Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Five or So Questions with Robin Laws on The Yellow King

Today I have an interview with Robin Laws on his new game, The Yellow King. The Yellow King is currently on Kickstarter, and looks absolutely fascinating. I asked Robin some questions about how he'll be handling content and how the mechanics flow with fiction - check out his responses below!

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Books and slipcover
Tell me a little about The Yellow King. What excites you about it?

The four slim stories that make up Robert W. Chambers' King in Yellow cycle offer a rich, elegantly creepy starting point for an ambitious new game of literary horror. We're used to seeing his work through the lens of Lovecraft, who championed these stories, and later expanders of the Mythos like August Derleth. Tackled on their own, they present an shockingly contemporary set of themes. Central to the stories are a visual symbols and a work of art that, once you are exposed to them, break you down and change you. In this game I take that a step further and explore the idea that reality itself is coming apart.


I've always come at Lovecraftian themes and cosmic horror as a whole from a diagonal, because the themes of "insanity" and "breakdowns" are ones I'm intimately familiar with. How do you address this in The Yellow King? What are you including in the game to both carry the gravity of the impact of cosmic horror, and are you examining real-life trauma parallels?

When you remove the Lovecraftian overlay from Chambers, it ceases to be cosmic horror and, especially in YKRPG's take on him, becomes what we're calling reality horror. Lovecraft proposes that when you really see humankind's absolute insignificance in a vast and utterly random universe, the mind cracks, plunging you into insanity. The King in Yellow cycle by contrast focuses on an idea, an artistic expression, that can rewrite people's personalities and sense of reality—but can also change objective reality itself.

This allows me to lean away from the idea that the characters are becoming literally mentally ill, or that sanity is a resource you lose over time. There are no insane cultists, but rather people who have been altered or compelled by the exposure to the play The King in Yellow or the sight of the Yellow Sign.

As characters you encounter Mental Hazards, rolling your Composure ability to resist them or take a lesser effect. Rather than losing Sanity or Stability points you get Shock cards, which you try to get rid of as play continues. When you have 3 Shock cards, your character loses her bearings and leaves play, to be replaced by another.

In framing the text, particularly of the Shock cards, I'm steering away from the real life terminology of mental illness. So there's no Shock card that tells you you've suddenly developed, say, paranoid schizophrenia or clinical depression. Nor is there an indication that becoming mentally ill turns people evil or violent.

Now it's entirely possible that folks who struggle with mental health issues either directly or through the experiences of the people around them still won't want to explore reality horror at the gaming table. And if it's not fun, you shouldn't do it. But a great function of pop culture is as a vehicle to safely process life's horrors and traumas through a protective veil of outlandishness and the fantastic. Godzilla movies help audiences come at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. 9/11 reverberated through comics and spy movies. SF TV shows or a movie like Get Out can get at racial hierarchies in a disarming and metaphorical way. When constructing the treatment of trauma in YKRPG I aspire for it to work in a like fashion.

Ultimately though it all comes down to personal tastes and limits, which can differ even for one person over time. What you might be into at one point in your life could be too close too the knuckle in another.
Aftermath interiors

What are the elements of the new combat system, and how do they influence player interaction with the setting?

​Combat is fast and player-facing, meaning that each player rolls only once and the GM never rolls anything, just establishes a difficulty for the foe at hand and modifiers for the situation.

Before starting you decide what your goal is—which might be to kill your foes, but could also be capturing one of them and running away, driving them off, getting through them,​ and so on. If your Fighting roll fails to overcome the opponent's difficulty, which varies based on your objective, you take on either a minor or major Injury card. Even as victor you might take a minor Injury if you decline to pay a toll in Athletics, Health or Fighting points. Like the Shock cards Injuries have various ongoing effects, and conditions allowing you to discard them. These often require you to do something in the narrative. Here's an example (note that the published versions will look much better than my primitive graphic design abilities allow for):
Example Injury 
As with Shocks, having 3 Injuries in hand requires you to permanently retire your character.​


Tell me a little about each of the books. What makes them unique in theme, and what were their inspirations? 

Like two of the Chambers stories, Paris takes place in the City of Lights in 1895. It gives you your classic historical horror experience of interacting with the rich details and personalities of a classic time period, in this case the Belle Epoque, as you deal with supernatural menace.

The Wars follows one of the stories in my collection New Tales of the Yellow Sign by setting itself in a fractured timeline caused by the influence of the play. It's 1947 and the Continental War rages across Europe. Characters play a squad of soldiers whose military assignments draw them into weird mysteries. They must duck not only monsters from Carcosa but bizarre Jules Verne war machines.

Aftermath, again based on a story from NTYS, proposes that the bizarre then-future described in "Repairer of Reputations" was the basis of an actual reality. A century after the events described in that story, you play revolutionaries in an alternate present who have just toppled the tyrannical and supernaturally-backed Castaigne regime in America. Your investigations confront you with eerie holdovers of the old regime. At the same time you choose a way to help rebuild your nation, involving yourself in post-revolutionary politics.

Finally, This is Normal Now is our modern day, with an emphasis on the glittering, the new, and a horrific spin on contemporary trends. It brings the cycle back to basics, and in full campaign mode, leads you to connect and wrap up the big arc resolving the parallels between your characters from the four settings.

Four books, so many stories to tell!

I'm somewhat familiar with GUMSHOE, and I know that there is a lot of mutability, but it can be challenging to really hammer out the best final decisions. What has your development process been like for The Yellow King? Did you have any moments of clarity that you appreciated?

​The key revelation where mechanics are concerned came from
  1. the desire to take the Problem and Edge cards from the GUMSHOE One-2-One​ engine from in Cthulhu Confidential and translate them back into multiplayer GUMSHOE. 
  2. a longstanding Pelgrane goal of making combat player-facing, as discussed above
Since then it's been a matter of refinement, which is ongoing as I move from the preview draft backers get as soon as they join to a version ready for out-of-house playtest. 


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Thanks so much to Robin for the interview! I hope you all enjoyed reading about what's coming with The Yellow King! Make sure to check it out on Kickstarter & tell your friends!

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