Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Review: Trail of Cthulhu

So yeah, blah blah blah Lovecraft, blah blah blah blah monsters blah blah mythos blah blah blah blah insanity blah blah death blah blah blah blah elder blah old blah blah blah hokey religion...

To those who know of the Cthulhu mythos already (either from the books or earlier games), the telling above is only slightly exaggerated; any explanation of that world in game terms fades into a droning buzz at the edge of consciousness. And those who have been bored to tears by one tired iteration after another look to the sky and plead to strange authors, "Isn't there some way to make this material interesting again?"


[Image from the cover of the book. 'Trail of Cthulhu, by Kenneth Hite, based on the GUMSHOE system by Robin D Laws']


So yeah, blah blah blah Lovecraft—no, wait, I did that bit already. How unfortunate. I might actually have to use words this time.

The writings of H.P. Lovecraft described a world divided into two realms: the human world, orderly, good and bad in its own small, petty ways; and the world of the mythos, of beings who exist on a power level beyond imagining or comprehension, that to grasp their true nature is to surrender your grasp on the human world and inevitably go mad, if you don't die from the exposure to the knowledge first. It is the original and quintessential case of "that which does not kill you makes you stranger."

The irony is that for a setting in which it is madness to know too much about the enemy, it has entirely too many fans who know the material inside and out. And this knowledge harms playability. It's kind of hard to act surprised and horrified when the GM describes a creature to you, and you can not only name it, but off the top of your head you can name the six of Lovecraft's stories that it appears in.

Investigating Games for Investigating Games? Quelle nouvelle!

Call of Cthulhu through all its six editions has been about investigation of strange events and exploration of that terrifying world of the unknowable. Interestingly, its earlier editions were built using the same system that was used for the likes of Elric and RuneQuest—games with a much more pronounced physicality. Given the choice of system, it would be almost forgivable to treat sessions of the old game as a good old down-home "monster stomp." And while that can be fun, investigations can still go off the rails.

Pelgrane Press's GUMSHOE—and yes, it's thatGUMSHOE that I reviewed before—was designed for investigation of strange events and exploration of a world that you probably didn't want to know about. It was designed explicitly to keep investigative scenarios from going off the rails by giving the players all the evidence and controlling their interpretation.

Just add more prominent Sanity rules like they did, and it's all set.

I'm ready for my close-up, Mr. Pickman...

There's one other thing that Trail of Cthulhu changed out, and it's not only a doozy, it's the game's saving grace and the number one reason you should try this version.

But first, are you familiar with the "Deities & Demigods Problem"? Look, I'm sorry if you didn't have the clutch engaged for that gear change, but are you?

The problem states that if you give a creature "normal" stats, then it's only a matter of time before someone tries to "deal" with that creature using "normal" combat. Furthermore, it's only a matter of time until someone using "normal" combat measures, for values of "normal" that are off the charts, admittedly, succeeds.

The earliest versions of D&D'sDeities & Demigods took the principles from numerous real-world faiths and gave them the stat blocks of normal monsters. If the intent was to provide a relative power scale between different supernatural entities, it would have worked, but all they really ended up doing was creating Monster Manual: Epic Edition.

This is something Trail of Cthulhu doesn't do. The smaller creatures that the player characters would have a chance of taking out in normal combat have stat blocks. The big name entites, the heavy hitters of the mythos, aren't just not stat-blocked, they're not even necessarily physical entities.

Each high-level being is described in terms of the mythos, and then numerous suggestions and interpretations of what the being is, sometimes in terms of conventional science and magic, sometimes not even that well nailed down. The GM can pick, choose, and mix his own, keeping the investigators in the dark and on their toes until the time of the reveal.

More importantly, this keeps the players in the dark and on their toes until the time of the reveal. Yeah, it must be the work of (high-powered, nebulously defined being), but what form has it taken, and how do we prevent it from (doing something very bad)?


For all the changes wrought to the mythos side, in tone at least it is true to its roots. The book's look and feel has that 1920s stoic sensibility about it, a fitting contrast to the madness that is calmly described within.

Admittedly, that "stoic sensibility" could get a little monotonous. The book's tone remains level through the descriptions of the various spells and creatures described within. If this seems like a bad thing, it may be, but I seem to recall the writing of the period being level in that same way.


