When we typically think of supernatural horror and someone mentions a Mythos, they are almost always referring to HP Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos, and all the assorted otherworldly monsters and non-Euclidean geometry that goes along with that. Fortunately, Lovecraft wasn’t the only author trying his hand at the weird and horrifying. Robert Chambers wrote a sequence of four stories, collected in a book entitled The King in Yellow. Taking place in two settings, contemporary (1895) Paris and an imagined future America, the stories of The King in Yellow center around a strange symbol, the Yellow Sign, a mysterious figure, the King in Yellow, and a written play with strange effects, also named The King in Yellow. Chambers’ stories are considered hallmarks of occult fiction, and even Lovecraft himself borrowed from Chambers’ work. As such, it only made sense that someone would give them an RPG treatment, much like the one bestowed upon Call of Cthulhu. Robin D. Laws wrote The Yellow King for Pelgrane Press using the GUMSHOE system, but gave special attention to Chambers’ style of mind-bending horror, and extended his worldbuilding a little bit. The Yellow King has not two but four unique settings included with the game, and each one has a slightly unique version of the game, tailored to the conflicts and conceits of the setting. What’s more, the game is set up to play a sprawling arc of weird fiction across all four.
While the characters themselves vary across the four settings of the game, the basics of creation are still interesting in and of themselves. Characters are created broadly by combining two kits, which are thematically linked groups of abilities. The first defines the character’s Investigative Abilities, and the second defines the character’s General Abilities. These are two groups of skills (discussed more in the rules section), and they are divided up differently. Each Investigative kit gets a non-overlapping set of four Investigative Abilities, and each kit should only be taken once among a party to ensure that as many Investigative Abilities as possible are taken, and therefore as many clues as possible are found. Each General Ability kit gives a point value for each of the 9 General Abilities; alternatively 32 points can be distributed among the abilities. Each kit is tailored to each of the settings, though there are comparable choices in each setting which are roughly aligned (more on that later).
The next item in character generation is the character’s Drive. The Drive is something that motivates the character, but unlike a more catch-all motivation like Beliefs in Burning Wheel, Drives are specifically geared towards explaining why the character is going to act like a protagonist in, well, a horror game. As such, the Drives are narrowed into broad categories, like Arrogance, Ennui, and Dread Premonition. What then makes this pop is the next attribute, the Deuced Peculiar Business (or the Damn Peculiar Thing, or something else entirely). This is an incident which explains your character’s exposure to the supernatural, and why they can’t really rest until they’ve found out what’s going on.
The final thing for characters which sets up a bit of group cohesion and more motivation is the Relationships section. Each character chooses another character (who hasn’t already been chosen for the role) that they rely on, and another that they protect. With all of these established, there becomes a more clear idea of why the characters are sticking together and investigating together.
The Yellow King uses a mildly altered version of the GUMSHOE system. GUMSHOE centers around the activities of investigations and mysteries, and is designed to both highlight these activities and also keep the story moving. One key mechanical highlight of GUMSHOE which is often discussed is the way Investigative Abilities are employed. In essence, if a PC has a relevant Investigative Ability to find a key clue in a scene, they find it. No roll required, no chance of failure. In fact, the rules also cover situations where either an absent character has the ability or the ability isn’t available to any character to ensure that the clue is found. What these rules recognize is that failing to find a clue usually stops the story cold, and there’s rarely a good way to ‘fail forward’ in an investigation story. As dice rolls would merely introduce a chance to slow things down or frustrate the players, they’re instead excluded.
The core mechanic for most actions (outside of investigative abilities and combat) is defined by nine General Abilities and a single six-sided die. Each General Ability value doesn’t define a modifier, rather a number of points which may be spent to modify rolls on a 1-to-1 basis. The GM sets the difficulty for the roll, and then the player can opt to spend from their pool for the relevant General Ability. These points refresh after each scenario (assumed to be 1-2 sessions in length), and so are intended to be a spotlight-sharing mechanism; as each player can only make a few really impactful rolls, the character doing important stuff should change frequently. As this explanation implies, stat pools tend to have more meta-game rationalization than other mechanics like static skill ranks, but like many of the rules in GUMSHOE it does exactly what it aims to do (as opposed to simulating game reality in some way).
Combat is also designed to keep the story going. Unlike many games, combat in GUMSHOE is time-boxed: a combat takes one round. Each player makes a Fighting roll (or another General Ability if they’re making a support roll), and notes whether they succeed against the difficulty set by the GM. Succeed or fail, they note the margin of their success or failure. At the end of the round, the sum of the margin determines whether or not the group succeeded at their task. The difficulty is set based on exactly what the task is, so the players must make a judgment as to whether their goals can be achieved by scaring off the other side, or if they really do need to kill them.
