About OgreCave and its staff

Recent Reviews
Little Wizards
(Crafty Games)
Pathfinder Card Game
(Paizo Publishing)
Cthulhu Invictus Companion
Boss Monster!
(Brotherwise Games)
Murder of Crows
(Atlas Games)
Building an Elder God
(Signal Fire Studios)
Cthulhu Gloom
(Atlas Games)
D&D ShadowPlague v1
(IDW Publishing)

Archive highlights
GAMA Trade Show 2008 report, part 2
GAMA Trade Show 2008 report, part 1
Frag Beta Capsule Review (4/14/01)
Battle Cattle Minis Preview (2/28/01)

Reviews - Trail of Cthulhu
by Lee Valentine

Trail of Cthulhu coverTrail of Cthulhu
Published by Pelgrane Press
Written by Kenneth Hite
246 page b&w hardcover

This game is featured in our OgreCave Christmas Gift Guide 2008.

Reviewer's note: This is longer than my normal reviews, due to cross-comparisons with both the GUMSHOE and the Call of Cthulhu gaming systems.

Trail of Cthulhu is the newest volume in Pelgrane Press' GUMSHOE RPG series, produced under license from Chaosium Inc. GUMSHOE is an RPG system designed specifically to tell tales focusing on investigative mysteries. This entry into the GUMSHOE series focuses on the writings of H.P. Lovecraft, his colleagues, and his disciples. This milieu, termed the "Cthulhu Mythos" by August Derleth, focuses on cultists trying to commune with primordial alien races, dark gods, and other things man was not meant to know. The genre focuses on death, perversion of the flesh, paranoia, and the insatiable drive to make horrific discoveries that shatter men's minds and wholly undo formerly sacrosanct "truths" about our shared conceptions of reality. While other Cthulhu Mythos RPGs have delved into the 1920s or the modern era, Trail of Cthulhu is set in the 1930s.

About the Game's Author
Trail of Cthulhu was authored by Kenneth Hite. I own a copy of Hite's book Nightmares of Mine, and was excited to review Trail of Cthulhu for that reason. While Hite is undoubtedly the sole author for much of the book, for some sections he was more of an editor than an author, directly lifting certain sections either verbatim, or almost verbatim from older Chaosium Call of Cthulhu works or otherwise expanding upon materials authored by Sandy Petersen. Also, some of the selection of quotes from the authors of the Cthulhu Mythos stories will also be familiar to fans of Chaosium's other products. Of course, since the GUMSHOE system was created by Robin D. Laws, some of Laws' work is also present here. Nevertheless, Hite's personal contribution to the volume is substantial in its own right. For those unfamiliar with Hite's other writings, expect to read a book that is rich with references to history and fiction, as Hite is undoubtedly one of the industry's best read authors.

Trail of Cthulhu is published by Pelgrane Press. Simon Rogers, the principal of Pelgrane, is also in charge of ProFantasy, publisher of the popular Campaign Cartographer line of computer software products. Before the GUMSHOE series, Pelgrane Press was probably best known for their work on the Dying Earth RPG series.

Following the Trail
A large portion of Trail of Cthulhu is dedicated to character creation. These are not pages of minutiae, as with some other RPGs, but are instead rules designed to help you craft a really interesting investigator of the dark unknown. A lot of thoughtful information is provided throughout the text for both the players and the game master (or Keeper) on how to stay in character and promote the tenets of the genre.

In various parts of the book, two arcane symbols appear. They are keyed to the terms "Purist" and "Pulp", which are used to designate specific rules as being associated with one style of game over the other. This allows a GM and his players to craft their characters and gameplay along the lines of Lovecraft's own fictional creations, or to turn up the action a bit, and run the game with a more pulp fiction approach. This is an ingenious approach, and excellent suggestions were made throughout the book for optional rules for each of these campaigns styles. This method widens the target audience for the book, and gives players more freedom to explore and interpret the genre.

