Review – Trail of Cthulhu

Lately I’ve been reading and reviewing a number of supplements and adventures for the Trail of Cthulhu RPG, and it finally dawned on me that I have never gotten around to writing a review of the actual game. So rather than continuing to put the metaphorical cart before the horse, I’ve sat down and written a full review of Trail of Cthulhu (ToC).

Trail of Cthulhu is a game written by Kenneth Hite, and published by Pelgrane Press. It uses Robin D. Laws’ GUMSHOE system for its underlying engine (i.e., the mechanics the game is built upon), which had previously been used in Pelgrane Press’s Fear Itself and The Esoterrorists RPGs. The GUMSHOE system is specifically designed to create stories focusing on investigative mysteries and thus is perfectly suited for exploring the setting based upon the writings of H.P. Lovecraft (HPL) and his emulators. ToC retails for $39.95 for the hard cover version and $19.95 for the PDF version. I am reviewing the hard cover book.

Just in case you’re not familiar with the Cthulhu Mythos…

The Cthulhu Mythos milieu focuses on mankind’s interactions – whether they be ordinary citizens, dark sorcerers, or insane cultists – with primordial alien races, dark gods, and other ancient beings that we were not meant to know. As such it’s generally a very dark and grim setting, where insanity, death, or worse await those who delve too far into the details of the Mythos. The basic idea both in HPL’s writings and in the game itself is ignorance is bliss and knowing too much can shatter a person’s mind. As such, the setting is one where PCs’ lives can be very short indeed, especially if one sticks to the tone established in the majority of Lovecraft’s stories (Robert Howard’s stories tend to have more of a pulp-tone, in which investigators fight the horrors using weapons).

A bit of nomenclature: Keeping true to its Call of Cthulhu roots, player characters (PCs) are known as Investigators in the game and the Gamemaster (GM) is known as “The Keeper.” I’ll be using these terms extensively in the review below.

Like most of my reviews, I will start with how the publisher describes the product:

Trail of Cthulhu is an award-winning standalone GUMSHOE system game under license to Chaosium, set in the 1930s, now in its third print run, and produced in five languages. It supports both Pulp (for Indiana Jones, Robert E. Howard, thrilling locations sorts of games) and Purist styles of play (for intellectual horror and cosmic dread). HP Lovecraft’s work combined both, sometimes in the same story.

It includes a new take on the creatures, cults and gods of the Lovecraft’s literature, and addresses their use in gaming. It adds new player backgrounds, and bulk out the GUMSHOE system to give intensive support for sanity, incorporating into the rule set the PCs desire to explore at the risk of going mad.

Trail of Cthulhu won two Ennie awards for Best Rules and Best Writing, as well as receiving an honourable mention for Product of the Year.

The Physical Product

This book is beautiful looking, with a tight binding and an attractive, very evocative, color cover. Its 248 pages are printed on high quality paper with a gray-scale interior, although page headers, dividers, frames, and markers are done is a brassy-brown tone which adds a nice antique effect that fits the material well.

The book’s layout is done in a narrow, three-column form which looks attractive but tends to make the pages feel really dense. It also creates some rather cramped lines at times, something that’s exacerbated by a few editing/layout gaffs that lead to spots where words have no real space between them (this is particularly problematic with the italics) or where bullet points aren’t indented causing them to blend into the text above and below the list. This is evident particularly in the tables and sidebars. Similarly, while the book’s editing is good, it could have used another couple passes of a careful proofreader since there are missing words and other typos still evident. All of these criticisms are minor points though since they are hardly common nor problematic, and taken as a whole, the book is very well edited and laid out.

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Review – Rough Magicks for Trail of Cthulhu

Rough Magicks is a Trail of Cthulhu supplement written by Kenneth Hite and published by Pelgrane Press. It is available in both printed and PDF versions, with the print version retailing for $9.95 and the PDF priced at $5.95. I am reviewing the print version.

