Designer’s Notes: GURPS Horror – Beyond the Pale

GURPS Horror: Beyond the Pale was not the first collaboration I’d done with J. (and it wasn’t the last). It was however a situation where I felt we’d both shine. J. has a singularly gifted ability with horror and the unknown. One that has shown up often in his works. When Steven came to me about participating in the GURPS 2020 PDF Challenge I was all in. I wanted four spots in the challenge and ended up with three. Good enough. I asked to bring J. in on one of them and was given permission to do so. He immediately was in as well. We work decently enough together that we started to kibtz that day. We both wanted to do something for horror and an adventure played to our main strengths and followed the parameters of “keep it fluffy, not crunchy” that I’d been given. After an outline I let J. do what he does and acted as sounding board, editor, and maker of crunch (though there was little of it). Once we had the adventure finished we started chopping (we were over word count) until we had a good balance. Then I got to work smoothing the edges, editing, and adding my bits in.

We started writing on March 14th 2019 and finished on April 9th, 2019. Revisions took from April  9th 2017 to April 16th 2018. I sent in the first draft April 17th, 2019 after doing my final checks. Nikki was fast on layout and had a production PDF on May 25th, 2019. There were no major changes that needed to be made but a few mistakes crept in. There was no playtest for this and I got to see the final draft on May 29th, 2019. Finally, it was published on July 1st, 2020 via Kickstarter. Backers got their files a month or two later and fulfillment was finished by November 2020 (as they promised.

All in all it took us about 60 hours to write, 30 hours to edit, 5 hours worth of research (double checking everything was a pain, but required), and 40 hours of revision. We spent a further 20 hours looking over the preliminary PDF for any issues and revising

Notes From My Coauthor

“Art is not what you make of it; Art is what it makes of you”

First off, let me say how glad I am that the adventure’s being so well-received. I’ve had a lot of people tell me they plan to use it – or elements from it – in their horror games, and I see at least one convention’s going to have it at their table soon. Hopefully I’ll get more feedback as things progress, though by and large it’s having the reception I was hoping it would have: creepy, gruesome, and fun.

So to celebrate, here’s some insight into how it all went down, and a few things I wish we hadn’t had to leave on the cutting room floor with all the missing fleshbirds.

Out of the White:

The Drawn were mashed together from two concepts, one of which came in a dream (their appearance and mastery over flesh). I imagined people with hideous, bulbous heads sitting on a couch, talking to me as if I knew them and expecting me to come over there. Then some dumb kid did and… let’s just say he won’t be sitting on any more laps from now on.

The other part came from a rather unsettling story a friend told me about when he was a young kid, back in the 70’s. His favorite grandmother had died, and he was still quite despondent at the loss. One day, walking either to or from the local store to buy some candy, a panel van pulled up and the sliding door opened a little, and he thought he heard someone say his name – “Hey, Ken.”

Ken looked up.  There, in the darkness beyond the door, was his grandmother. He was certain of it.

“You want a ride?” his grandmother asked, beckoning him in. But before he could say anything, much less step forward or back, the van suddenly lurched into full speed. A couple seconds later a white car went the other way – one that might have been mistaken for a cop car at a certain distance.

In the minutes afterwards, as he trudged home somewhat shocked, Ken realized the old lady in the van had not been his grandmother. Her voice had been different, her hair the wrong color – only her glasses were the same. And she’d said “hey, kid,” rather than his name.

But in that half a second between when he’d looked up and when the van had pulled away, he was so certain it was her that, if the driver hadn’t panicked, we might have seen his smiling face on a milk carton. (1)

And it’s that half a second that gets us all in trouble, isn’t it? No matter how smart we are, no matter how logical – we doubt, or hope, just long enough to fall into the web. And then the spider feasts.

Other pieces came together from there. The inability to process the emotions of the non-neurotypical was something I’d been toying around with for a while. Their hunting and lurking behavior might seem familiar to some people who watch too many BBC animal shows while drinking at your local bar.

As for their mentions (which do not have to all be doled out with one roll, by the way), I sought out mythological coincidences, old occult friends, and some complete horse hockey. At one point I evoked the Order of the Gash but realized, at the last minute, that there was no way that wouldn’t look cheesy as, well, Hell. Hence Claude Roule, who may appear in other future publications.

