This past Saturday evening, my friend Michael ran a playtest of Trail of Cthulhu, from Pelgrane Press, written by Ken Hite. I talked a little bit about reading the game way back here, but this is the first time I’ve played it.
One of the big things standing in the way of running a playtest of the game is the character creation system. It’s complex enough, with enough choices the players need to make at every step, that it requires a pretty solid understanding of the rules before building characters. And, in a playtest, you can’t count on the players to read any of the rules. So, that means pregenerated characters, which takes more time for the GM. Also, the points you get for investigative abilities are based on the number of characters in the game, so if you’re doing pregens, you need to know how many people will be playing – in my experience, not always possible with a playtest or one-shot.
In short, I’ve always thought that Pelgrane Press could do themselves a big favour by posting some pregens for their GUMSHOE games – ideally, complete parties of two, three, four, and five characters. It certainly would have got me playing the games a lot sooner.
This need has been met for ToC by an introductory scenario available for download on their site: The Murderer of Thomas Fell. While the characters are specifically for the scenario, they can certainly be used in other adventures.
Now, I’m not going to give you a bunch of spoilers – we played the game, we sort-of-solved the mystery, and we kinda-won – which is par for the course in a Purist Cthulhu game. We all had fun and liked both the system and the story. After the game, we had a bit of a discussion about it, and came up with these thoughts:
- The game really demands a fair bit of input from players to keep it from devolving into a story being read to you by the Keeper. Specifically, the players need to develop familiarity with their abilities – especially the investigative abilities – and how to use them in the scenes. Otherwise, it can become a case of the Keeper asking, “Okay, who’s got Accounting? There’s an Accounting clue here.” Now, this will come with practice, both the input from the players in the correct circumstances (“I use Accounting to look through the papers in his business desk to see if there’s anything hinky.”) and the way the Keeper deals with it.
- Combat is fast and can be surprisingly deadly. Especially for humans. The bad things are always tougher than you. And this is as it should be. There was a wonderful feeling of panic in the one real combat we had in the game.
- The lightness of the rules really lets roleplaying shine through. Even with the pregens, pretty much everything that happened was the result of character personality interacting with the situation. The ending of the adventure was pretty much entirely dictated by the emotions of the characters, with very little in the way of dice rolling or use of rules. And I found that ending to be immensely satisfying, dramatically speaking.
- Specialization among the characters is key. While the spend mechanic means that the person with the highest rating in a skill can only outdo the others a limited amount of time, it’s good to have at least one relevant investigative ability at a higher level than the others in the group have. My character had only a couple of irrelevant ones at high levels, and he didn’t get to find as many clues, etc. Which is okay in a single session, but would get tiring over time in a campaign.
- The scene mechanic – letting the players know when the characters have got all the available clues from a scene and telling them to move on – was something that I thought would be awkward and artificial in play, but really worked very nicely. The first time Michael used it, it was a little disorienting and surprising, but then it just worked very smoothly.
All in all, a fun game and a big success. Thanks to Michael for beating me to running the game, and to Sandy, Jen, Fera, and Tom for playing with us.
Now I just need to convince Michael to run a campaign…