The Physical Details

The book is a 40-page (though only 38 pages have content), saddle-stapled soft cover. The covers are out of a heavy, gloss stock, while the interior is printed in black and white, with a gray-scale textured background on a high quality paper. The artwork, all done by Jérôme Huguenin, is top-notch in my opinion – it’s highly evocative of the setting and well done. There also happens to be quite a bit of it, something that is unusual amongst most lower page count supplements. Overall, this is a very nicely made book and you’re getting terrific value for the price.

The book’s layout follows the ToC standard, using a highly functional, three-column format. The sections are laid out logically and are generally easy to follow, although on occasion sidebars or illustrations seem aren’t placed optimally. The book also suffers from some layout and editing gaffs, including repeated occurrences of “See page 00“*, a few typos (including in the word Gumshoe on the back cover), and some poorly spaced words and floating punctuation marks. However, these are relatively rare and hardly ruin the overall experience. A very nice feature is the inclusion of page references to the ToC core rule book which makes looking up information a snap.

The Contents

Rough Magicks contains a collection of optional rules and further details on adding magic to any Trail of Cthulhu campaign. Magic in the Cthluhu Mythos is something that’s only vaguely defined and often takes many forms, something which the book stays faithful to by providing a variety of ways of defining and interpreting magic into game terms. Needless to say, many of these are unusual or even weird, which means they really honor the source material. The inclusion of numerous quotes from Lovecraft’s stories also really brings things to life and makes it clear Hite worked very hard to stay faithful to HPL’s vision.

The book opens with a brief introduction followed by a two-page discourse on the various ways magic can be defined in a ToC game. These range from it being a hyper-scientific discipline, to biologically-based technology, to the toxic leftovers of the great elemental gods. The reason so many possible explanations are given is that Lovecraft (and those that followed including R.E. Howard) described the nature of magic in different, and often contradictory, ways across the various Mythos stories – thus Hite presents a large number of possibilities and leaves it to the individual Keeper to decide what best suits his or her preferences.

The book then moves on to rules covering a new, optional general ability – Magic. This allows a group that wants to feature spell-casting more prominently in their game the chance to offer a slightly more refined set of rules. The explanation of the rules is fairly brief – they are not a radical departure from the core ToC rules – with plenty of examples of how they would be used in play. This includes an examination of the magical abilities of the various monsters presented in the ToC core book.

The next section provides a dozen new spells, including spells to call and/or dismiss various entities. Perhaps my favorite is the ritual Call/Dismiss Azathoth which ends with this ominous warning: “Also, it will probably kill everyone there, too.” Each spell gets detailed information on how it can be used, stability test difficulty, opposition, cost and time. The section also provides some variations on spells that first appeared in the ToC core book, allowing a Keeper to keep her players on their toes or offer some interesting variations over the course of a long campaign. Two sidebars, each of which takes up an entire page, provide a scholarly look at exactly what an Elder Sign looks like (something HPL contradicted himself repeatedly about), and some cool names & brief histories of legendary sorcerers of the Mythos.

This section finishes off with a detailed look at the traces that magic use leaves behind that various ToC investigative skills can detect, and a brief look at some of the things powerful sorcerers can do, addressing issues like immortality and time travel. The investigative skill list is particularly good because it provides some very colorful and interesting examples of how a variety of skills might interact with magical clues – all of these are in terms of actual narrative examples, rather than a dry set of rules, and so make for much more interesting reading and, at least for me, more practical use at the table. For example, here’s what’s listed for Cop Talk: “The detective says these designs look just like the drawings on the wall by the Riverside Killer’s victims, back in ’07.”

Of all the material in the book, the Idiosyncratic Magic Expanded section is perhaps my favorite. These rules, which originally appear in the Book Hounds of London campaign frame in the core book, are expanded upon, providing numerous colorful examples of how Mythos magic can be disguised in terms of weird rituals, and how these can be used in conjunction with general skills to provide some additional tactical “oomph” as well as color to characters’ actions. Like the previous section, this section includes a variety of narrative examples of how magic might interface with general skills at the table. For example, here’s what’s part of what is provided for the Conceal skill: “I laid some loose planking on the body in the shape of the Rune Unwatchable, you know, the one we puzzled out the description of from the Pnakotic Fragments.”