Mysteries in GUMSHOE
During the creation process, characters receive a certain number of points to allocate to Investigative Abilities. These are nominally skills like "Forensics" and "Archaeology". The number of points each player gets toward Investigative Abilities varies with the number of players who are in the campaign regularly. The rules give players just enough points to make sure that, collectively, the group of Investigators has all of the major Investigative Abilities, even if some are at 1 rank total. Players are encouraged as a group to diversify those abilities, rather than giving each character the same ones.

The GUMSHOE system has one key rule concerning mysteries: players always find all the core clues required to lead them from one scene in the adventure to the next and finally onto unraveling the mystery at hand. Historically, RPGs have made the acquisition of core clues to a mystery dependent on die rolls or overcoming some physical challenge. In a typical RPG, there could be one bad roll, and poof, the entire mystery adventure goes up in smoke and the players are derailed. Not so in a GUMSHOE system game.

To get a core clue the players must have a character with an appropriate skill, rated at 1 rank or higher, on the scene. The plot moves forward, and the mystery slowly unravels. Players have a number of "Pool" points in each Investigative Ability equal to their rating. A player can trade in points from a given Ability's Pool in order to have the GM award the player with secondary clues. Secondary clues will either embellish core clues revealing something cool about the overarching plot; will reveal something going on in a secondary mystery tangential to the main plot; or will move the players toward solving the mystery even faster. Spending from an Ability's Pool does not decrease a player's rating, so a player who has no points left in his "Forensics" Pool can still use that Ability to find core clues, but can no longer find secondary clues with that Ability until his Pool refreshes.

Skills & Combat
Each player picks one occupation for his character. In roleplaying terms, the occupation is either what you used to do before you started exploring the Mythos, or what it is you still have to do to bring in a paycheck. Which of these applies depends on whether the Keeper is running a more adventure-oriented game or a more soap operatic game. In game terms, an occupation provides a character with one or more special abilities (usually fairly minor), free points toward his Credit Rating score (see below), and acts as a cost deflator (half off) for a list of Investigative and General Abilities associated with the occupation.

Characters have skills unrelated to their Investigative Abilities as well, like "Athletics", "Scuffling", "Firearms", and the ever popular "Fleeing". These General Abilities have ratings and pools, but expenditures from these skills work differently. For General Abilities, the GM sets a difficulty for a given task (normally around 4), and a player spends points from the appropriate Pool (like "Athletics" for jumping a fence). The expenditure is added to the roll of a six-sided die, and if the result is equal to or greater than the chosen difficulty, then the character succeeds at the chosen action.

Combat is handled using "Scuffling" and "Fleeing" skills, but whenever a success is rolled it's time to roll damage, another six-sided die. The damage roll is modified by the type of weapon used, and the resulting damage is subtracted from the target's Health score, trying to drive him toward 0 and eventual unconsciousness or death.

A good selection of melee weapons, explosives, and firearms are included in the combat section. Unfortunately, firearms can sometimes require a somewhat dizzying array of specialized modifiers, range restrictions, and weapon-specific rules to be memorized. For example, if your character fires both barrels of a light double-barreled shotgun he cannot hit a target at long range. At other ranges, the shotgun blast does standard damage plus modifiers, which total +0 at near range, +1 at close range, and +4 at point-blank range. The GM is forced to calculate these numbers by applying up to 3 or 4 adjustments at the same time from up to 3 different pages of the rulebook. This would have been absolutely trivial to handle with a good GM's handout that pre-calculated this information. Such charts are provided for explosives and hand weapons, but not for firearms. I would have also liked to see a short section on how much damage a ramming vehicle can do to a Mythos creature, because that's how one character escapes Cthulhu himself in Lovecraft's fiction. Again, this was not present.

One interesting feature of Trail of Cthulhu is that much of the dice rolling in the game is player-centric. For example, the Fungi from Yuggoth don't roll to sneak up on you, you roll to see if you notice them sneaking about. This is not universally true throughout the system, and it is particularly not true in combat. But, whenever possible, the GM is encouraged to employ this method. While this will give players a greater sense of control over their characters' fates, it also can make the mechanics slightly more intrusive from the players' perspective.

