Hush! Hush! Cthulhu Fhtagn!

I just got a message from Pelgrane Press to confirm my shipping address for my Cthulhu Confidential preorder, the premiere book in Pelgrane’s GUMSHOE One-2-One line. I figure that means I should probably tell some people about the game.

The premise behind the line is pretty simple – adapt Pelgrane’s GUMSHOE line to make it really sing if you’re playing with just one GM and one player. I’m not going to talk too much about GUMSHOE itself1, but I do want to talk about the new system2 and some of the choices made.

What’s In The Book?

The book itself is 315 pages, so it’s a big, meaty volume. It’s got the same look and design as the Trail of Cthulhu line, with the greenish overall colour and the wonderful and evocative Jérôme Huguenin cover art. The authors are Robin D. Laws, Chris Spivey, and Ruth Tillman.

The actual game rules take up about 60 pages, and a lot of that is advice about how to run the game effectively – as is pointed out, running for one player is decidedly different that running for more than one. Even two players really lessens the intensity of focus that the GM and player require. Without a larger group for brainstorming and kibitzing, there’s no real downtime for the two folks sitting down to play this game. Both player and GM are always on.

After the rules come three sections, each focused on a different city, different PC, and different scenario. So, you’ve got Dex Raymond, the hardboiled L.A. detective; Vivian Sinclair, the determined N.Y.C. investigative reporter; and Langston Wright, the war veteran and scholar in Washington, D.C.

Wrapping up the book are the appendices, with reference material and hand-outs for playing and running GUMSHOE One-2-One.

Cards Everywhere

One of the conceits in the core GUMSHOE system is that you find the clues you need for the story to advance. That carries over into GUMSHOE One-2-One, as expected. What I hadn’t considered before reading this book is that, without the buffer of other players and characters, it gets much easier to stall the story3 through non-investigative things. Sure, if you search the garden, you find the strange footprints by the pond, but if you can’t climb over the wall into the garden, you can’t search the garden, right? In standard play, this is handled by the resilience of the group – if you can’t climb the wall, surely someone in the group has some points left in Athletics to get to the other side.

Same thing, but even more so, with combat. TPKs are a threat in any game, especially when combat is as deadly as it can be in GUMSHOE. But when there’s only one PC, it gets that much riskier – a single bad die roll, and everything is just done. Over.

On the other hand, if you just let the character succeed at everything, there’s no sense of risk and no sense of accomplishment in play. The chance of failure is what makes success mean something.

GUMSHOE One-2-One has completely redesigned the way General Abilities work to address this issue. While it still uses a d6 resolution, like GUMSHOE, it allows you to roll multiple dice4. There are two target numbers, representing two types of successful outcome: a Hold, which is  an okay or middling result, and an Advance, which is the best result. You need to roll higher to get an Advance than to get a Hold.

If you don’t roll at least high enough to get a Hold, you get a Setback5 – a problem that arises from whatever it was you just attempted.

And this is where the cards come in6. When you roll an Advantage, you often receive an Edge, which is a little bonus that you gain from being awesome. When you roll a Setback, you often receive a Problem, which is a little complication that you gain from not expressing you awesomeness through die rolls. Both these things are tracked using cards, telling you what type of Edge or Problem you now have, and how it affects the game. Sometimes, these things go away, like spending an Edge for the bonus it gives you or fixing the Problem narratively, but sometimes they stick around for a while.

Here’s the coolest thing about this system: most challenges have Edge and Problem cards specific to that challenge. There are some generic ones7, but mostly, the Edge or Problem you get is directly related to the challenge you just faced. And it’s a perfect way to keep the story advancing even if the challenge was too much for the character. Here’s an example:

Note that this is a combat challenge. If the character gets a Setback, he or she winds up not dead, but chained to an altar, which directs you to another scene. Also, if the character gains an extra problem (by rolling an extra die), he or she can wind up Clawed by Deep Ones, with that problem card.

So, as a case progresses, the player will have a shifting array of cards, tracking different Edges and Problems. Each chapter has a few pages of the collected cards for that scenario, ready for you to print out8 and cut up. That lets you get set-up and ready for the game pretty quickly.

The Sources

Another issue you have to deal with in converting GUMSHOE to a single player and single character system is the fact that it becomes problematic to make sure all the investigative abilities are covered. In normal GUMSHOE, each character can take a few, with a focus on a few specialties, to make sure you’ve got someone on the team with the ability find pretty much every clue. In the games I’ve run, it generally means that, at most, there are one or two investigative abilities that no one has put any points into.

With only a single character, you have the choice of either letting them have all the investigative abilities, so that each character is largely the same, mechanically speaking; of making sure that there are only clues for the investigative abilities that the character has; or giving the character access to investigative abilities that he or she doesn’t have through some other means.

Enter the sources.

Each character has a list of sources, with notes about what investigative abilities they provide, their personalities, and their relationship with the character. So, like a detective novel, part of play is the investigator going to talk to an interesting person who can help them with information or analysis. It turns finding a clue into an interactive roleplaying scene.