Another interesting aspect of this combat system is that it’s entirely player-facing. While the GM sets the difficulty, they never roll. Instead, the consequences for the characters are determined by the Toll associated with the action the PCs are performing. Tolls are taken from any combination of the Athletics, Fighting, and Health pools, and represent minor scrapes and exhaustion from a fight. If a character either can’t pay the toll, or fails their roll, they could also take an injury card. Each of the injury cards has a more delineated impact on the character based on the card text, and most enemies have a specific minor and major injury card associated with them and how they fight. If a character takes three injury cards, they die.
Alongside the injury cards are shock cards, the mental equivalent. Shock cards have the same degree of impact as injury cards (take three and the character is removed from the game), as befits any game of supernatural horror. Shock cards are gained when the character fails Composure tests, brought on by disturbing or traumatic events.
All in all, the mechanics of Yellow King (and GUMSHOE broadly) are intended to keep the story moving, make sure key story elements are included when they need to be, and give every encounter weight and consequences. These rules are very much focused on investigations, and also benefit from a narrowness of focus which comes from the very specific setting, or rather settings, of this game.
The first thing about settings I should note is that, while my distillation of character generation in the game above is correct, it is only completely correct for one setting in the game, Paris. As the timeline advances, things like Relationships are discarded to account for differing levels of group alignment. In addition, there are rules tweaks to things, like the difficulty of conflicts and even which General Abilities exist, to better suit each of the settings.
Ultimately it makes sense that the settings would necessitate rules changes, because they cover a lot of ground. The first setting, one of the two that Chambers originally employed in The King in Yellow, is 1890s Paris. This uses investigative kits like the Belle-Lettrist and the Muse, and helps players create characters who have been touched by the supernatural but are not yet aware of the horrible truth of the matter. The second setting takes place during the 1947 Continental War, influenced by mysterious forces from Carcosa, a place originally written about by Ambrose Bierce and adopted by Chambers. The third setting is an alternate reality modern day, where characters are resistance fighters against the Castaigne regime, which is extrapolated from Chambers’ envisioned 1920s America in at least one of his stories, The Repairer of Reputations. The final setting simply is the modern day. But something’s…weird.
Each of these settings can be used standalone, but that’s not how a Yellow King campaign is intended to go. All four settings are supposed to be used together, with specific changes happening from one era to the next. Each character in the Continental War has a connection with a character from Paris, ranging from literal grandchildren to someone who was a fan of the older character’s art. Each character in the Castaigne resistance finds a weird parallel between themselves and someone fighting in the Carcosan war that they read in a book. And in the final setting, the “real world”, each character is a parallel universe version of who they were in the Castaigne resistance.
Each of these worlds is lovingly crafted, and to be honest, they each get weirder than the last. In theory the height is book three, Aftermath, and some of the setting materials would support this. There is a full FAQ on “Government Lethal Chambers”, as one of the PCs is supposed to be a Government Lethal Chamber technician. This FAQ is probably one of the clearest distillations of just how twisted these worlds get, and an illustration that the game has lifted some of the most evocative parts of the source material. That all said, the weirdness in the last setting, the “modern day” of This is Normal Now, is probably the best way to really mess with players’ heads. The progression helps illustrate why a campaign across all four settings is so effective; with the same inherent motivators across all four, the horror factor tends to build as the game goes on. Also, the weirdness of the two alt-history settings coupled with an immediate link to a modern day setting is much more compelling (and unsettling) than trying to use the modern day setting on its own.
The game gives a range of campaign and scenario threads, and tries its best to give a GM as much leeway as possible to define the story they want to tell across all four settings. That said, there is a key plot element which both ties the two ends of the timeline together, as well as closes the loop on the whole thing. Unfortunately for you readers, it is a giant, giant spoiler. The plot arc here is better experienced than ruined in the hands of a reviewer such as myself. For those with the time and the right players, I highly recommend you try your hand at a full arc of The Yellow King, using all four settings. If the game works as advertised, any GM should be able to take their campaign and loop it back around to a very satisfying ending.
The Yellow King is an ambitious turn for the GUMSHOE system. While not its first use for supernatural horror (The Esoterrorists came out in 2007), it’s certainly one of the most ambitious, tying four settings with distinct variations on the rules together in a twisted arc of parallel universes and strange coincidences. GUMSHOE is a great choice here, with the investigation being treated as an inevitability and the unremitting horror of the forces behind the scenes being the true enemy and challenge. While the rules of the system are deliberate and may unsettle hardcore simulationists, they provide all the information necessary to help the GM run the game and ensure all characters are able to contribute to the evolving mystery. The Yellow King both shows the core strength and the flexibility of the system, and may even convince me to run a horror game.
The Yellow King will be available soon from Pelgrane Press. Check there for further details, and to pre-order! Thanks to Cat Tobin for sending us a copy to review!
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