There is a clean, attractive character sheet included in the rulebook. Unfortunately it lacks space for weapon information (range, damage, etc.); general possessions; Mythos tomes; and other game elements. I think Pelgrane Press needs to create a second page or back side for this character sheet for these very types of notes. A link to the character sheet is provided here and in the links section at the end of this review.

Abstraction, Not Quantification
The GUMSHOE system tends to work with abstractions rather than quantifications. A character may have a Fleeing rating of 8, but nothing in the game translates that to a MPH or KPH speed rating for foot races. Vehicles are rated in top speed, but primarily for determining how long it takes to get from point A to point B, since all characters and creatures have Athletics ratings using the standard pool system, and no conversions exist to calculate a conventional land speed from such ratings. For contests between vehicles and monsters, there is a multi-paragraph overview on such contests, which are not handled per the same mechanics, since Vehicles aren't rated with an Athletics score. Similarly, you won't find lifting charts that give you difficulties for various weights or other typical benchmarks found commonly in other RPG systems.

Perhaps the only rating that I recall that had both a game rating and a real world quantification was Credit Rating. Each level of Credit Rating comes with an approximate annual income. How much of this income was disposable income is not dealt with, and so it is not entirely obvious how much money a given investigator has to spend on a trip to Paris to view a newly discovered French translation of the Necronomicon. Credit Rating is primarily used as a surrogate for "social status" and is thus used to open social doors and to gather evidence. You don't make a Credit Rating Roll to buy a car, for example, as you might in some other RPGs.

I personally found the seemingly arbitrary mix of quantification and abstraction somewhat distracting, but I think it will probably work if the GM is willing to handwave some of the details. In the end, given that Trail of Cthulhu is about solving Mythos mysteries, and not collecting gold pieces, I think most GMs will find the Credit Rating system workable. For GMs who wish the price lists included in Trail of Cthulhu were a little longer, I've included a link to historical prices of the '30s at the end of this review.

Defining the Fragile Mind
As is typical of many horror games, Trail of Cthulhu has a Sanity score, and many things in a typical game will threaten to reduce a character's Sanity, driving him toward eventual post-traumatic stress or full blown insanity.

Unlike other games, Hite has chosen not to settle for one type of mental health attribute to describe characters. In addition to a Sanity Score, Trail of Cthulhu also has a Stability Score. Stability is how cool you are under fire, and how likely you are to start drooling and cackling off in a corner right this instant. Sanity is more of a measure of whether you are, in the long run, off your rocker, having had reality as you know it destroyed by what you have discovered about the Cthulhu Mythos. High Sanity is a sign that the character still believes in religion, science, and the value of humanity, while a character with a low Sanity score has come to realize that it's all a big lie and that humans are meaningless in the universe. For fans of the Showtime series Dexter, the main character is a serial killer who carefully hides his work, and lives by a code of ethics as to who he targets - but he is still driven to kill. In Trail of Cthulhu terms, Dexter is quite insane, but is stable with regards to his insanities. This dichotomy will certainly throw some readers for a loop, but after you grasp the differences, you will appreciate it. It is tough for the Keeper to remember, however, because some things require Stability Rolls, some things subtract from your Sanity Rating, some things subtract from your Stability Pool, etc.

Stability and Sanity are typically differentiated in the rules. However, losing enough Stability at one time can cause a permanent reduction of Sanity. Some things can affect both game stats simultaneously. Some losses are permanent, and some aren't.

If you can get past the intricacies of the Sanity/Stability system, I think you'll find it one of the most considered and ingenious parts of the book. That said, if I were to run Trail of Cthulhu tonight, I can promise you that a good 80% of the things I'd have to look up as a GM would be related to Sanity and Stability. Because of this, I really wish Pelgrane Press had included, either on their website or in the book itself, a summary table of what causes Stability loss versus Sanity loss, and what kinds of actions can restore each one. I strongly suspect that with such a summary table, I would have perceived these rules to be a bit more manageable.

Trail is geared toward a longer, slower descent into madness than is Call of Cthulhu. Nevertheless, Trail still has enough rules flexibility to allow a GM to trivially drive characters mad, even in a one-shot adventure, if that's the kind of game that he wants to run.