The book’s contents conclude with an analysis of Lovecraftian Magick theory, which is a succinct scholarly analysis of how magic is explained in the real world and how Lovecraft described it over the span of more than 50 stories, written over a span of a couple decades. While this information isn’t terribly useful at the game table, it does provide some interesting background material and would be of interest to most fans of the HPL stories.

The Verdict

Rough Magicks is an invaluable resource for anyone interested in expanding the role of magic plays in their game or wanting inspiration on how spells and magic might be described at the table. While I would not consider it a “must have”, it certainly deserves consideration for fans of ToC, especially given the quality of the product in relation to its low cover price. I would thoroughly recommend Rough Magicks and look forward to reading more of the recent supplements Pelgrane has released for the game.

*Ironically, Robin Laws, designer of the Gumshoe system upon which ToC is based, has a long-running column for Pelgrane Press entitled “See Page XX.”




Review – Castle Bravo for Trail of Cthulhu

Castle Bravo is a 32-page adventure for the Trail of Cthulhu RPG, written by Bill White and published by Pelgrane Press. It is available only in pdf format, and is priced at a very reasonable $5.95. While it has an attractive color cover, the interior is black & white making it very printer-friendly. In terms of appearance, the adventure is attractively laid out, with excellent, evocative artwork inside and everything you need to run the adventure, including six pregenerated characters.

The Contents

The adventure is designed for 3-6 players with the “sweet spot”, according to the author, being four players. The adventure itself plays out aboard a US Navy aircraft carrier on a nuclear test mission in the Bikini Atoll in 1954. To keep this as spoiler-free as possible, let’s just say that the previous  atomic detonations drew the attention from something beyond and this follow-up test won’t go as smoothly as those in command planned. The adventure is written specifically to be run in Purist-mode for Trail of Cthulhu, although it could easily be adapted to use as a pulp-style adventure as well and the nature of the adventure works equally with either style of play.

One of my favorite parts of the adventure is the waythe aircraft carrier – on which much of the adventure takes place – is handled: rather than trying to provide exhaustive maps of a very labyrinthine craft, the author has broken the ship into a set of zones, creating a simplified schematic that can be used to see how the zones relate to one another and thus how the characters might navigate the ship. This fits very well with ToC’s low-overhead GM style and keeps things focused on the action and story rather bogging down in to a square-by-square dungeon crawl.

The Verdict

Pelgrane Press has put out a lot of great Trail of Cthulhu adventures and Castle Bravo is one of their best because it pays homage to HPL’s stories while at the same time presenting an original setting in which they unfold. I can’t recommend it enough. However, one minor issue with Castle Bravo’s premise and set-up needs to be mentioned as a “buyer be aware” piece of info: the adventure takes place in 1954 and thus is outside the normal time frame of the default ToC era. It also is based on the assumption that the characters are members of the military – given the top-secret nature of the mission civilian involvement seems fairly implausible in most cases – and ideally the adventure really runs best as a one-shot, ideally using the pregenerated characters provided. Therefore, fitting the adventure into an ongoing ToC campaign would be difficult for most groups and is something anyone looking for the next adventure in their ongoing campaign needs to be aware of before purchasing the adventure – the use of the Bikini Atoll atomic tests as a premise for the adventure means that moving the adventure forward or backward in time would be difficult.  In reality, this shouldn’t discourage most people considering purchasing the adventure since as a “purist” adventure, characters aren’t really meant to finish the adventure unscathed and so I think Castle Bravo is ideal for a one-shot game lasting 1-3 sessions. Therefore, I would still rate the adventure as a “should buy” for anyone who is a fan of Trail of Cthulhu.