part of the game in question isn’t the actual investigative part because you’ll always get the information you need there).

They are apparently going to do a treatment of GUMSHOE for the purposes of sword & sorcery-style fantasy soon, which may be interesting: there the automation of investigation can help ensure PCs have the information they need to make their next choices and the system can help spread out the spotlight time nicely, but the game doesn’t have to be explicitly investigation-themed because the actual challenging part of the game you can fail at is the various fantastic heists and adventures which arise from your investigations.

14 thoughts on “Kickstopper: Pelgrane Dredges Carcosa

  1. I generally concur with your take on GUMSHOE’s strengths and limitations, its positioning by Pelgrane as an answer looking for a problem that many of us never have, and Laws’ flaws as a fiction writer. This game did not look to be something I’d want, and having read your review through I’m quite happy that I avoided backing the KS. Cheers!

  2. Gary Furash

    A lot of good points, but the big alternative to this, CoC, is very crunchy – as a GM when I’m managing stuff antagonists have all of the same stats as a PC. Not a fan of that.

    1. I don’t think it’s that crunchy. If you’re designing an antagonist yourself then you can go with human average for most attributes, boost the bits you want the character to be good at and drop the bits you think they should be bad at, and then give them decent skill scores at the skills you think they should be good at. If you’re rolling on a skill you hadn’t thought about, decide on the spot on a percentage or just go with the baseline skill. Job done. Where’s the crunch?

      1. This is my experience, too. BRP games make it remarkably easy to come up with stats for antagonists on the fly. And I’ve always loved the CoC tradition of giving antagonists non-standard “skill” ratings, like Act Before Thinking 55% or Leer 90% or Seek Human Flesh 60%, that make the Keeper’s job very easy.

      2. I used to think skills like that were kind of goofy but they’re actually fun tools – not only do they immediately highlight a character trait but if you are ever in doubt as to what an NPC would do in the moment you can roll against the skill and lean hard into the trait in question if appropriate.

      3. They’re useful tools, representing a preliminary version of the personality traits that Chaosium would include in Pendragon and the latest edition of RuneQuest, but I also like the message they convey about not getting hung up on exact rules.

      4. It also conveys that the skill list isn’t strictly prescriptive. Just because an NPC is written up as having the “Leer” skill doesn’t mean other characters cannot leer at someone except by rolling on that specific skill, which they almost certainly don’t have because it’s a non-standard one.

  3. Hmmm, weird, usually Pelgrane stuff is visually great (atmospheric and subtle), but the covers for Aftermath, This is Normal Now and Absinthe in Carcosa are ugly 😦

    Speaking of literary GUMSHOE RPGs, have by chance you backed the M.R. James Kickstarter, Casting the Runes?

    1. Yeah, I don’t know what they were thinking with those covers but they just look terrible.

      I haven’t gone for the M.R. James one because, having been once bitten by this one, I’m now twice shy. I would rather wait for reviews and see what exactly they have done to make M.R. James’ stuff gameable.

      1. I was tempted, but in the end decided to wait for the release too. I don’t need *another* iteration/re-telling of the GUMSHOE rules, and the preview didn’t convince me that the additional stuff was worth it. Perhaps if this was a scenario anthology (without the system description and the Keeper philosophy part), I would be more interested.

      2. Yes, that’s a good point. It comes back to the basic question of “Is this REALLY different enough from a particularly ghost-themed Trail session to merit a standalone game?”

  4. Gary Furash

    So what’s your general feel based on the Gumshoe outlined in in this book? What about the new pulp sword and sorcery / mutant city blues which just uses general pushes and binary investigative abilities.

    1. I’ve not seen Mutant City Blues and am not interested enough to look into it.

      However, I feel like if you want a simplified GUMSHOE, and you’re already going to binary investigative abilities to begin with, just get rid of investigative abilities altogether. Just say “the party gets this information automatically, via whichever PC has the background most suited to acquiring it, if you’re in doubt roll a dice to randomise which PC spots the clue”.

      That saves you all the bother of checking over what investigative skills your PC group has to make sure they’re all catered to.

  5. Pingback: PODs of Cthulhu – Refereeing and Reflection

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