When your character goes permanently insane (i.e., he hits Sanity 0) he'll end up being the property of the GM, who will undoubtedly have your investigator make a guest appearance as a member of the Cult of Cthulhu next week. For temporary insanity, however, Trail of Cthulhu, like other GUMSHOE releases before it, has a variety of optional ways to help players stay in character with their temporarily insane investigators. For example, the GM is offered some really interesting advice for playing out certain types of madness, like paranoia - the affected player is asked to leave the room, and then when he comes back he finds everyone else passing notes, staring at him, and whispering to each other.

Motives and Mental Health
Each character has a Drive. A Drive is what keeps the character going into places that no reasonable, sane person would ever consider venturing. It's what makes the character read the Necronomicon, cover-to-cover, even knowing what effect it will have on him. Drives range from investigating for the sake of the adventure, or to get revenge against the Mythos for what it's done to a friend or family members. Mechanically, Drives function as both a carrot and a stick. The GM can make your character an offer that he can't reasonably refuse, pushing the character to do something in keeping with his Drive. If the character doesn't take the plot bait, his Stability can take a severe beating. If he goes along for the ride, then he regenerates a bit of Stability (which he'll undoubtedly use up later in investigating the Mythos).

For every three points of Sanity a character has, his player must write down one Pillar of Sanity. According to Hite, a Pillar of Sanity is an abstract principle representing some human concern that the character relies on implicitly to keep him sane and human. For every three points of Stability a character has, his player writes down one Source of Stability, which is a specific person that keeps the character mentally whole when the chips are down. Pillars of Sanity and Sources of Stability can be threatened by the Mythos, damaging the corresponding game statistic.

Recovery of Stability & Sanity
With all the Mythos monstrosities a character is exposed to, can he ever hope to remain sane? In a Purist game, characters typically never recover their lost Sanity points. In a Purist game, you have only two options to protect your Sanity Rating. First, at the end of an investigation, if there is no evidence of your encounter with the Mythos, then you can recover one Sanity Rating point. Second, when you are about to take a Sanity Pool loss, you can choose to have your character faint dead away, to reduce the loss substantially; but in doing so, you put your character at the mercy of the Keeper.

In a Pulp game, there is another way to recover some Sanity. You can recover 1-2 Sanity Pool points by defeating the Mythos antagonists of the current investigation.

Lost Stability Pool points are a little easier to recover. Visiting a Source of Stability allows a character to regenerate his Stability Pool between adventures. Visiting a shrink during an investigation can help boost a character's Stability Pool as well. As noted earlier, following your Drives can give you a Stability boost. In a Pulp game, clever roleplaying can result in a die roll (a "Confidence Roll") to regenerate points from your character's Stability Pool.

Mythos Magic & Tomes
Trail of Cthulhu has a fairly interesting Mythos magic system, and some notes on mystical tomes players might encounter. Fans of the genre will know that one of the most dangerous things a character can do in the world of H.P. Lovecraft is to read a book. Some books expose a character's fragile mind to dark truths of the universe. Sometimes exposing oneself to these truths is necessary to combat immediate threats to the world.

A character can either skim over a dark Mythos tome for a factoid, or pore over the tome to increase his understanding of the Mythos. The former is common for one shot investigations, but to really gain useful knowledge in the long run, characters have to pore over the tomes in their possession. Increasing your character's knowledge of the Mythos can lower your character's Sanity Rating permanently. I liked the system on tomes in Trail of Cthulhu, but the descriptions of the tomes were a bit sparse, focusing more on mechanical effects than flavorful descriptions.

There are two categories of magical Mythos spells: Incantations and Rituals. Characters can learn these from tomes, works of arts, from cultists, or from the Outer Gods themselves. Incantations are Stability-threatening or life-threatening, but are effectively unopposed actions requiring a roll. Sanity 0 casters always make their Incantation rolls. Rituals, in contrast, are contested actions which are opposed by "a summoned creature or the fabric of space time". Spells can be cast by a single caster, or by groups of cultists. Trail of Cthulhu features over 15 pages of information on spellcasting, enough to give a beginning GM something to work with.

