Trail of Cthulhu Playtest

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…

Rough Magi(c)k(s)

Gonna talk about two different things, now. They’ve got similar titles, and both deal with Lovecraft; one’s a DVD and the other is a game supplement.

Rough Magik

This is a television pilot from the BBC that never got made. It’s available on DVD from Lurker Films, on Volume 2 of the H.P. Lovecraft Collection – Dreams of Cthulhu: The Rough Magik Initiative.

The set-up is simple: twenty years ago, a group of covert operatives in the UK ran into a cult that worshiped a strange, ancient god that slept and dreamed beneath the seas. I don’t recall them using the name Cthulhu in the episode, but the sculptures and themes make it very clear that that’s who they’re talking about. They called themselves the Night Scholars, and the cult was called the Dreamers. Through great sacrifice and skill, the Night Scholars pretty much wiped out the Dreamers, though most of the Night Scholars wound up dead, insane, or exiled.

Now, the cult is stirring again, and the powers-that-be in the British government find they need to reactivate the Night Scholars they had previously disavowed and driven away.

If that sounds like a great framework for a Delta Green campaign, you’re not alone in thinking so.

Now, as I said, the series never got made, but the DVD has a pretty detailed description of the episodes that would have been made. In fact, according to the list, the episode on the disk is, in fact, episode 2: An Age of Wonders. The plan was for 14 episodes, and the brief descriptions of each of them make me very, very sad that they were never produced.

I can understand why, though. This is powerful, disturbing stuff, both on a horror-story level and on a human level. The episode on the disk opens with a middle-class mother sacrificing her young children to Cthulhu. There are scenes of atrocities in the Falklands as part of the story. Some unfriendly things are said about what people are capable of.

They manage all of this on what seems a shoestring budget. They use the cheap option for night-time scenes that we all know and love from low-budget kung-fu and horror movies – film during daytime, and use a dark filter. The scenes of gore and dismemberment are done in quick cuts (so to speak) and uncertain lighting. Most of the true horror creeps in as you start to think about the implications of what you’ve just seen or heard, rather than from buckets of blood or rubber monsters jumping out at you.

There are four other shorts on the DVD:

  • Experiment 17, which does a great job of looking like a WWII German Army archive film of a paranormal experiment gone horribly, horribly wrong.
  • Experiment 18, which is a sort of sequel, and loses a lot by abandoning the stark, simplistic style of 17 in favour of trying to tell a longer, more complex story.
  • The Terrible Old Man, which is pretty good, but longer than the pay-off is worth, in my opinion.
  • From Beyond, which shows the futility of getting actors to speak the dialogue Lovecraft wrote for his characters.

There’s also a bunch of extra stuff that’s of interest to Lovecraft and/or horror movie aficionados.

As I said, I’m very sad that the series never made it past the pilot, but I’m very glad to have the pilot. You should get it and watch it, if you like Lovecraft.

Rough Magicks

This is a sourcebook for Trail of Cthulhu, from Pelgrane Press. First thing you need to do is check out this cover art. That, to me, is the essence of magic in the Cthulhu mythos. “Yay! My spell worked! My dark god has arrived and OH MY GOD IT’S EATING ME!!!”

The book is written by the illustrious and inventive Ken Hite, and offers an expansion on the magic system from the core Trail of Cthulhu rulebook. It’s short – 38 pages, including a new character sheet – and inexpensive – $9.95 for the hard copy. And it’s quite good.

The new system is pretty light, consisting of just adding a new ability (Magic), and saying basically “Use this instead of Stability when you do magic stuff.” It’s a little more complex than that, and the book does a decent job of spelling out just exactly how it all works, but there’s not that much more to it.

There is also the obligatory collection of new spells, some examples of how to use the Idiosyncratic Magic from the Bookhounds of London campaign framework, and an analysis of what magics Lovecraftian magic Lovecraftian.

The two parts of the book that I really love, though, are very short. One is a page-long sidebar called “Names to Conjure With,” which gives the Keeper a list of names of historical or fictitious magi to seed into histories or spells or scrolls or whatever. I love stuff like this, that lets me name drop and create a sense of a vast mystical world lying below the surface of the mundane one.

The other part runs two whole pages, and gives a variety of options (reminiscent of the section on Gods and Titans in the core book) for what magic actually is. My favourite has to be the idea of it being the corrupted bio-technological operating system written into the DNA and crystalline structure of the world by the Elder Things. Using magic means hacking the degenerate code fragments still in place.

Anyway, as I said, it’s a short book, so this is a short review. I like it. If you play Trail of Cthulhu, or even Call of Cthulhu, there’s a lot in this little package to take your game up a very weird notch or two.

Mutant City Blues – Initial Look

So, Simon Rogers over at Pelgrane Press did a nice thing: he sent me an early draft of Mutant City Blues, an upcoming GUMSHOE game. The idea (floated to him by the inestimable Fred Hicks, of Evil Hat fame) is for me to take a look at it, give it a try, and talk about it on my blog here.

