Trail Of Cthulhu
From: Pelgrane Press
Reviewed by: Ron McClung
Trail Of Cthulhu is a new Role Playing Game Core Rule Book from Pelgrane Press.
One of the most enduring role playing game subjects is, of course, the Cthulhu mythos. Associate your game concept with anything related to H.P. Lovecraft, and you are almost guaranteed a success. Trail of Cthulhu (ToC) by Pelgrane Press came out of nowhere and won Silver Ennies for Best Writing and Best Rules at GenCon 2008. This was a game that definitely caught my attention.
From the back cover:
“Pelgrane Press under arrangement with Chaosium Inc. presents…”
Content: Contained within this book is all you need to play ToC role playing game. After a short introduction, The Investigator chapter covers character generation (see below). Occupations include the basic ones you might remember from Call of Cthulhu (CoC). Archeologist, Antiquarian, Author, Clergy, Criminal, Military, and Nurse are just a few. There are nearly 20 occupations to choose from. A few have customization options, like Military, which allows you to choose a branch of the military. Also interspersed in the pages of the character generation section are historical context references and factoids about the 1930s in the US.
Following the character generation chapter is the rules system chapter. At the heart of ToC is the Gumshoe system, by Robin D. Laws. Contained in there are the rules for Clues, Tests and Contests. Clues a are key part of the Gumshoe system. Tests are your basic task resolutions. Contests include opposed tests, combat, and chases. I delve deep into this below.
The Cthulhu Mythos section contains everything Cthulhu related that a Keeper would need – gods, monsters, creatures, alien races, tomes, magic and cults. There are over 20 mythos gods included, such as Cthulhu, Hastur, Nodens and Yog-Sothoth. There are also nearly 30 creatures and alien races, all familiar to those that have played CoC, as well as a section on beasts and animals like snakes, lions and lake monsters (OH MY!). Cults and Cultists, at the end of this chapter, provides the reader with examples of cults mentioned in the mythos as well as advice on creating cults for your own game. There is also the Tomes and Magic section, which contains the Magic system for ToC.
Following the Mythos chapter is The Thirties – a historical reference for the Keeper about the 1930s around the world as well as technology of the day. This section is not overly detailed, but it definitely gives you enough to work with. It is not an encyclopedia either. Interspersed amongst the facts of 1930s life are notes about fictional events in the Lovecraftian world. As compared to the Call of Cthulhu rulebook, CoC has far more information, but there is different information in ToC and they do put a slightly different spin on it. Also included in this section is the equipment section. In the minimalist style of the game system, this equipment has more description than stats.
One of the major differences is the overall setting. Because ToC is set in the 1930s instead of the traditional mid to late-1920s of CoC, there are different options for the Keeper to explore. With the world on the brink of a new world war, Nazis and Communists are both seen as enemies at the time, for example. The Depression gripped the world during this time. Organized crime, international espionage and civil wars sparking in some parts of the world made it a dangerous place in general.
The last sections of the book help the Keeper to run a ToC game. This includes something called Campaign Frames. Campaign Frames help the Keeper construct a campaign and give the players a framework to work with to make their characters. This is not something unique, but it is rare when a game gives the GM something this simple and concise.
The ToC book ends with a sample adventure called The Kingsbury Horror. This is a brilliant take on a true serial killer story from the 1930s that brings in one of my favorite 1930s historical figures, Eliot Ness.
Rules: The first mechanic they introduce is the concept of Purist vs. Pulp. There are two ways to play a Lovecraftian Horror game that ToC identifies – Purist or Pulp. The Purist approach is more dark and dismal, focusing on the philosophical horror that eventually dooms those that seek to investigate it. This is more prevalent in H.P. Lovecraft’s latter works. The Pulp approach is illustrated in works by people like Robert E. Howard and is more survivable for the characters. The book denotes the aspects that are more attuned to one or the other by a set of symbols. These symbols can be found throughout the book, primarily in terms of point and ability caps. An example of a difference between the two types – in a Purist game, Sanity, when lost, is lost permanently and is not regenerated over time.
The mechanics surrounding character generation is simple but somewhat surprising at first. First and foremost, a character does not have attribute scores like Strength, Intelligence and Dexterity. Skills and attribute scores are merged into one list of Abilities. There are Academic Abilities, Interpersonal Abilities, Technical Abilities and General Abilities. I found this interestingly innovative.
Along with Occupation, the player chooses a Drive – what makes the character do the things he does. Drive is at the heart of the character and gives you a role playing framework on how the character should be played. Drive effects Stability if the player resists or does something contrary to the drive. Stability is your resistance to mental trauma, not to be confused with Sanity which is a measure of how strong you sustain your ‘belief in any fundamental human concerns whatsoever’ (pg 46). These two fundamentally different but interlinked concepts are explained later in the book, when you deal in the loss of Stability and Sanity. Each character starts out with a default value of 4 Sanity and 1 Stability.
Players select an Occupation and then spend Build Points on his character’s abilities. These Build Points that are invested into abilities translate to Rankings in the given ability. There are two categories of Build Points – General and Investigative. There is a fixed number of General Build Points (65) and there is a variable number of Investigative points, based on the number of players in the party. General points can be spent on General Abilities. The Investigative Points can be spent on the other abilities. If the ability is listed under the character’s occupation, you spend less Build Points for more Rankings. Rankings are the measure of each ability and are your Abilities Point Pools used for tests.