Mythos Deities & Bestiary
Trail of Cthulhu divides the things that go bump in the night into three different categories: Mythos deities (major forces for destruction and chaos that are also called "Outer Gods" or "Great Old Ones"), Mythos monsters (including a variety of insanity-inducing alien races), and everything else (including hazards both mundane and supernatural, provided that everything in this latter category is not specifically Mythos-related).

The minor Mythos creatures and the weaker mundane and supernatural threats are all presented with brief stat blocks and some background information to let you know a bit about each beastie. While each entry does not provide a vast amount of information about each creature, there's enough to whet the appetite, and to start building adventures around.

The section on Cthulhu Mythos deities, however, is quite another matter. One of the first things I did when I cracked open this game was to look and see how Hite handled Cthulhu and his dread peers. While there are actual rituals for summoning up Hastur and his ilk, there is almost no game-specific information of any kind (other than Sanity/Stability loss information) concerning the big names in the Mythos. For each entity, Hite provided only a laundry list of possible explanations for the creature's existence (take your pick for your own campaign). However, he provided very few specifics as to the way that most of them would interact with our reality.

Hite dabbled in a sidebar with what I wanted the entire section to primarily consist of. He notes, for example, that Cthulhu may be powerful enough to summon up a tsunami. For me, providing a list of detailed special effects like this that each deity would cause when it entered our reality would have been invaluable, and would have made players find each of the major Mythos entities distinctly frightening. Even if players never encounter the Mythos deities directly, but only find out second hand about their temporary entry into our reality, one would hope that there would be distinctive evidence pointing toward a specific Mythos deity.

Does a given Mythos deity cause uncontrollable vertigo when he steps foot in our reality, make time pass more slowly, cause earthquakes, or radiate waves of homicidal mania? Those are the questions I wanted to have answered, and they often weren't, or else the answer was buried somewhere else in the book other than in a particular Great Old One's description.

Hite does make it clear that even in a pulp game, the Mythos deities are not critters for the players to stomp out casually with firearms and Molotov cocktails. However, he seemed fixated on providing game masters with detailed lists of alternate explanations for Mythos deities to use as red herrings to throw off Mythos-knowledgeable players, and did so with the side effect of obfuscating what is interesting and distinctive about this cast of titanic characters for those of us with minimal knowledge of the texts from which they are drawn.

Encounter Information
I have previously reviewed Fear Itself, another release in the GUMSHOE line. Unlike Fear Itself, there were a healthy selection of monsters in the Mythos bestiary to give the GM something to work with, "right out of the box" without buying a supplement.

I was again concerned that, like Fear Itself, Trail of Cthulhu had too little direct advice on selecting and preparing combat encounters for player characters. Particularly in a setting which is so easily lethal to characters, it's useful to know whether just one Nightgaunt is a sufficient challenge for the whole party of investigators, or whether you'll need a couple to keep things interesting. Hite's only real suggestion in this matter is for GM's to run a low-lethality sample fight at the start of the campaign (like a bar brawl or something) to get everyone familiar with the game's combat system. While this might work, I think in practice such a one-shot fight will be deceptive. Why? Because in other RPGs, characters have fairly fixed game attributes all of the time. While a character's ratings are nominally stable in GUMSHOE, in practical terms, those ratings simply form a pool of points to spend during an adventure. If you spend all of your Scuffling pool points on one fight, you'll shine for that fight, but you could suffer during a future encounter. Don't get me wrong, I think the resource decisions inherent in the GUMSHOE system make it unique and draw me to the system. As a player, I like being able to choose when my character shines and when he runs. But since the system is significantly different from other games, it really requires some modicum of advice on balancing combat situations, advice that just wasn't there in sufficient quantities.