Upon the Floor:

Some things had to be tossed for space, and space should have been made for some things that didn’t cry out “you need me” until it was much too late. This is the way it goes.

One thing I wish we’d had space for is a map of the houses and room descriptions. I am a firm believer in handing over the GM an actual map and legend, both to make it easier for them to describe things to the players and to not have to make up room contents on the fly. It’s also a chance to throw in some cute asides, so as to break up the horror with a few chuckles. (some disagree with this. Some need ex-lax).

Another creepy bit that was left on the floor was the following:

“The last record anyone has of the Drawn arriving was in 1930’s Hollywood, when Silas J. Ulney, surrealist filmmaker, shot a film that was just pure white with an eerie and unsettling soundtrack. It was shown once, at a viewing party at his home in Burbank. Three days later, after his guests failed to return home, the LAPD kicked in the door to find the entire party slaughtered and mutilated in ways that drove even hardened officers to madness. The only survivor was Unley’s manservant – a “slow” fellow who was blamed for the whole thing, and later hung himself in his cell. The film was never found.”

Another thing that was needed, but not realized to be missing until after publication, was something to flesh out the dreaded State Police. Admittedly the PCs would have completely avoided them if all had gone well, but even if they did it would have been useful to have a point person (let’s call her Det. Maude Pistoftzion) who could be encountered obliquely – just leaving as they’re arriving, just arriving as they’re leaving, heard shouting around corners or from behind office doors.

It would have also been instructive to explain why they were so intent on pinning the blame on poor Crane. Not that police have ever needed a reason to suspect the wrong person, but why are they so intent on blaming him, in spite of a blood orgy of evidence that all but shrieks “he could not have done this, this was something much worse than him?” And once the PCs finished the autopsies, and learned that the damage done to the cadavers was not something any human agency could have arranged, why would they continue to press on as if they had the prime suspect?

Let’s call it the Harlequin Rule (2): a loose understanding amongst New England state cops that’s existed since the early parts of the 20th century. When they find a murder done by something that seems almost supernatural, there is no profit in investigating beyond a certain point. If you keep pulling that thread, the agent might get riled up to kill even more civilians, and cops will wind up crippled, insane, or dead. Seen in that light, it’s just better to let whatever did the killing go on its way and hope it doesn’t come back again.

So, when faced with something like that, the Stateys stop asking questions after a certain point and try to pin it on someone who either can’t really defend themselves for various reasons. In Crane’s case it was perfect – not only was he mentally divergent, and possessing of a juvenile record, but he was right there when it happened and covered in blood. Who could have asked for more? “Book ‘em, Dan-O!”

What really matters: One more thing that, in retrospect, I wish I had changed. “Dispatching or chasing off the Drawn, and halting their return, are the primary victories” emphasizes the wrong end of the horse.

The goal is not to confront the Drawn, or defeat them. The point is to save Sam Crane from a lifetime of jail or institutions. Detective Smit says as much when he begs them to help, but in all the crime scene searching and occultism rolls and autopsies, the notion that the party has come across a force to be dealt with, rather than an adversary to fight, might get lost. If they can defeat them, great, but it might be better to know that (1) the creatures can only remain here for a short amount of time and (2) they’re linked to Bledney.

So there should have been something on damage control, rather than just combat. The notion of evacuating the area and setting up a cordon, ostensibly to search for the “real” killers (without actually searching), should have been mentioned. And while that was going on, the more cunning PCs could be working to get Crane off the hook, or finding a way to pin it on someone else.

Deprived of fresh victims, there’s a chance the Drawn would come out to try for one last bit of fun. They might also just take their pet human and go back to the White Beyond. But absent any magic or psi the party would be lucky not to lose one or more members trying to macho it out; something could have been said for having a local officer insist on coming along so the amateurs wouldn’t disturb the evidence, thus providing a useful redshirt for the Drawn to demonstrate their power upon.

So I’m saying it now: think about Crane, not the confrontation. Find the facts and figure what to do with them. Change what minds they can, fool the ones they can’t. And try to get as few people killed as possible.

And if that sounds familiar, it’s probably because you’ve heard it on a show about time travel (not the one with guns, vampirism, and a talking dog).


Little Bits:

My new friends have shown me so much” is a, ahem, wink to “where we’re going, we won’t need eyes to see.” Gotta love some Sam Neill.

