Trail of Cthulhu

By on 28 February 2008

I bought this back at Dragonmeet, this version is softcover and is 243 pages. As far as I know it has been slightly edited for the new hardcover version but I doubt there are many changes.

Starting right at the front, ToC has a rather lovely cover by Jerome Huguenin (who does all the artwork in the book), depecting a cop, reporter and a detective or PI looking at a dead body in a canal. There’s a tentacle trailing away in the foreground. I really like it and think it sets the tone for the book perfectly.

Then there’s the normal credits and contents page (except my credits page has an exclusive pic by Jerome on it, a close up of a Xothian I think, he drew pics for anyone who bought a copy of ToC at Dragonmeet), which lead us into the introduction.

2 pages long, this explains why the author has decided to do a GUMSHOE system version of Cthulhu, this is pretty standard for anyone who’s read any of the other GUMSHOE rpg’s in that the basic reason is that he was fed up with investigative games being buggered up by a failed “Spot hidden” skill or the like.
He then explains the difference between playing in the “Pulp” or “Purist” style. ToC has been set up to be played either (or a mixture of both) ways and throughout the book there are little snippets as to how you can alter the rules in small ways to set the tone of your games to either spectrum. Basically Pulp plays to the action crowd a little more, whereas Purist plays to the Investigative side. The game never deviates from being a Cthulhu game though so it is always streaked through with a desperate air. It’s just that Pulp characters are a little tougher and thus more likely to survive any adventures, although they will still probably end up being totally bonkers mad!

The Investigator
This chapter deals with character creation and adilities. PC’s chose an occupation from a list of 19. Some, such as Antiquarian, Artist and Author, are singled out as being particulary Lovecraftian in nature. Occupations give you a series of Occupational abilities (more on these later), a credit rating band and a special ability. These special abilities usually are used to help other PC’s or yourself mid game (such as a Doctors ability to heal other characters more effectivly than non medical personnel) or get extra equipment or abilites (Pilots have access to an airoplane, Antiquarians can decide they have in informative or suitable antique, relevant to the current adventure, “back at the shop”). Some occupations receive sligtly more Pulpy abilities in a Pulp game, Priests can bless holy water for example and use it to deal damage against supernatural (though not Mythos) creatures.
Characters then choose a “Drive”. This a cool little feature that explains just why your character would even consider traipsing off after Eldritch Horrors (or even mundane ones) in the first place. Denying your drive results in
ToC has a points based character creation system, with the amount of points given depending on how many PC’s there are. There are no stats as such, and each player can spend their points on Investigative Abilities or General Abilities. Investigative abilities deal with all the things you need to uncover clues during an adventure and are further split into Academic (Architecture, Biology, History, Library Use etc, Interpersonal (Bargain, Flattery, Interrogation etc) and Technical (Art, Forensics, Pharmacy etc). General abilities deal with things like athletic ability, firearms use and driving vehicles etc. They also contain health, sanity and stability. Why sanity and stability I hear you cry, well dear reader, as explained by Mr Hite in the book, some characters in Lovecraft’s work were quite clearly totally bonkers but managed to convince others they were normal. Such a character would have a low sanity but a high stability. It’s quite a cool mechanic and probably deserves a much better explanation than I can give!

Clues, Tests and Contests
This section deals with the mechanics of the game, it tells Keepers how to resolve Investigative and General abilities and has the rules for Sanity and Stability loss.
I really like the GUMSHOE system, if a character has spent any of his build points in an invetigative ability it means he is an expert in that field. If you come across a situation where your ability would be of use, the Keeper automatically gives you the information if you use said ability. This sounds really basic but there’s a bit more to it than that. The amount of points you have spent in the ability give you a pool to use in the adventure. You can spend these points to get extra information from the Keeper. Having gathered the evidence from the Keeper it’s up to the PC’s to determine what it all means and piece it all together. Note that this only applies to Investigative abilities, General abilities work differently. With these the Keeper sets a target number, ranging from 2-8. The PC then tries to beet this with a single d6 roll, before rolling the dice though the PC can elect to spend points from his pool.
It all sounds really basic but I found it works well in play and helps keep things moving along and focused on the investigation, which after all, is the point of the adventure! Combat uses the same mechanic, with players having to beat a target number of 3 to hit most opponents. Damage is rolled on a d6 with modifiers from -2 for unarmed to +2 for point blank gunshots. Trail expands on the original GUMSHOE rules by including extra effects for submachine guns and the like which basically just add to the chance of hitting when firing on auto.
The best part of this section in my opinion is the Sanity and Stability part. Of the 2 stability is the ability that is going to take the biggest hammering in a game of ToC. It’s your “mental and emotional resistance to trauma of any kind, natural, human or supernatural.” This stat is likely to go down quite a bit in a Cthulhu game but it is reasonably easy to bring back up. For every 3 points you’ve put in Stability you name a Source of Stability – a single person that helps keep you sane and grounded. You regain stability by spending time with this person(s) in between adventures. You can also regain stability mid game by being reassured by other pc’s or npc’s with the (funnily enough) Reassurance ability.
Sanity is pretty similar. Every 3 points in sanity gives you a Pillar of Sanity – an ideal or aspiration that the PC beleives in implicitly, such as Patriotism, Family Values etc. In game terms it is your characters ability to ignore the horrifying truth of the world (the existence of the Mythos and other supernatural entities) and carry on as “normal”. It is harder to lose Sanity than Stability but then again, it is a lot harder to gain it back, indeed in Purist games you can’t unlearn what has been learned and gain any Sanity back – ever!