Setting and Background
Trail of Cthulhu has a chapter called "The Thirties", to give the reader some background into the era which Hite has chosen to set the game in. Since many of the Lovecraft's stories were set in the 1920s (as are traditional Call of Cthulhu games), setting things in the 1930s allows events to unfold after those detailed in some of Lovecraft's stories, so that GMs can rely on them as "historical" background. Regarding his choices as to which details about the 1930s to include, Hite writes that, "This is not one of those historical roleplaying books that feels the need to compete with Wikipedia." As such, he expects the reader to know a fair bit about the era. In particular, Trail of Cthulhu has, for example, less information on the historic personages of the 1920s and 1930s than did some of the earlier editions of Call of Cthulhu. Hite doesn't leave the reader out in the cold, though - he does go into some substantial depth on topics such as racism, crime, and politics during the era. His bent, however, is concerning how these interact with Mythos-oriented adventuring as opposed to merely explaining how things were back in the day. His coverage of other topics such as famine and war is appropriate and informative, and gives even the historical event neophyte something to start with. Hite also has a good section entitled "The Nightmare Countries" which tells a little about many of the key cities, regions, and countries around the globe during the era, and the kind of Mythos-related activities that were likely to happen in each.

One thing that I really liked about Trail of Cthulhu was the nine page chapter on Campaign Frames. Think of these as overarching thematic premises for a campaign. Are all the characters academics tied to a university? Are they bookworms scooping up lost Mythos tomes from around the globe? Are they government agents out to secretly chase the Mythos out of our universe (or to at least keep it out of the morning newspapers)? These campaign frameworks are great springboards for play groups who are new to Mythos gaming. There are names of some key NPCs that could be used for each frame, and background notes on the settings. I wish the NPCs in this section were more fully fleshed out so that they could be used as templates for other similar NPCs, but they just weren't. Overall, the ideas contained in this chapter were well worth including.

Sample Adventure
A detailed sample adventure is featured in Trail of Cthulhu. Set in Cleveland in the late 1930s, it cleverly entrenches players in the politics of the era's law enforcement (featuring such famous enforcers as The Untouchables' Elliot Ness), while also providing an interesting romp through the Mythos.

The investigation features a Mythos version of a monster from classical mythology (who shall remain nameless to avoid spoiling the adventure for players reading this review). The entity was detailed by Hite exactly how I wanted to see the Mythos gods handled in the book. Extensive details and sample special effects were provided as to how this thing would distort or impact our reality as it manifested. These little details and nuances will really add an enormous of amount of detail that will make this particular investigation standout as a memorable one. I found this refreshing - had a lesser author put this section together, this would have been a series of Stability checks and Sanity losses for encounters that would have seemed all too mundane.

While Trail of Cthulhu does not have any separate section of stock NPCs, this adventure features game stats for cultists, a mad summoner, and police characters, all of which can be used as the basis for other NPC encounters.

If anyone has a complaint about this adventure, it will probably be that it only tangentially involves any of Lovecraft's creations, and instead focuses on a sort of homebrewed concoction of Mythos and classic mythology.

Writing & Editing
If I have any significant critique of Hite's writing in this book, it is that Hite simply knows too much for his own good, and forgets that others don't possess his encyclopedic grasp of the genre. In a number of places Hite makes a reference to a person or thing, fictional or historical, and merely assumes that his reader shares the same knowledge and frame of reference that Hite has. Undoubtedly, that will not always be the case. For the most part, however, Hite writes clearly, smoothly, and makes for an entertaining and informative read.

For readers who have read my review of Fear Itself, that book suffered from some substantial editing problems in certain parts. There are a small number of editing problems in this volume as well, but most of them are fairly minor (dropping a grammatical article or a suffix). None of them were really distracting except one reference to a non-existent chart (which wasn't that necessary to begin with). I found no glaring rules contradictions or anything of the kind. Overall, the editing of this book is not perfect, but it is much better than in Fear Itself. The organization was sometimes flawed; for example some information on firearms is 120 pages after the information on other weapons.

Product Appearance
Jérôme Huguenin did the art and the layout for Trail of Cthulhu. The dark green cover features a photographer, a police officer, and what appears to be a detective, descending down some steps to a river embankment to look at a floating body, while a dark tentacle slithers into the background.

