The Yellow King Role-playing Game

3 players and 1 GM.

In this game, we are playing three different sets of characters in four different timelines. Originally, we were only going to play this game during COVID, but it’s just so darned interesting we’ve been continuing to do mystery after mystery…probably until all the groups of characters die or go mad. 

This game has had an interesting effect on my role-playing. Typically, I try to speak in my character’s voice and do all of those acting things. Roleplaying games are the big reason I decided to become an audiobook narrator. But with so many characters to inhabit and all of their similarities, disparate timelines, clues to be garnered and managed, etc., we all have just sort of regressed to speaking as ourselves as we talk through all of the elements and try to keep track of our goals and NPCs. It is super fun, if complicated. The other two players with me are Unitarian ministers, highly educated and well-read. So, even when we take a break, we’re talking about books, sermons, and other intellectual pursuits. 


13 responses to “The Yellow King Role-playing Game”

  1. This is important. It’s also coincidentally seeing attention across several recent posts, including Improving as “just players” and Old skills bring new Play. Let’s see if I can break the topic into usable chunks.

      Table talk, which by definition does not put content into whatever fiction is happening. It falls along a spectrum from entirely relevant to content of play to entirely irrelevant to it (although socially it’s always relevant).
      Authoritative or, as smart people seem to call it, diegetic talk, which does put content into whatever fiction is happening. It falls along a spectrum which I will call “depiction,” from almost-all depiction to almost-none.

    Briefly, I consider a certain stated ideal in hobby culture to be nonsense: that the medium of play relies on maximizing speech-and-listening to diegetic talk, and of that, maximizing the depiction. This ideal presumes the medium to be essentially the same as radio theater, so that non-depiction play would be like bad acting and non-diegetic talk would be like breaking the audience wall.

    Without boring you here, I’ll say only that I think the medium isn’t radio theater and is maintained or lost according to different variables entirely. What you’ve presented is a great example of maintaining the medium and discovering that the “radio theater” variables weren’t necessary to maximize after all.

    • In watching your APs, Ron (Hi! Nice to see you.), I noticed that your play is often light on depiction. That was a little surprising to me. It seems like folks are having a lot of fun in those APs, so credit to your assertion that depiction is over-emphasized in the culture.

      Something else that comes to mind reading this comment is the phenomenological point that play is like the process of creative writing in the early stages, but practiced in a social context. In creative writing circles, they talk about whether you outline a plot ahead of time or you “discovery write” and generate the plot “as you go”… But they also talk about how in the latter case, you’re likely going to do a lot of editing and create a second draft before publishing (If publishing is what you’re doing.). So whether you outline or “discover” is a bit of a false dichotomy: If you outline, you’re discovering the plot when you outline; if you “discover,” you’re effectively writing an outline in prose. The difference is mostly stylistic. The level of depiction in play seems analogous to the level of prose in an outline, so it seems natural to me that you would find a range of depiction in play at different tables.

      Anyway, here’s something that might actually be relevant to actual play: The emphasis on depiction in the culture has made play intimidating and exhausting in my experience. I don’t know why exactly. It might have something to do with trying to bypass the social process of play to get straight to “the good stuff”. That seems like it would necessarily undermine the authorities in play. It feels like every contribution is final and instead of filtering through the social layer of resolution, it’s either going to stand as is (So it better be good!), or it’s going to have to be pulled out of the fiction by social intervention, which is by definition an ordeal in this paradigm.

      To go back to the writing analogy, something that writing people talk about is the mistake of expecting to publish your first draft. There is a distinction drawn between early phase (outlining/”discovery”) and late phase (product). Ignoring the early phase often leads to burnout because trying to write a product out the gate is intimidating and exhausting. That cultural ideal of maximal depiction is a lot like playing to produce as complete novel rather than playing to produce a draft.

    • I’m in agreement with your reflections and I usually reserve further conversation about the medium for the coursework, so I’ll focus only on your observation. For a radio show, yes, the degree of depiction in my play is pretty sparse. I suggest looking less at quantity and more at the degree to which a person (anyone) acknowledges and makes use of what another person has previously said. This reflects my focus on listening rather than speaking, and on reincorporation of content rather merely its introduction, or as we are talking, elaboration during its introduction.

      Therefore my priority in play is typically not to “get the content in there” but to provide only enough for others to pick up and make use of, and in GMing, I am one of many in regard to this process rather than the center or the filter for everyone else. That is, I’m making use of what they say, or even, everyone is eligible to pick up what is said and to use it and act upon it in the context of their individual authorities at the moment.

      Pardon the continuing technical ‘splaining, because I think you’ll be especially interested in the next part. I talk about this in the coursework as the overlap among what has been listened to, and it has an important consequence: that we actually do not have to be imagining the same content. All we need is for content in that zone of overlap to be consistent or more accurately, reliably usable. Everything else, in our minds and to some degree even in speech, can vary and wiggle per person.

      The exhaustion you mention arises because people are genuinely sabotaging the medium when they strive for utter consistency among what we are all imagining and for centrality (editorship) over a production rather than the activity of a process, just as you said.

    • For what it’s worth, looking at my notes prep a Cthulhu Dark campaign in 2016, all my notes starts by at least one page of adjectives or bits of descriptions about the 5 senses: what smells, what noises, what colors, etc, etc.

      I don’t think it’s bet practice in itself – Meguey Baker provides those description to set up a colourful context in her Arabian Nights with great effect, but what is strikingly bad for me looking at this now is that: it was only meant for the me, the GM, as a venue for a great depiction.

      It’s clearly:
      1. Not Necessary for play to go on.
      2. Not specially problematic if there’s not too much and if the file serve a support for the whole group – if it supports them into their own statement instead of taking the place of what they say – a little pinch salt instead of being the main plate.