The Cthulhu Mythos
This is the single largest section in the book at over 80 pages long. Here are included rules for Mythos, natural and supernatural creatures, spells and spell casting (not good for stability or sanity!) and cults and cultists. The descriptions of the creatures are quite atmospheric and give some nice examples of the kind of clues such creatures would leave behind, and what abilities would find them. For example, the following is the Forensics evidence that might be left behind by a Dark Young of Shub-Niggurath. “The knife wounds didn’t kill him – they were superficial cuts at best – although the blood loss was serious even before whatever happened. The face and mouth cavities are full of blackish pus. Ulcerated open sores are on the anterior of the body, though that clear grease has dried now. The expression on what’s left of the face is… well, if you didn’t know better, you’d say it was religious ectasy.”
This section is filled with evocative text like that, I found it really interesting, but although I’ve played a fair bit of Call of Cthulhu in my time, I’ve never really delved deep into the background. I’ve only ever owned the main CoC rulebook so I don’t know how much use this would be to those more experienced in Cthulhu lore, if the only exposure to Cthulhu mythos is this book though, it gets the official Jez Gray Guarantee of Satisfaction*!

The Thirties
This being the default setting time of ToC it gets a nice little section to itself. Fairly generic for the most part there is a good amount of inspiration for what kind of Mythos threats you would find in different countries around the globe, I mean, did you know that in Egypt “A Bedouin cult worships a monstrous Thing dwelling under the Pyramids, and one of Ghatanothoa’s surviving cults lurks in Upper Egypt.” I didn’t but reading this chapter I found that several adventure ideas began to form in my twisted imagination.

Putting it all together
A well written advice for GM’s section. It has some good ideas on pacing and the introduction of clues into adventures, worth a read.

Campaign Frames
Advice on how to structure a ToC campaign. Like the previous section this has some nice ideas, not sure if experienced GM’s would learn anything new but I got some good ideas from it.

The Kingsbury Horror
Quite a good adventure, lots of atmosphere and it’s based on some real murders from the period in Cleveland. I do think it would be quite hard for an inexperienced GM to run effectively but it seemed to make sense to me and I might even give it a go. It’s good for a starting adventure in a main rulebook anyway!

Stuff for converting CoC to ToC! List of sources used. Character sheets and the like. And a decent Index which is always nice! 😀

So, overall I really liked Trail of Cthulhu. The system is sound, there’s lots of atmosphere in the text and the illustrations are of the highest calibre throughout. The difference between Pulp and Purist styles isn’t massive, it’s mainly in the type of characters you would play and a lot would, obviously, be up to the Keeper in his portrayal of the world.
If you’re not already a Cthulhu fan or just don’t like the BRP system, or are looking for a good horror RPG then I would heartily reccommend ToC.
I’m not too sure if you’re already a big fan of Call of Cthulhu though. I think a lot of the info in this book is stuff that you’ve probably got a good handle on already. The rules are different enough that you may want to check this out just for that, if you’ve already had a look at the GUMSHOE system though and decided you don’t like it, there isn’t anything in here that’s going to change your mind.
One minor niggle for me is that the protective cover on, erm, the cover has started to peel away already, this obviously wont be a problem if you buy the hardback but it’s a bit annoying for me!

Final Score – 8/10

Reviewed by Jez Grey

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Guest isn't a real person, but this review has been written by one (a real person that is). They kindly submitted it for publication here. Their details are contained in the body of the review.

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