"Come now my child, if we were planning to harm you, do you think we'd be lurking here beside the path in the very darkest part of the forest..." - Kenneth Patchen, "Even So."

THIS IS A BLOG ABOUT STORIES AND STORYTELLING; some are true, some are false, and some are a matter of perspective. Herein the brave traveller shall find dark musings on horror, explorations of the occult, and wild flights of fantasy.

Tuesday, May 28, 2019


"I remember after finishing the first act that it occurred to me that I had better stop. I started up and flung the book into the fireplace; the volume struck the barred grate and fell open on the hearth in the firelight. If I had not caught a glimpse of the opening words in the second act I should never have finished it, but as I stooped to pick it up, my eyes became riveted to the open page, and with a cry of terror, or perhaps it was of joy so poignant that I suffered in every nerve, I snatched the thing out of the coals and crept shaking to my bedroom, where I read it and reread it, and wept and laughed and trembled with a horror which at times assails me yet. This is the thing that troubles me, for I cannot forget Carcosa where black stars hang in the heavens; where the shadows of men’s thoughts lengthen in the afternoon, when the twin suns sink into the lake of Hali; and my mind will bear forever the memory of the Pallid Mask. I pray God will curse the writer, as the writer has cursed the world with this beautiful, stupendous creation, terrible in its simplicity, irresistible in its truth—a world which now trembles before the King in Yellow..."

"The Repairer of Reputations," by Robert W. Chambers

It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of a living god ...

In 1895 Robert W. Chambers published a collection of ten short stories.  More than a few of these are garden variety romances.  Some, like the prose poem "The Prophet's Paradise," are evocative and atmospheric, but not terribly remarkable.  Hidden in the pages of this collection, however,  are four interrelated tales of cosmic horror, four stories that revolve around a play which--if read--causes reality to unravel and madness to bloom.  These stories are remarkable.  "The Repairer of Reputations," "The Mask," "In the Court of the Dragon," and "The Yellow Sign" are extraordinary pieces of horror fiction, bleak, hallucinatory, terrifying.  They are the first haunting glimpse of a subgenere that would not really take form until Lovecraft, and their influence on his work is unmistakable.  His infamous Necronomicon is the clearest sign of it; a touchstone that links several tales, a meme that kills like a virus.  In his famous "The Whisperer in the Darkness," Lovecraft even goes so far as to embrace Chamber's dread play by making reference to elements of it.  In this way, the play made its way into his "Yog-Sothery," what later would be called the Cthulhu Mythos.  Its archetypical significance is far greater though.  We see shadows of this play not just in Lovecraft's blasphemous tome but as far afield as Sadako's video tape or the madness-spreading aliens in Bird Box.  The first season of True Detective was even erected around it.  Chamber's play has thus infected us, a sickly thread that runs through popular culture.  If you have played Call of Cthulhu you know it.  If you've played Arkham Horror you know it.  If you have played Trail of Cthulhu or Petersen's 5e Cthulhu Mythos or any other Mythos-related game its name is familiar to you.  The play shares its name with both the short story collection and its own enigmatic antagonist.  You know his name.  We call him The King in Yellow.

As gamers, we have so come to associate The King in Yellow with the Cthulhu Mythos so strongly that we often forget it is an entirely separate mythology.  This is what makes Robin D. Laws's new RPG, The Yellow King, so intriguing.  Powered by a modified version of publisher Pelgrane Press's GUMSHOE system (also designed by Laws), The Yellow King is about the "Hastur Mythos" ("Carcosa Mythos?" "Hali Mythos?") and the Hastur Mythos alone.  Its century-long campaign draws its narrative from the four short stories mentioned above, with nary a Deep One, a Mi-Go, or a Byakhee in sight.  Broken into four separate parts--four separate campaigns with four separate sets of player characters--The Yellow King is linked just like the original four short stories by the corruptive influence of the play and the denizens of Carcosa.

