[RPG Review] Trail of Cthulhu
In middle school I discovered horror fiction.
I cannot remember what was the first book — I suspect Stephen King’s the Shining in used book form — but I do distinctly remember reading anything that had a dismemberment. If it featured splatters of blood, I read it. Good writing, bad writing, schlock writing, I read it all, and in great spews. Somewhere in there I laid hands on a collection of horror short stories that contained the usual standbys of Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” and Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily.”* It also had HP Lovecraft’s “Rats in the Walls.” And that one was my favorite. I read it over and over.
Later I read the rest of HP Lovecraft’s stuff. Some of it was good. Some of it was terrible. Some of it was incomprehensible. And some of it was the Dream-Quest of the Unknown Kadath.
My copy of Chaosium’s Call of Cthulhu 5th Edition** is actually the second copy as my first copy disintegrated from overuse. The glue binding did not hold up to the love and after a while the pages fell out. The second one is a used copy from somewhere or other. I know dimly there was a 6th edition but I only have the 5th; that was the version for me. Even reading the rules of the BRP version of CoC belied the obvious: the only way someone was going to get out of an adventure was by being an illiterate track star. The BRP rules were charming in their crappiness but they had that one beautiful sanity meter rule, and that was a permanent brain worm. For 20 years I have been rolling my SAN and I am pretty sure by now it’s pretty low.
BRP had a special lethal charm. I knew of Runemaster games ended in the first five minutes by the entire party failing swim rolls when crossing a river. Or another character killed by a highly dangerous glass of water. But BRP was what was in Chaosium’s books and Chaosium’s books were special so we played it, and made it work, and CoC got ran and played anyway. That’s the greatness of CoC.
That brings me around to Trail of Cthulhu, a game I read and fell fiercely in love with but for completely different reasons than the clunky charm of CoC 5th Edition. It’s CoC where you get to live until you get your head eaten by Azathoth in the end, and that’s the kind of CoC we want to be playing.
A bit about GUMSHOE
I talked about GUMSHOE in my review of the Esoterrorists, so for an overview of GUMSHOE it’s best to consult there. Trail runs with the core idea of getting to the end of the story and not being held up by the system. When we watch Law Dramas, we don’t want the Intrepid Cops to end the plot because they failed a “look for clue” roll. We don’t want House not figure out the disease in the last act because he failed to make some surgery roll halfway through. We do not want our Cthulhu hunters to be killed by a wayward glass of water.*** It’s no good to be blocked because of a botched roll, so GUMSHOE waves that part. The players always get the clue. The question is what do they do with it? That’s where the play is.
And that’s what Trail brings to the table. It feels less blatantly horror-focused as Esoterrorists, it adds some new skills, it goes in with Drives to give players motivation for why they are hunting down the terrors that go bump in the night. The SAN meter is now dual tracked: you can take a Stability hit or take actual Sanity damage but it takes a bit to shave off a little of the ol’ SAN. The focus is on episodes like a show: the point is not the bumbling around with skill checks; the point is to get to the end of the story — where no doubt everyone is turned into splatters.
GUMSHOE is a perfect fit for Cthulhu. You don’t need to be an illiterate track star. You can still be that uber college professor and run away. Run away! AIIII!
PURIST vs PULP
Trail is set in the 30s where, yes, there are Nazis. And where there are Nazis, there are guns and planes and tanks and Socialists and Swinging Archeologists and other such tropes. Trail provides two modes of play: PURIST and PULP.
I get people want to play Cthulhu in all its deadly, terrible, horror glory. And that is what PURIST is for — as close to a simulation of the old BRP system with high levels of DEATH. A great thing for those who love difficulty in their gaming and where a gun is going to kill you.
Then there is PULP. PULP is where you get to shoot Cthulhu. In the face. Or ram him with a boat — HP Lovecraft’s preferred Cthulhu Removal Device. But who doesn’t want to shoot a tentacle or two? It might seem a little silly but hoards of evil cults with dark books that cast horrible spells are also a little silly. So is Hitler on his quest for the Spear of Longinus. It’s all silly, but sometimes, horror calls for a little pulp horror.
Dark horror vs. the Mummy. I find I want to run the game in PULP mode. Who said Cthulhu wasn’t high adventure? When isn’t the dark spawn of the universe high adventure?
The Awesome of the Call-Out Boxes
RPGs almost always have these inset boxes with little bits of random information or skills or stats or tables or whatever in them. They tend to be a bit lame; I find them annoying and want to read around them. In Trail read the call-out boxes because they’re the best parts. Either about the 30s or how to build cults (please add cults!) or about Gods (please don’t add more Gods!) or creeping totalitarianism, they are all wonderful. The boxes are plentiful and worth the price of the book alone. They don’t contain any rules, per se, but they are so chock full of goodness that it is worth sitting there with the book and flipping from call-out box to call-out box.
I need to mention the call-out boxes because they are so deeply wonderful.
Oh, and while I am talking about the call-out boxes with all their wonder, the section on the Cthulhu Elder Gods/Outer Gods is superb and packed with so many incredibly insane ideas for running plots it is hard to talk about it without waving hands around incoherently. One small sentence about Elder Gods as meme loads was so compelling it was a hot topic in my house for three days. If you’re into CoC at all, this is worth getting to juice up campaigns and take them to 11.
I can gush about Trail of Cthulhu for a long time. Much of the original Call of Cthulhu (5th Edition) was preserved from one edition to the next. It’s all here: the Gods, the Monsters, the Cults, the Horrible Books, the Spells, the must and the rain, the horrible New England cities. The Cults section is wonderful**** and full of juicy goodness of evil. The GM section on how to build an adventure from the Horror to the Beginning and then through a list of clues is also very helpful — the advice is spot-on for crafting a horror based adventure.
Me? I am picky about my Cthulhu. I don’t like no d20 editions or LARP editions or Savage Realms. I don’t do Cthulhu card games. In my mind, it is the crumbling second copy of CoC 5th Edition. This is the only worthy successor and it’s glorious.
So I’m fanboying a little bit. I do that on very rare occasions because I’m a curmudgeon and I hate everything. But this is truly, honestly a great version of Cthulhu. It is not Call — it’s a different system — but Trail is an excellent game with compulsively readable text that has ideas and stuff packed into every corner and page. Is it worth the $40? Yes. Would I run it? In pulp mode, yes. Would I play it? Definitely. Can I recommend it? Oh hell yes.
Go buy it. Stop reading blog posts! I bought my PDF+Hard cover bundle from Indie Press Revolution right here.
* The only work by Faulkner I ever liked. A tiny bit of excellent gothic horror.
** Always 5th Edition.
*** Okay, maybe we do. It’s Cthulhu. Those glasses of water are dangerous as hell.
**** And one section turned into a new supplement, the Booksellers of London.