Build points are usually spent on a 1 Build Point for 1 Ranking basis. If the ability is an Occupation Ability, it is spent on a 1 for 2 ratio. It should be noted that Build Points are also spent on three key abilities that are a little different from the others – Sanity, Stability and Health. Sanity and Stability are closely linked together (see below) and Health is your hit points as well as your ability to resist infection or poison.
What is unique about this character generation system is that everything is points driven. Nothing is derived from other stats. This gives you an incredibly wide range of customization options. At first I did find it weird, as I am very used to the standard RPG model of role stats, derive other stats, and then buy skills.
From the back cover:
“An Alliance both dread and inevitable”
The Gumshoe system is a very minimalist system and centers around several distinctive key aspects. The first thing you learn about it is the focus on story and the puzzle solving. This is evident in their first key aspect – the Clue. An adventure, which is assumed to be a traditional investigation into some horrific mystery, is not all about finding the clues but rather interpreting the clues you find. In Gumshoe, you simply have to be in the right place, with the right Investigative Ability and ask the Keeper for the right thing, and you will have it. There is no test for finding the clues. This is interesting because it does focus on exactly what it says it does – the puzzle behind the clue. Investigative Abilities can also be spent as point pools on Benefits from clues. Getting a clue is usually not enough. Sometimes more Benefits can be derived from the clue. A player spends Investigative Ability points to gain these benefits.
The core task resolutions or Tests involve a single d6 and your abilities. The die is always compared against a difficulty that ranges from 2 to 8. The goal is get a number higher. The players ability can act as a pool of points the player can to add to the role. Once spent, these points are gone until the end of the adventure or case. This represents the character’s expenditure of resources to investigate the case. Traditionally, only General Skills are used for Tests in this manner
Combat is as simple as the rest of the system and not too different from standard ability tests. It is not particularly deadly because in their words – we plead guilty to making gunfights sort of survivable in the name of continuing drama. But on the other hand, characters are not supermen either. Instead of one shot killing a person, it might take 3 or 4, and after two, you could be already “Hurt” which can hinder a character as it is. It is designed to be fast and furious and survivable.
The “Sanity” mechanic is a little different from classic CoC. There are two abilities that measure a character’s mental strength – Stability and Sanity. Stability is the primary ability measure of resistance to mental and emotional trauma of any kind. It is likely to reduce throughout an adventure but equally likely to replenish between them. It is a short-term measure of a character’s mental state. Sanity, on the other hand, is the character’s ability to believe in, fear for, or care about any aspect of the world and humanity – human life, religion, family, etc. The book puts it best – The horrible truth of the Mythos is that Sanity is the measure of your ability to believe in a comforting lie – but a lie necessary in order to live as a human being rather than a soulless tool or plaything for the Great Old Ones. Sanity will probably slowly diminish over several adventure scenarios.
A Stability test is the most common mental check when things get hairy. Everything has a Stability Loss value and if the character fails his check, he losses the given amount for that encounter as well as the number of points he spent on the attempt from his Stability Pool. Stability can go into the negatives, however, which has some other bad effects as well.
Many people complain about traditional CoC games because it seems to them that all the characters eventually go insane. In ToC, I think this is somewhat alleviated by spreading out the different aspects of one’s sanity into different simple mechanics. It may not seem like it initially because the points seem so low but in practice, it does change things. This is especially evident with the ways to Recover Stability.
A special part of The Cthulhu Mythos, Tomes and Magic encompasses ways of using forbidden books of lore in your game as well as the Magic system. The Magic in this game holds true to the traditions of the Cthulhu mythos in that it is hard and even more dangerous to learn and accomplish.
Layout: The book is an impressive hardback tome. Brilliantly laid out, with great art and writing, Trail of Cthulhu is a great addition to any Cthulhu mythos gaming fan. The art is a little different than what a CoC would expect – a little darker and shadowy than the line art of the original CoC book. Also, an extra kudos to the publisher for a very complete Table of Contents as well as a good Index.
The one thing I found kind of annoying was the sheer number of quotes they used in the book. The fluff quotes tend to be a little excessive in the book, I feel, almost to the point that they are a distraction.
In conclusion, Trail of Cthulhu is an interesting and imaginative approach to the classic CoC horror adventure game. The classic CoC system is called the Basic Role Playing System but I think this system is even more basic than that. For those that like systems that do not get in the way of a good story, this is a system for you. This is not a simulationist system, by any means. It is a minimalist storyteller game geared perfectly for the type of 1930s mysteries the Cthulhu Mythos can drag you in. It is very enjoyable with the right kind of gaming group.
For more details on Pelgrane Press and their new Role Playing Game Core Rule Book “Trail Of Cthulhu” check them out at their website http://www.pelgranepress.com, and at all of your local game stores.
Trail Of Cthulhu
From: Pelgrane Press
Type of Game: Role Playing Game Core Rule Book
Written by: Kenneth Hite
Rules system by: Robin D Laws
Publisher: Simon Rogers
Cover Art by: Jerome Huguenin
Number of Pages: 247
Game Components Included: Hard back rule book
Game Components Not Included: Dice, pen, paper
Retail Price: $ 39.95 (US)
Reviewed by: Ron McClung