There is something innately heartbreaking and infuriating about people who try to monetize their pets. I had a horrible daydream once about a man who bought a sadly deformed cat from a shelter, planning to make her the next Lil Bub. He spent all his money on the project but to no avail. The dream ended with him in a pit of despair, shrieking at this poor animal who didn’t understand why she wasn’t being treated like a queen, anymore. I suppose that’s why I’m always vicariously doing away with people who try similar things (hence the appearance of Napoleon). Please, for the love of the Gods, love your animals for who they are, not for what they might bring you.

Stoebers is real, and much nicer than described. It’s one of the oldest bars in Lansing and is famous for its stained glass wizard backdrop. Drop by Lansing sometime and I’ll meet you there for a drink.(3)

  1. The van kidnappers were never found, eventually becoming the stuff of neighborhood legend. Everyone knew someone who’d had a close call, but no one actually got snatched. And kids whose parents were police were told to tell us it just wasn’t true. But Ken swore, up until he joined his grandmother a few years back (#fuckcancer), that it’d almost happened to him, too. And I believe him.
  2. Possibly named after some cyclical murders in a certain rundown town. They don’t clown around in Maine.
  3. Maybe.

Cut Material: House Descriptions

The three houses were designed by the same architect, who operated under the principle of “reflected residences”: barring a few additions, the Davidson and Claxton houses are mirror images of one another, with Bledney’s forming a centerpiece of the two.

The Claxtons’: The decor seems at war with itself: half is tasteful, well-considered purchases born from tempered wealth, the other is grotesquely focused on parrots – the late Napoleon in particular. There’s an off, rotten smell: the flesh-parrots that came from Sharnette hopped into corners to die (15% IN EACH ROOM THERE’S AT LEAST ONE).

First Floor:

1: Foyer. A riot of evidence tags marks where remains were found. A dried pool  of blood lies just inside the front the door, Crane’s footsteps leading to and  from it. On the left and right are small closets.

2: Living Room: Comfy couches, large television, parrot table-lamps.

3: Downstairs bathroom: Tasteful towels, leering parrot picture over the toilet.

4: Utility Room: Washer and Dryer. Large desk, notes for parrot shows.


5: Kitchen / Dining Room: Expensive appliances, fancy furniture, parrot plates.

6: Sliding pantry: Multi-Level Marketing brands, expensive diet birdseed.

7: Reading Room: Inbuilt shelves, parrot table lamps, son’s neglected homework.

Garage: Matching Lamborghinis (PRTBOY & PRTGRL), unused yard tools.

Second Floor

1: Hallway Landing: Creepy photos of Napoleon

2: Upstairs Bathroom: Tub with shower, parrot décor.

3: Son’s bedroom: Sports and Hard rock, unread books. (Pot in closet)

4: Junkroom: Pictures and possessions of late wife, boxed and tossed into corners.

5: Napoleon’s Room: Bedroom and shrine to the beloved avian emperor (RIP)

6: Master Bath: Parrots, parrots everywhere.

7: Walk-in closet: his tacky getups, her fancy show apparel.

8: Master Bedroom: Luxurious bed, antique dresser, no parrots anywhere.

Davidsons: The house is a testament to one life of high technical achievement, another of seemingly-wasted potential, and a terrible loss. Numerous awards, and framed photos of Mrs. Davidson  receiving them, are balanced against shelves full of books on how to write books and boxes of unsold, self-published novels about a two-gunned vampire time-traveler with a talking dog. Photos of their lost, oldest son predominate those of their two living ones. As with the Claxtons’, there is an off, rotten smell, strongest in the Foyer and TV Room.

1: Foyer: Evidence tags sit on each floor tile, and up against both sides of the  entrance to the Dining Room. Two huge, pearl blue vases frame the doorway; the missing Butler – boneless and staring – is stuffed into the left one. Between is the                         dried pool of blood, with Crane s footprints leaving. On the left and right are small closets.

2: TV Room: Large comfy couches, theater television. One large brown cushion breaks the green color scheme: the family’s dog was rearranged into a headless, legless lump and left to suffocate.

3: Downstairs Bathroom: Green décor. Functional furnishings. Neat as a pin.