      I can see, today, how some players at my table consider bringing detailed descriptions works against the medium, as reincorporating what the other have said seems to be secondary, can be forgotten or smothered into a flow of descriptions. Or how other players doesn’t clearly see what they could reincorporate in this whole detailed descriptions, which now seems “sacred” and owned by the players who told it. This can create a kind of competition or disequilibrum: Player 1 describing a vivid landscape, player 2 describing a vivid landscape 2, player 3 just stating what is needed which is ignored.

    • First, I hope I didn’t give the impression that I found your degree of depiction lacking (by whatever standard I might be in a position to apply). Rather I quite appreciate it, for reasons including what was in your breakdown in your response — focusing on listening and giving just enough, etc. I appreciate your actual play videos for putting the “actual” back in the phrase and for giving a demonstration of these priorities in play. One reason I wanted to bring up your APs was to note that such a demonstration was available.

      Second, holy hell, THIS: “[… W]e actually do not have to be imagining the same content. All we need is for content in that zone of overlap to be consistent or more accurately, reliably usable,” in this context is eye-opening. I feel like those sentences would be straight-forward, and maybe self-evident in a describing-the-activity, definitional context; in the context of performing the activity, I feel like I can put my finger on why instances of play I’ve been in have faltered. It also feels like it adds a dimension of skill that relates to authorities in play. Maybe it’s part of the “how” to authorities’ “what”.

    • I’m good with your observation about “light on depiction,” as it’s clearly not an accusation or gotcha or indeed negative critique at all. I am really enjoying your arrival at the site.

      For the THIS, well, I think you are right on target. Note that I am committing serious hobby heresy by saying that role-playing does not occur in the imagination …

    • This clarifies so much my own annoyance regarding Virtual Tabletops who use precise Maps, character tokens, and detailed visual handouts even when it’s absolutely not needed.

    • Greg, your comment about the quirk of limiting that descriptive list to the GM reminded me of an experience I had a few months back: I was reading through Demon: The Fallen’s main antagonist book, Earthbound, for general content mining when I ran across this line: “The themes of Demon: The Earthbound are mirror opposites of those presented in Demon: enslavement, corruption, and ultimately damnation.”

      My first thought when reading this was, “Wait a minute… Did the core Demon book actually ever present a set of themes like that? After opening THAT book and digging through it, I eventually found this line, “Demon is about faith, temptation, and the heroic struggle for redemption in the face of overwhelming odds.” So, there it is spelled put quite clearly… Hidden away in the GM section, at the end of the book.

      That got a bitter little laugh from me.

      I think the experiences you and I are discussing tie back to the presumed transitive quality GMing has had throughout the years, something Ron talks about a lot. It’s the idea that the GM is going to serve the content (description, theme, story, etc.) to the players.

    • Ron, I seem to recall Vincent Baker spouting similar heresy at least ten years ago. (Though he seems to focus on speaking rather than listening. I think I’ve heard him say that game design is about making people say interesting things. Which, if not handled carefully is an attitude that seems to lead to games where players talk past each other, but I’m veering.)

      The statement, “Play happens in the imagination,” sounds to me like saying, “Playing football happens in the body.” The imagination(/body) influences play, is influenced by play, and (maybe) is necessary for play to happen, but it ain’t the venue.

  2. I wholeheartedly agree on the continuum of off and on-topic table talk.
    Additionally, I feel that the side chat fulfills two purposes in the “process” of the game.
    First, it is cosmic horror and second it is a detective story, of sorts.
    By having the table talk break the tension within the cosmic horror element there is a release that then allows for tension to be ratcheted up again within the next scene. One can’t continue one long tense session without it being exhausting for the game master and the players.
    When the table talk breaks the tension at a detective moment, it breaks the intellectual tension and allows for the side chat to potentially facilitate a different avenue of investigation by thinking about something else for a moment. Kind of like being stuck writing a story and going for a walk or having an unrelated idea while in the shower.
    So, while not necessarily germane to the “content” it can be integral to the “process.”

    • Absolutely. I even suggest that the nature of a given group’s table-talk (and for a given game they are playing) is critical to the operations and success of their diegetic talk, even when it does not address the diegetic content. This goes back to my writings of twenty years ago, when I located play as a phenomenon inside the socializing among the people.

  3. I have 2 questions about your experience working with the game’s rules. I have played a lot of Gumshoe games but not Yellow King. I hope I am not importing any rules that are not actually present in YK.

    #1 Supporting Characters
    Night’s Black Agents and Trail of Cthulhu have rules for NPCs. Contact with an NPC can refresh some important pools before the general refresh that happens when a mystery is solved. Did that rule motivate any player choices or action? Did the rule come up at all.

    #2 Refresh Only When Mystery/Crime Solved
    IIRC Trail and Nights allow the players a total refresh of their pools only if the mystery or crime is solved. Is this rule present in Yellow King? Are there any refresh rules particular to that game? How did such rules — if any — affect play?

    • Erik, awesome question!
      Within my experience of YK, we only ever refresh pools at the end of a mystery. With the exception of using Morale to replenish Composure (which is constantly dwindling).
      It ABSOLUTELY informs our actions as players. As we see our Composure stats decline, we become more cautious about how we solve certain problems head-on. And if I have a surplus of points in something, I’m always trying to shoehorn a reason to use them. In some timelines, we find that the characters don’t have ANY of the abilities necessary to solve the mystery in a conventional way. Soooo…we look at what we DO have and the system itself encourages us to try a different approach. For example, we might normally try to blunt force a situation but we’re playing the underpowered “This is Normal Now” characters. Well, nothing for it but to shift to using the Preparedness attribute to find something (anything) to complete the goal. It is fun…and different. Although it does force a player to go outside of one’s favorite combinations of abilities.

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