For the second ever post on our site, we are going to bring you a review. While this blog will mostly feature new gaming content, we will post reviews every so often as the mood strikes us. It is October and I have had Cthulhu on the brain of late, so I’ve decided to write a review for one of the best Cthulhu RPGs I have ever had the pleasure of reading.
Trail of Cthulhu by Pelgrane Press is based on the horror universe HP Lovecraft created in the 1920s, and it is based on the Call of Cthulhu RPG by Chaosium Press. The game setting by default is set during the 1930s, during the Great Depression. It’s an interesting time when nations are between World Wars, and there exists cars, telephones, and movies which should be familiar to the modern audience, but where the era is definitely not.
Horror RPGs are built on a different foundation than fantasy RPGs like D&D. In D&D, you play big damn heroes who save the world and fight evil. In horror RPGs, however, even if you manage to become a powerful character, there is always some unknown that can squash you flat in the blink of an eye. In Trail of Cthulhu, this unknown is the universe itself. The cosmos is filled with god-like Aliens who give humans as much consideration as you do an ant. What’s worse, sometimes those god-like Aliens do notice you, and if you’re lucky, they will either be fascinated or care little about you, or if you’re unlucky, they’ll pull out a magnifying glass and burn you with preternatural eldritch sunlight. In the end, your character will go insane or die, the only question is what can you achieve before that happens.
Trail of Cthulhu is built using the Gumshoe system. The only dice you need is a single d6. Your skills are broken up into Investigative skills, which you don’t typically need to roll to use, and General Abilities, which do require a roll. Your skills also form a pool of points that you can use to gain new information or to lower the difficulty of a roll. It’s a fast, simple system which makes it easy to generate new content.
There are a ton of awesome adventures for this system, many from Pelgrane Press. Armitage Files features timey-whimey improvisation. The Gold-Ennie-Award-winning Eternal Lies involves a globe-spanning campaign. In Dreamhounds of Paris, a campaign set in the city of love deals with how surrealism affects the realm of dreams. One of my personal favorite is Shadows Over Filmland, which has Cthulhu adventures inspired by Universal Horror films. In some of them, if the film involved is in the public domain, the adventure is a direct sequel to the events of the original movie, such as the adventure “Black Zombie” which involves the Bela Lugosi “classic” White Zombie. The adventures in Shadows Over Filmland can be played separately as one-shots or strung together to form a campaign.
I like this system more than the Chaosium Call of Cthulhu RPG. The Chaosium game is very “old school” and boasts a frequent and high-percentage player mortality rate. I prefer to have characters last a few sessions, at the least. Trail of Cthulhu deals with this by having a “Purist” mode, where in every adventure, at least one player is guaranteed to go insane and/or die, much like the Chaosium version. They also have a “Pulp” mode, which resembles Indiana Jones more in flavor. While in Pulp mode, you can survive a gun fight a little better so you can punch cultists in the face with far more ease. However, the cosmic horrors will still mess you up, so you won’t necessarily go toe-to-toe with an Old One. But this mode tends to make characters last longer, and going crazy or dying is less random. My personal preference is the Pulp mode.
What I also like about this system is the lack of rolling for investigative skills. All the adventures are written in a way where characters with the appropriate skills will be provided with all the necessary information that someone with that skill should know. For instance, when a group of characters enter a room where a murder has taken place, the Game Master might give out extra clues for the character who is skilled in Forensics. A player can also spend points in a related skill pool to gather that information if no one has the appropriate skill. For instance, in lieu of Forensics, a character with points in Medicine may spend points to figure out if a stain on the floor is blood. The game engine is built around the idea that the players will eventually get all of the information available. Thus, flubbing a dice roll won’t withhold a vital clue from the adventure.
Overall, this is one of the best Cthulhu-based RPGs I have ever read. The chapter describing the Mythos is one of the best that have ever been written. The Chaosium version had a bad habit of giving everything stats like an old D&D monster manual. Trail of Cthulhu chose instead to describe the god-like Aliens in a myriad of ways, and it opens it up for the Game Master to utilize these beings in whichever way that best fit the adventure. I highly recommend this game for those that want an excellent horror RPG, and also of those that are tired of playing big damn heroes and instead want to play ordinary people battling forces from beyond the pale.
Update – I’ve gotten asked a few times what the best Trail of Cthulhu is in my opinion. Two come to mind for different reasons. The first is Eternal Lies, which is a globe spanning campaign sized adventure, that Cthulhu RPGs have become known for. It’s really darn good, I cannot recommend it enough! The second is Shadows Over Filmland which is somewhat off from what you would call normal Cthulhu campaigns. It’s a series of loosely linked adventures inspired by, and in some cases direct sequels to, black & white Universal monster movies of the 1930s. While I don’t think they are great examples of Cthulhu adventures, they are self aware and fun, and a very interesting change of pace from what you may be used to.