Ah, now here's where it gets interesting.

[Graphic: Image from 'Appendix D' which depicts the people named below in straitjackets.]

Trail of Cthulhu is based in the GUMSHOE system, which is the brain child of gaming luminary Robin D. Laws, among other people. It has been used for horror gaming in the past (The Esoterrorists, Fear Itself) to good effect, so it's more or less up to the task.

But Wait, There's More! This new take on gaming within the Cthulhu mythos is credited to another gaming luminary, Kenneth Hite.

And unfortunately, given the two big names here, it'd be easy to overlook the influence of two other people.

Simon Rogers, who edited and published this and has numerous generic supplements under his belt. He also has credits on the Dying Earth roleplaying game.

And the very distinctive look in the book is achieved by Jérôme Huguenin, who has also done the layout and artistry work on all of Trail of Cthulhu's supplements, as well as pretty much any other GUMSHOE book or supplement, and a few for Dying Earth books too.


Trail of Cthulhu is a 248-page book with duotone glossy pages (white-green-black) and a full table of contents and index. There is also a PDF version.

There are also a number of supplements out for it already, containing mostly adventures. They have the same stylish duotone sensibilities as the original book, which really ties them together visually.

In other contexts, though, that color scheme might be considered ...off-putting. I mean, sure, that's the green of ichor, of unnatural schlorping horrors, and of eldritch vaporous apparitions, but it's also the color of day-old creamed spinach and that which issues forth from sick babies. Sega chided Nintendo over the original Gameboy because of that color, fercryinoutloud.


Mechanically, it's GUMSHOE. It's, for lack of a better word, a limited diceless game in that you only roll dice for physical tests and those tasks where success should not be guaranteed.

And this should beg the question, "When should success be guaranteed?

The answer is, "during investigation and information scenes, where the players will absolutely need all of the facts to put together what's going on." This is what separates GUMSHOE from a lot of other systems: it takes its investigation so seriously it changes the mechanics of the game to ensure that all clues are found and used ...eventually.

To attempt anything, you have to spend from your skill pools. If it's an investigative skill (and about three quarters of the skills are investigative), you get the information. If it's a physical or challenge skill, you decide how many points to spend, add them to 1d6, and try to beat the difficulty number or the other guy.

Once spent, the points are gone until the pools refresh. Investigative pools don't refresh until the end of the investigation, while action pools refresh whenever the characters can get to some sort of safe haven.


Characters in Trail of Cthulhu are as simple as characters are from any other GUMSHOE system: they're composed of (primarily) a name, some trackable vitals like health and stability and sanity, a list of skills.

Everybody has to do something

GUMSHOE does its bit to make any session an ensemble effort by adjusting character creation according to how many people are playing. The fewer people there are, the more points they can allocate to their investigative skills. If there are more people, each character gets a smaller allotment of investigative points, essentially to force each character to pull his own weight.

Ways to Lose It Faster

Trail of Cthulhu characters also have two other traits to mark that inexorable descent into madness. Pillars of Sanity are base concepts of the conventional world that you have faith and trust in; samples include scientific laws, human dignity, moral principles, patriotism and national virtue, etc. Sources of Stability are people close to your character, and in certain games you'll have one of those for each few points of Stability your character has. Anything that damages one of those could cause damage to the related attribute.

This is something Call of Cthulhu never really did, and I applaud Trail of Cthulhu for finding a way of attaching personal details to the character.


The book's layout has that late Victorian vibe about it, but make no mistake there is another clearly defined way to play it.

The game's name for these is Campaign Frame, and there are two: the Purist frame, which employs the full 1920s sensibility; and the Pulp frame, which allows for a more sanguine, almost monster-stomp-like style.

If you want a more Cthulhu Now! thing going on, you'll either need to extrapolate or pair Trail of Cthulhu with either The Esoterrorists or Fear Itself. Mind you, that combination should work effortlessly and would be awesome.

Play This Game If...

  • You like investigative scenarios
  • You hate investigative scenarios specifically because they stall when you don't find all the information you need
  • You want new settings for your GUMSHOE game
  • You want new surprises out of your Cthulhu game

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