The Characters

The Cthulhu Confidential core book gives you three fully fleshed out characters to play, and the free download The Red Mist on the Pelgrane site gives you another one, along with a scenario for her. In addition, the appendices include the basic ability lists for ten more characters for other GUMSHOE genres, including Trail of Cthulhu, The Esoterrorists, Fear Itself, Night’s Black Agents, Mutant City Blues, Ashen Stars, The Gaean Reach, TimeWatch, and Bubblegumshoe.

There’s a short section on creating investigators so that players can play a non-pregen character, but it stresses that the pregens are specifically tuned for their scenarios9, so making big changes from the pregens may cause problems in play. Still, it’s got all the information you need to build a character from scratch.

The included characters are a more diverse lot than you see in most historical period gaming. You have Dex Raymond, who is a Sam Spade/Phillip Chandler type, the tough, white, male detective of the noir pulps. Then, you get Vivian Sinclair, who is a female investigative reporter. Third is Langston Wright, an African-American war veteran and scholar. In The Red Mist, you get Phyllis Oakley10, a female dealer in rare books.

Vivian and Langston also have information about how women and minorities were treated, both historically and in the pulps that inform this game. There is a discussion with each about scaling the types of treatments facing non-white, non-male11 characters, allowing the player and GM to set the level of horribleness of humanity that both are comfortable dealing with.

The Cities

Each of the three character chapters includes a write-up of the character’s home city. For Dex, that’s Los Angeles; for Viv, that’s New York; and for Langston, that’s Washington, D.C. These write-ups include the historical context – the 1930s for New York and LA, the 1940s for Washington. Also included are some maps, important locations, and important people.

And a fairly rich sprinkling of story hooks to build new scenarios.

More than a lot of game books, the cities in Cthulhu Confidential work almost like characters in and of themselves. I think this is a product of the tight focus on a single character for play in each of the cities, which lets the city write-up focus on a more coherent theme and presentation, rather than being written for wider appeal and purpose. Anyway, the result is a real feeling of immediacy for each of the cities.

The Scenarios

The Cthulhu Confidential core book comes with three scenarios, one for each of the three characters:

  • The Fathomless Sleep: How did fast-living society girl Helen Deakin come down with a case of catatonia? Her sultry sister pays you to find out. As Dex Raymond, you’ll explore a web of blackmail, dirty money, and weird mysticism in the city of fallen angels.
  • Fatal Frequencies: In the offices of the New York Herald, Sadie Cane seeks reporter Vivian Sinclair‘s help. Sadie’s fiancé, George Preston, disappeared three days after a murder in his apartment block. Can Viv uncover the truth about George, and will Sadie like what she finds?
  • Capitol Colour: Lynette Miller was a riveter. A few weeks ago, she got a new job: hush-hush, and highly paid. She’s a clever and resourceful young woman, and now she’s missing, and her father is heartbroken. Can Langston Wright unweave a web of deceit, face down racist cops and uncover the deeper conspiracy which endangers the war effort?

In addition, there’s a free downloadable adventure, The Red Mist, available on the Pelgrane site.

Each of these scenarios is focused specifically on the character for whom it was written. Though they can probably be run for the other characters12, I would want to go through them in detail, and make a number of changes to the Edges, Problems, and challenges to make sure they all still make sense for a different character.

Because of the way the new challenge system works with the cards, and because of the fact that there’s no real downtime for the GM to think about stuff will the players are talking to each other, I think it would be very difficult to run Cthulhu Confidential as an improvised investigation, the way The Armitage Files worked13. I also think that prepping a scenario is probably a bigger job for the GM than in Trail of Cthulhu, because of the need to more carefully design each challenge, especially coming up with Setbacks that don’t derail the game.

That’s why I think it’s so valuable to get these four14 complete scenarios with the game. Not only do they give you ready-to-play scenarios, but they also serve as solid models to pattern your own scenarios after.

Conclusions

I haven’t had a chance to try actually playing15Cthulhu Confidential scenario, so I don’t really know how all this works in play.

That said, I really like the way the game is built. The main changes to the system address problems that I didn’t know were problems until I saw the solutions, so that gives me confidence in the thinking and playtesting behind the game.

The characters, cities, and scenarios are all meaty, and look like a lot of fun. The book is well-written and physically attractive.

I say it’s a winner. I just need a guinea pig to help me try it out.

  1. I’ve already talked about Trail of Cthulhu here, and chronicled my Armitage Files campaign here. []
  2. Yeah, it really is a new system, though heavily based on the original GUMSHOE stuff. []
  3. And thus the game. []
  4. Assuming you have multiple dice in the ability you’re using. []
  5. I am very pleased that it’s called a Setback and not a Failure. []
  6. You were wondering, weren’t you? []
  7. And a whole host of generic Edge and Problem cards in the appendices. []
  8. Or photocopy, if you’re working with just the physical book and not the pdf. []
  9. Or vice-versa, I guess. []
  10. Who can be renamed Phillip Oakley. []
  11. And non-straight. []
  12. Or for an original character. []
  13. Though there’s an interesting article about running The Armitage Files using Cthulhu Confidential here. Still, the article says it’s not easy. []
  14. Actually five: with my preorder of Cthulhu Confidential, I got a pre-layout version of The House Up In The Hills, another Dex Raymond scenario. []
  15. Or running. []
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One Response to Hush! Hush! Cthulhu Fhtagn!

  1. Elliot Hanowski says:

    I’d try it out!

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