4: Utility Room: Washer and Dryer. Writer’s Nook with boxes of books. Stairs.

5: Kitchen / Dining Room: Economical appliances. Cheap plates. Green theme.

6: Sliding Pantry: Well-stocked. Canned goods. Easy fixings.

7: Mom’s Office: Shrine to personal achievement. Tidy desk. Technical journals.

8: Butler’s Quarters: Prim and proper. Hidden diary full of rage (ungrateful kids,                           useless husband, lazy Crane, wife deserves better).

9: Butler’s Bathroom: Shower stall. Starfish motif.

GARAGE: Family sedan. All-purpose teenager’s car. Well-used garden tools.

Second Floor

1: Hallway Landing: Creepy photos of lost son.

2: Upstairs Bathroom: Kids’ toiletries. Comfy towels.

3: Lost Son’s Bedroom: A museum of mourning. Sports and trophies.

4: Son’s Room: Sci-fi toys. Boy band posters.

5: Daughter’s Room: Tasteful furnishing, questionable taste in YA books. The                               The air seems thick and moist; staying too long leaves a coppery taste in one’s mouth. (She was aerosolized and left to float.)

6: Master Bathroom: Neat and clean. Not entirely happy.

7: Walk-in Closet. His t-shirts, her business attire.

8: Master Bedroom: Cheerful furniture. A sad bed. Much too neat.

Crane’s Cabin

1: Bedroom/Kitchen: A bed, a dresser, a table, a chair, a stove, and a small refrigerator . All other contents have been tossed and strewn in the hunt for   evidence. What’s there speaks of a quiet young man who didn’t like to read, and spent his off hours watching shows on his cell phone and eating boxed dinners.

2: Bathroom: Also tossed, but hidden behind the mirror over the sink is a diary, in  which he has written the same thing every day for the last X years: “I will do better. I have a second chance and I will honor it. Today I will be fine.”

Bledney: A shine to the genius of its occupant, the entire house is filled with unsold originals and reproductions of his placed works, displayed in large, garish frames that deliberately clash with their contents. The other two houses felt bad, this one feels even worse – as if something cosmically horrible had taken place in its walls.

First floor

1: Foyer: A wide, circular room with a pair of curving staircases, each leading from the side of the doorway to the second floor landing. Directly across from the door is a massive, red painting that goes from the floor to the landing. The red is                            actually his manservant – somehow liquefied without coagulating.

2: Studio: An oddly-neat workspace with everything labeled and indexed, as if the paintbrushes were scientifically catalogued for effect. A massive easel dominates the room, but there’s nothing on it. The awful feeling has its epicenter here.

3: Claxton bathroom: Stinks of paint thinner. White Tile. No paintings.

4: Utility Room: Washer and Dryer. Wood paneled walls. Manservant Monthy.

                        5: Kitchen / Dining Room: Arty appliances. White furniture. Blue paintings,                                   copper frames.

6: Pantry: Well-stocked cupboards. Primary colored foodstuffs.

7: Reception room: White walls. Many colorful Paintings. Grey decor. Closet.

8: Hidden Studio. The massive painting in the foyer slides to allow entrance to                              Bledney’s secret world.  In here are all the paintings he couldn’t get right, as well as a few that went too far. The white painting is here, up on the wall. Bledney, blindfolded, paints using blood that won’t congeal, and doesn’t care about dead people. “My new friends have shown me so much,” he keeps saying. Behind the blindfold his eyes are gone – sockets covered with flesh.  He may or may not be alone (See Confrontation, below).

Second Floor:

1: Upstairs Landing: Yellow paintings. Purple Walls.

2: Lagueux’ Front Room: Tasteful décor. No paintings. How to Butle, 4th ed.

3: Lagueux’s Bedroom: Big Bed. Small television. Clue on DVD.

4: Lagueux’s Bathroom: Fresh Spring smells. Tidy as anything.

5: Bledney’s Dayroom: Small reproductions of all sold works. White chair.                                     Stereo.

6: Bledney’s Bedroom: Old ratty couch. Coffee maker. On a table is a very rare                             biography of obscure French artist Demont Donadieu (1834-1868,                                              supposedly vanished while painting).

7: Bathroom: Quite tidy and clean. Tub full of squeaky toys.


Posted in Designer's Notes and tagged , .

Leave a Reply