In Paris you play wealthy American students studying in fin de siècle Paris.  The publication and spread of the play, The King in Yellow, begins the hideous warping of reality, ushering in the arrival of the alien royalty of Carcosa.  Horrors that once remained hidden in the shadows, or perhaps were never even real before, begin appearing.  Phantoms.  Specters.  Vampires.  And worse.  In The Wars, players take on the role of soldiers in the Great European War...of 1947.  The arrival of the Yellow King and his terrible daughters has altered history; America is an isolated Empire, Europe has been fighting for decades.  These player characters must contend not only with the horrors of war but also of battlefields warped by the mind-bending power of Carcosa.  The Royal Court of that world is behind the conflict, and their weird war machines make the struggle even more horrifying.  In Aftermath, set in present-day North America (yet still in the alternate timeline created by the publication of The King in Yellow), the player characters are former partisans in an American empire that has just thrown off the yoke of Carcosa.  They struggle to rebuild the nation while fighting the horrors that remain behind.  And finally, in This is Normal Now, the player characters are people living in yet another timeline, a timeline like ours in which America was never an empire, WWI and WWII played out just as they did in our world, and everything seems on the surface to be...normal.  And yet these characters discover the horror beneath the surface, a reality that has been completely rewritten, a world in the thrall of the Yellow King and his Daughters.  They discover that they themselves have been rewritten, and of the terrible truth that connects them to player characters in Paris, The Wars, and Aftermath.  It falls upon them to stop the machinations of the King and his Daughters before their terrible endgame is completed.

In short, what Laws has constructed here is a literary hommage, a game that embodies the spirit (and sometimes even the letter) of Chamber's four interconnected King in Yellow tales as neatly as Greg Stafford did in Pendragon or Ken Hite did in The Dracula Dossier.  Those stories were about altered timelines, alternate histories, but above all else they were about identity horror.  The King in Yellow is all about taking off the mask and not recognizing what is there.  It is about losing your sense of self.  The madness caused by the play is not about losing your sense of reality, it is about reality losing its sense of you.  Laws zeroes in on this theme and delivers with laser-like precision.

The length of each phase is entirely left up to you.  You could move through them quickly, or prolong each as long as you like.  Paris plays a bit like Cthulhu by Gaslight, but soaked in absinthe.  There are ghosts and vampires and all sorts of things that go bump in the night.  The Wars is more like Call of Cthulhu: The Wasted Land, while Aftermath has a very cold-war, Red Scare, paranoid aura around it.  This Is Normal Now is probably the most mind-bending of the bunch.  Each introduces specialized rules for that particular setting, and character creation is interconnected; in other words, the characters you play in Paris affect the characters you play in The Wars and so on.  Likewise, the GM has a great deal of latitude in how he portrays the King in Yellow  and his court.  There is a great deal of freedom in deciding what Carcosa wants and what its true nature is.  You could run a subsequent campaign very differently from how you ran your first.

I pray God will curse the writer, as the writer has cursed the world with this beautiful, stupendous creation, terrible in its simplicity, irresistible in its truth...

The system is essentially a streamlined version of GUMSHOE.  Abilities are divided into those which are Investigative and always work (if you have Natural History and there is a Natural History clue, you will always turn it up) and General which require you to roll a six-sided die against a Difficulty Number to succeed.  General abilities have numerical ratings which represent a pool of points you can spend on these rolls to help them match or beat the Difficulty Number.  These pools refresh at the start of a new session or at appointed times during the game.


It differs from "vanilla" GUMSHOE in a number of ways, however.  Combat is now player-facing and never requires the GM to roll; it is also heavily abstracted.  In a nod to his own HeroQuest system, Laws now has the player declare roughly what he or she wishes to happen in combat, and success means seeing that come to pass.  This is all handled by a single combat roll.  Damage to health and shock to the mind are now handled by special cards detailing the effects of these injuries.  Also, it is now possible to "win" your combat roll and still pay a "toll," gaining a minor form of damage or shock.  

While these innovations do indeed speed play, and more deeply reflect the literary leanings of the game, there is nothing stopping you really from running The Yellow King in Trail of Cthulhu or even Call of Cthulhu.  The game is at once a system, a campaign, and a setting (or settings), and given its subject matter could easily be adapted to those systems.  While arguably the system as it stands here is a shade more like Chambers than those others, Lovecraft adopted the genre of cosmic horror Chambers bred in his fiction, and thus an authentically Lovecraftian rules system would not feel that inappropriate here.

So who is The Yellow King for?  For starters, it will feel immediately recognizable and instantly attractive to any fans of Cthulhu Mythos games, or the "weird horror" that permeates games like Lamentations of the Flame Princess: Weird Fantasy Roleplaying.  This is horror with a deeply literary bent, the kind of thing that would appeal to readers of China Miéville, Jeff VanderMeer, or Thomas Ligotti.  Obviously, fans of Chambers will also want it.  While the game can and does include all sorts of gothic and vaguely Lovercaftian horrors, it is primarily about the horror of collapsing reality and loss of identity.  If you are looking for a "monster of the week" it probably isn't you (the closest Buffy episode to it would be "Normal Again," where her reality swings back and forth between Sunnydale and an insane asylum).  I would also add that gamers who like games faithful to their source material, deeply authentic games that capture the essence of their inspirations, will find The Yellow King worth a look as well. 

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