The better pieces of art in the game focus on humans. Huguenin used a complex photomontage technique combined with careful illustration to create convincing, detailed, distinctive results. I have never seen anything quite like it before. The art prominently featuring humans is more heavily weighted toward two-fisted pulp fiction than to classic Mythos horror.

Unfortunately Huguenin's work depicting the Mythos creatures had mixed results. Some of the art for the Mythos creatures was absolutely fantastic, while other pieces were merely overly-saturated smudgy blobs that appeared more like spilled ink than an attempt at detailed drawing. It may be that Huguenin had a specific agenda for these creatures - perhaps for the most alien Mythos creatures he was trying to follow Lovecraft's lead by merely suggesting a form, leaving the details to the reader's imagination. Sometimes it worked. Sometimes it just didn't.

I also own the 3rd edition of Call of Cthulhu. The lavish full color plates by Lee Gibbons, John Blanche, and other artists that made some of the older editions of Call of Cthulhu such keepsakes are not present in Trail of Cthulhu.

I enjoyed Huguenin's work on the book's layout as well. It features a light, mottled tone in the background, on the edges of the pages (to suggest an aged tome). Unlike other RPGs that have tried this technique, this time it did not interfere with the readability of the text. The book is mostly done in grayscale, but it uses dividing lines, frames, and symbols with a brass-colored ink. The layout won me over, and my score on the appearance of the book reflects this. A sample of the interior of Trail of Cthulhu is available here.

Notes on Other GUMSHOE Products
Previous games in the GUMSHOE line have included The Esoterrorists and Fear Itself, both of which are modern day horror-oriented investigative games that are largely compatible with Trail of Cthulhu, which is set in the 1930s.

Fear Itself is actually a very good companion piece to this work if a GM and/or his players want to run a game where one of the player characters has some kind of pulp fiction psychic powers. Trail of Cthulhu does allow for some measure of sensing danger and hypnosis, but casting spells from dark tomes aside, its selection of supernatural adventuring abilities innate to characters is more subdued.

Fear Itself or The Esoterrorists would probably be good companion pieces to Trail of Cthulhu for a modern era campaign, depending on whether you wanted the players to run from the denizens of the Mythos (Fear Itself) or hunt them down to destroy them (The Esoterrorists).

Comparisons to Call of Cthulhu
Many readers will undoubtedly be familiar with Chaosium's Call of Cthulhu RPG, and will be wondering how the two games stack up. First, the ways that the characters are described are somewhat different. There is some overlap in character occupations, but many of the interpersonal skills are different between the games. Also, Trail of Cthulhu has no traditional RPG attribute scores (like "Strength", "Intellect", etc.). Instead, Trail of Cthulhu is focused almost entirely on more specific skills or abilities.

As for the mechanics of the two games, I prefer the GUMSHOE system over Chaosium's "Basic Roleplaying" (BRP) system. GUMSHOE's resource driven mechanics put more power in the hands of the players. Players have a greater control over when during the investigation their characters will stand out, and when they'll have to take a back seat to others. That said, GUMSHOE's investigative abilities really end up merely pointing out who gets story credit for various actions. Because core clues are automatically found by any character with an applicable Investigative Ability, in many (but certainly not all) circumstances, a rank of 1 in an Investigative Ability is just as good as 10 ranks of it.  Further, since some investigator in the group will usually have at least one rank in each core Investigative Ability, which character gets to take credit for finding the core clues of an investigation is typically determined by which character has the highest rating in an applicable Investigative Ability during a given scene.  In contrast, in a Call of Cthulhu game, the most clever player may be the one that thinks up the way to find the major clues in a given mystery, and his character may get the credit for the find.

If you play the d20 version of Call of Cthulhu, expect Trail to be a lighter game with fewer specifically quantified feats to detail your character's capabilities in combat.

