Trail of Cthulhu
Lovecraft was a funny man. As talented as he was eccentric, his books have inspired millions for many decades and his mythos have an incredibly endearing quality that has inspired short stories, long stories, movies, tons of games and even various real life cults and sects.
This is even more remarkable because all of Lovecraft’s books and stories are about despair, overwhelming difficulties and pretty impossible to overcome enemies with technologies far beyond what’s conceivable. It is also remarkable that it is so popular because all the characters have to make massive sacrifices in lifestyle and sanity. And yet, we love those characters and the situations they get or are drawn into we do love to relate to. We love to feel we can overcome the impossible and we love to think of ways to overcome those impossibilities.
Probably that’s why games based on Lovecraftian mythology are so popular, even amongst people who have never read one of his books, or even know who Lovecraft is.
Lovecraft based games have been around for over two decades now. The first Role Playing Game came out in the 80’s and many editions of the game have graced our shelves ever since. From the initial percentile based based system that still stands, to the Monte Cook version of the game that attempted a D20 system conversion with not terribly good results and now, the Gumshoe System that rules Trail of Cthulhu, and it does it admirably.
First things first. The system. The Gumshoe system is pretty much perfect for a Lovecraftian setting. To start with you’re presented with two choices to conduct the games, Purist or Pulp. Purist is a way to run and play the games that sticks more to the traditional view of Lovecraft’s universe. This makes for less prepared characters who are more prone to get injured or loose sanity. It also makes for terribly tense atmosphere and dangerous situations. Pulp makes for stronger characters, better prepared to deal with situations, but just as vulnerable to loss of sanity and stability.
The Gumshoe system is very easy. The main proviso is to keep things going. Getting to bottlenecks where the players get stuck. If there is an important clue needed for the adventure, the players find it automatically with just visiting the location. This may sound like the whole thing will be rail-roaded and the challenge level won’t be enough. Not the case at all. Just because you know what you have to do next, doesn’t mean that doing it will be any easier!
When rolling dice comes, it is based on a simple D6 and a difficulty level. Very easy things have a difficulty of 2, very difficult things around 4 and so on. The players will be able to subsctract from each ability pool to add to the result of their dice roll, so if a player needs a 8 to get over a hurdle, she can add a few points from her pool increase her chances of success. Once the points have gone from the ability, they refill at the start of the next session, after an extended rest or, in some more extreme cases, not until the next adventure.
Abilities for characters are used in two ways. If your character possesses a particular skill, that means he’s very well versed in the subject. That means that character will be more likely to find a clue and know what what to do with it. Each pool also has a number of ranks allocated to them and those ranks are the number of points that can be used to build up the score and overcome challenges. Cooperation can be achieved by piggybacking skill points so team work is handsomely rewarded too, which emphasises the spirit of cooperation in the game. In summary the system takes some 10 minutes to learn… not too bad!
Characters classes described in the book range from the traditional Librarian and Detectives to the less common Hobos or Diletantes. They can all be played in both Purist and Pulp modes and they’re highly customisable. The core book also provides with more than enough information to expand on the initial class information. Each class has some specialisations and each one of those has pool of dice to be used as described earlier. The ranks are never too many to feel the game is too easy, and never too few to feel your character is totally useless, though you’ll feel helpless most of the time!
Wisely enough, the Pelgrane Press clever people also include more than enough information to either expand on the provided classes, or to create your own. And that is something else that’s very present throughout the game… freedom to do things as you see fit.
Take the monsters and foes lists. First of all you’re presented with two lists, one of them for proper mythos inhabitants, from Elder Ones to Shoggoths. All of them come with great descriptions and stats you can use, but they are also written with enough advise so you can use them in Purist or Pulp frames. With the major players in the Lovecraft universe, instead of a definite story of where they come from or how they should appear, they give you several short descriptions and ideas that can be elaborated by the keeper and could vary from adventure to adventure. That is a very nice touch that also adds to the principle of uncertainty and unknown that rules all of Lovecraft’s creations. Now, from my point of view, Pelgrane’s biggest success is the immense sense of danger and fear that even the descriptions inspire. I can say without shame that I was thinking “I really don’t want to meet that thing” when I reading the book. The level of antagonism from those creatures, and their impossible to understand nature has been perfectly captured for and projected onto the reader. However, I also must admit I did feel a tingle of excitement at the thought of presenting them to my players and scare them to death. Don’t get me wrong, I am not a sadistic keeper, but the thought of presenting a danger that is just enough for players to be able to overcome it, but having to make sacrifices and work in team to survive open such a huge scope for role playing and getting a huge sense of achievement. Literally, any encounter they survive will mean they have to leave something (one?) behind and will make them feel really happy they’re alive, without making it so hard they won’t want to keep playing.
Personally I feel this captures Lovecraft’s intentions to perfection, which is not surprising considering the incredible knowledge of the mythos the authors display time and again all over the book. From the small quotations and captions in every chapter, to the lovely monochrome illustrations, the comfortable layout of the text and the description of the world from a Lovecraft perspective, everything screams “we’re experts at this and we really know what we’re taking about”.
And talking about the setting, it is based on the standard Lovecraft setting in the 1930’s, there is plenty of information and it is an era near enough in time to be different enough, and yet familiar enough to be accessible. However the clever guys from Pelgrane Press have written the whole thing in a way that’s incredibly opened to interpretation, expansion, modification and accuracy. They provide with a great overview of the world and offer more or less detailed information on the major events going around the world in the 30’s. Although historically as accurate as it needs to be, there is enough inspiration there to change whatever you need in order to create an extremely rich universe. Also more than enough adventure hooks are provided with each location to make it useful, and that’s the point of the locations. They haven’t been chosen randomly. Each one of them, from Moscow to Alexandria and including the compulsory Arkham have been given terrific amount of thought to make them compatible and useable.
The introductory adventure is more than adequate. It gives a good idea of how to write them, how to describe locations and characters and how to organise them so they can be sandbox but manageable. however by the time you get to that adventure, your head will already be full with ideas and adventures of your own. This one will help you cement how to put it all together and present your own material to your players. A very welcome feature!
In short this game will offer years of perfect insanity fun. With enough for everyone and a system flexible to have from a purely investigative adventure to a action fuelled Indiana Jones style game, if you like Lovecraft, you simply can’t go wrong with it. The production values are as good as they can get and the book is solid, strong and very durable. If you’re lucky enough to be able to get your hands on the limited edition, don’t hesitate. Lovingly bound in a leather style embossed cover and back, this hardback feels great in the hands and makes for a really attractive addition to any shelf.
Test your sanity and enjoy the world around you while you can!