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My favorite genres of fiction are horror and mystery. Combine the two and I'm a pig in shit.

So when it comes to horror on the tabletop, I love it. Right now, our group is going through The Curse of Strahd for D&D 5th edition and it's a blast. It's a great throwback to the aesthetics of gothic horror from 30s movies and then the Hammer Horror films of the 60s and 70s. It's creepy, the encounters fit with the theme perfectly. It's refreshing because normally when we do horror or mystery like this, I'm the one running it. I rarely get to actually play in that type of game. So it's been a ton of fun worrying about what's behind corners, reading the right books, and not wanting to be out after dark.

So it is with this in mind I offer a review of one of my favorite horror/mystery games, Trail of Cthulhu.

Trail of Cthulhu makes use of the GUMSHOE system, developed by Robin Laws and this particular adaptation was written by Kenneth Hite. GUMSHOE is a gaming system that seeks to bring a more narrative style of play to investigation heavy games. It's conceit is that other investigative games get it wrong by making the finding of clues a test requiring a dice roll. Meaning that players can fail to find important clues which can grind a story to a halt. GUMSHOE makes the finding of clues automatic. A player walks into a scenes says they're using it and they automatically get it. It's then up to them to interpret what the clues mean and how to use them to progress the mystery forward.

ToC uses a bit more of a complex version of GUMSHOE where character creation is concerned. In the original incarnation of the rules, everything is strictly 1:1 point buying and you decided what you want your character to be good at. ToC takes it a little bit further by allowing you to choose your character's job, which then affects the cost for buying skill points. It makes set up take a little bit longer, but it lets you personalize a little bit more. Different careers actually offer perks to enhance a character's backstory.

To add further background to your character, you will also choose a Drive which is your character's motivation for pressing on in the face of the soul crushing terrors from beyond. I love this aspect, because it gives a mechanical reason for characters to keep putting themselves in danger. Backstory is even further fleshed out with the character's Sources of Stability. These are people who are close to the player's character that keep them grounded and focused on the real world. Rounding this all out are the character's Pillars of Sanity, three intangible things like love of country, religion, etc that the player intrinsically believes in. These will erode as the player loses sanity as they're exposed to true nature of the universe through the Cthulhu Mythos.

GUMSHOE makes use of a system for mental damage, that they call Stability. In other GUMSHOE systems like Fear Itself and The Esoterrorists, the Stability score functions like Sanity in a game like Call of Cthulhu. Trail of Cthulhu, however, uses two separate scores to track mental damage. The Stability score tracks simple mental damage, in a way. So shocks to the system like surprise corpses, monsters, etc affect one's stability and their ability to keep it together when confronting the unnatural. Sanity is affected when you encounter the Cthulhu Mythos, the true force behind the universe. The more you're exposed to this hidden knowledge and the creatures, the more your actual grip on reality is destroyed. This will cause a character's Pillars of Sanity to crumble apart until they're a raving mad person as they embrace the true nature of existence.

I love the amount of depth players can give their characters with this system and let it have mechanical benefits directly applicable to the game. The more you can let players personalize and develop their characters, the more likely they are to try and keep them alive for a longer campaign. Games based on Lovecraftian settings tend to have players resigned to a high mortality rate, but when you're attached to your character you try and do more to keep him or her alive. When you have a vested interest in keeping your character alive, you're much more likely to look before you leap.

The big thing I've had running GUMSHOE systems in general is getting players used to the concept of not rolling for clues. Gamers are so conditioned to roll for something, that it doesn't exactly sink in that when they have the skill Lock Pick they can just say they're picking the lock and it happens. No dice involved. Once the system clicks though, it's smooth as butter. In a one shot or short game, mechanics like Pillars of Sanity or Sources of Stability don't really become a factor. Stability more than suffices in a short game to get all the fun insanity rules. Going insane is actually quite fun, as you have the option of having the player leave the room and then crowd source a mental condition for him.

Trail of Cthulhu progresses the timeline from the 1920s of Chaosium's main setting to the 1930s. As explained in the book, the 1920s up to the mid 1930s were an eventful time in the Cthulhu Mythos. Cthulhu nearly arising, The Dunwich Horror, the Miskatonic University Antarctic Expedition, and the US Government's raid on the Deep One colony at Innsmouth. Trail supposes that all those things happened, but the Mythos begins to creep into society as fascist governments arise around the world. For example, the Nazis have a society that researches Mythos artifacts and books. Yithians begin working with mob connections to better study the current time period. The US Navy founds P Division to investigate the Mythos based off of what they find in Innsmouth. It makes for a very exciting and diverse setting with all kinds of possibilities. The setting is especially perfect when you take into account the game having two modes of play: Purist for more cosmic horror and Pulp for more gun slinging, action packed stories.

In order to link the system with the mechanics of Chaosium's Call of Cthulhu, this is the first GUMSHOE title to incorporate a system for magic. It's simple, but like the magic system from Call of Cthulhu, I don't find it terribly interesting. It still serves it's mechanical function, but it's really just there to fill that function. I'd like to see a more fleshed out magic system in a future edition. Though if I'm being fair, magic in Cthulhu mythos games is more for the GM than for players. Players might need to use it occasionally, but using it has more negative consequences than positive ones. Truthfully, if players are trying to become wizards the GM should try to discourage that at all costs. Or if nothing else, turn the wannabe sorcerer into

The simplicity of this game is it's highest selling point. It's easy to run with minimal set up and there's enough supplements that Pelgrane Press has put out several supplements for Trail of Cthulhu that range from collections of adventures to entire books of campaign settings like the Bookhounds of London or Dreamhounds of Paris. If you're looking to run a more stripped down Cthulhu game, you can't go wrong with Trail of Cthulhu. Be prepared for adjusting your style of play for more narrative style. Once everyone settles in, it can be a blast.


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