While I prefer GUMSHOE's core mechanics, Chaosium has an absolutely fantastic wealth of source materials for Call of Cthulhu. Undoubtedly many people who buy Pelgrane's Trail of Cthulhu will be Call of Cthulhu fans, so thankfully,Trail of Cthulhu contains GUMSHOE-to-BRP conversions. This is great for GMs with loads of older Chaosium products on their shelves that prefer GUMSHOE's mechanical structure. However, some of the conversions were onerous enough that I really think Pelgrane Press and Chaosium should get together and create a conversion spreadsheet, and should give fans a limited license to just post stat block conversions between the games on the Pelgrane or Chaosium websites. Otherwise, players may convert their investigative characters using this methodology, but other source material may be too painful for GMs to convert.

For Retailers
Pelgrane Press added a lot of production value to this volume but wanted to keep the MSRP at $39.95, presumably to keep it comparably priced to Chaosium's other Cthulhu hardcovers. As a result, they have elected to provide a slightly smaller than normal discount (55%) to wholesalers in the hobby games channel, which will, as a result, likely be passed along to you as a retailer. Still, if you carry Cthulhu-related RPG materials in your store, you'd be doing both your store and your customers a disservice not to carry at least a few copies of this product. Retailers will likely find that this book sells itself to fans of Cthulhu-related gaming material.

I like book's cover, but felt that it was so dark it won't do a good job grabbing someone's attention from across the room. Close-up, however, the lettering "Trail of Cthulhu by Kenneth Hite" does "pop", and that helps quite a bit with consumers who recognize those names. I think this book is best sold by giving it a prominent face out display for at least a week or so to draw attention to it before displaying it spine out.

Trail of Cthulhu is hard to categorize as a rules light or rules heavy system. There are many different modifiers, rolls, references, etc., detailed throughout the game book that the GM is responsible for knowing. For a novice GM, these could all add up to a lot of page turning during the game, making me feel that Trail of Cthulhu is a rules medium game with a lot of referencing to be done. However, almost all the burden of these rules will be placed squarely on the shoulders of the GM. If the GM is experienced with the system and thoroughly familiar with the rulebook, players will perceive Trail of Cthulhu as a story-oriented, rules light game system that is extremely well-suited toward running horror games in the Cthulhu Mythos.

I thought Hite's writing was generally compelling and excellent throughout much of the book. Even if you don't end up playing the game, you'll find it a great read. That said, I was concerned by the lack of information on balancing encounters, the lack of thematic differentiation in the Mythos deities section, and I had some problems with the organization of the text. The rulebook also needed a couple of additional reference charts (like a very detailed firearms chart and a chart for which things affect Sanity and Stability Pools and Ratings).

Nevertheless, I feel that a lot of the target audience for this book will consist of diehard fans of Lovecraft and fans of the Call of Cthulhu game. These readers may value Trail of Cthulhu a little higher than I did because they will be able to fill in some of the missing details with their own knowledge.

The GUMSHOE system, despite some of its flaws, is very likely the best system I've seen to handle investigation-oriented, Cthulhu Mythos gaming. I think that the game will be improved upon substantially with some web extras and a decent GM's screen, and Pelgrane Press has plans for both.

While I wanted more out of Kenneth Hite in some instances, I generally felt that he is to be congratulated on his selection of content for this volume, and the overall prowess he showed in authoring it. To Simon Rogers' credit, this is a product Pelgrane Press should be proud of. The book is a good value at $39.95, and I recommend it to fans of Mythos gaming or pulp fiction.

Pelgrane Press is planning on producing some supplements for Trail of Cthulhu. They already have a few web extras for those who purchased Trail and want more, including some articles on transportation, downloadable maps, PDF character sheets, and useful charts and tables from the game (see samples in "Links", below). I very much look forward to future supplements for Trail of Cthulhu, and I think you will as well, once you've read through this game.

Lee's Ratings:

Overall Rating: B+
Rules: B+
Rules Complexity: Low (Players); Medium (GMs)
Appearance: B+
Retailer Salability: B+ (higher if you have a dedicated Lovecraft fan base in your area)


Related reviews on OgreCave:
Back to reviews index

Site copyright 2001-2011 Allan Sugarbaker. Trademarks/copyrights mentioned are owned by their respective owners.