Well, that was more than a month ago, and I’m just getting around to it now. I got distracted by the shinies of Dungeons & Dragons 4th Edition, and it just kept me from giving Mutant City Blues the attention it deserves.

Mea culpa.

Now I’ve finished a read-through, and I want to talk about my initial thoughts on the game. I plan to run a playtest in the next couple of weeks, though summer vacation time is upon us, and that means it’s a little harder to nail down enough players. I’m working on it, though.


Mutant City Blues is another GUMSHOE game, one that I think I’ll actually be able to get my players to try. Why not the other GUMSHOE games? Because they’re all horror games*, and horror doesn’t rank high on the list of styles my players enjoy**. Fair enough.

Mutant City Blues, though, is a superhero police procedural. If you’ve ever read the comic book Powers, or Alan Moore’s wonderful Top 10, you have a good starting basis for the world. Superpowers are more common than in Powers, and less common than in Top 10, but the feel and style are pretty similar. The setting also has hints of influence from sources like the Wild Cards novel series, Marvel Comics style mutant social issues, police procedurals in the vein of Michael Connelly or Ed McBain, and, of course, the ever-popular CSI and Law and Order TV series.

It’s a pretty rich background, and more space is devoted to it than any of the other GUMSHOE books to date. There are in-depth discussion of how super powers interact with the world of law enforcement, and with society in general, that help to give what could be a very flighty game a solid, grounded feel. In particular, the sections on how super-powered police officers fit in with the rest of the force really shine.

On the super power front, this game takes a very different approach from anything else I’ve seen. First of all, everyone has the same origin: a flu-like virus referred to as SME (Sudden Mutation Event). So, no magic rings, no alien babies saved from doomed planets, no radioactive arachnid incidents, etc. You get a bad cold as a mysterious virus rewrites your DNA, then you can tie people up with your hair.

You also don’t have free rein to pick your powers separately; they are arranged in a special diagram, showing the links between different powers, and the drawbacks generally associated with them. You get a certain number of points, pick one power you want from the chart, then have to spend more points as you move around the chart from that initial choice to take other powers. For extra points, you can skip over intervening powers, but every step costs points. Some of the powers are drawbacks; you can’t skip over them, but at least they don’t cost you any points. They show the types of problems normally associated with the kinds of powers you have.

So, let’s say I want to have super-speed and lightning-fast decision making. I can do that, but I wind up with a tendency to attention deficit disorder, because that drawback is between the two powers I want. I also am very unlikely to be able to command fish, which is way over on the other side of the chart, and it would cost a lot of points to move over there.

This may rankle some players. It sets arbitrary limits on what power groups you can reasonably have, and it can be a little difficult to figure out at first glance. The thing that I find interesting is that the system has been worked out, not so much to balance things, but to simulate the game-world idea that super powers tend to occur together, and that scientists are starting to understand which types are more commonly found together. It creates verisimilitude in the setting, and only incidentally balances the characters.

Very strangely for a superhero game, powers are not really balanced against each other, and this is deliberate. After all, in real life, people are not point-balanced, so why should RPG characters be?***

There’s also a sidebar that talks about what you should do if you don’t want to use the primary game-world conceits of grouped powers, a single origin, and little to no power balance, which is nice.

The largest section of the book (72 pages in the draft I have) is the listing of super powers and explanations of how they work. There’s a nice wide variety, and there are some that can be used as investigative skills, allowing you to find clues, as well as the more common powers that work like generals skills.

I haven’t talked about investigative skills and general skills, have I? Well, I mentioned how the GUMSHOE system works in this post, but maybe a little more detail is in order.

GUMSHOE is pretty focused and optimized for investigative games. It’s all about finding the clues and trying to interpret them.

Notice that I didn’t say “trying to find the clues.”

If there’s a clue available, and you’ve got the right skill to find it, you find it. Period. No rolling, no chance of failure. All you have to do is use the right skill.

That makes sense, right? I mean, the drama in CSI is not about whether or not Hodges is going to be able to identify the gritty white powder on the duct tape holding the victim’s mouth shut. The drama is about how Grissom interprets it and what he does about it.

Same thing here.

Finding clues takes investigative skills. These are pretty granular, with technical ones like Evidence Gathering and Fingerprinting, and interpersonal ones like Flattery and Flirting. You get a fair number of points to buy investigative skills; the number of points you get is based on the number of players in the game, and is balanced to make sure that you can cover all (or at least most) of the investigative skills no matter what size the group. So, you get more points if there are only two players than if there are six.

General skills are things that don’t get you clues. Things like Scuffling and Driving. These work more the way skills work in other games, with rolls and a chance of failure.

Super powers come in both flavours, which is where this little digression started.

So. 213 total pages. 72 pages of super powers. 61 pages of world background. 15 pages of tips for GMs and players. 19 pages for the introductory adventure. 2 pages for the table of contents. That leaves 44 pages of GUMSHOE rules, including character creation, system, lists and explanations for skills, and super powered combat. GUMSHOE is a pretty lean system.

And what do I think of it?

So far, I’m pretty intrigued. The setting and system really appeal to me, and I think I’ll have better luck floating a superhero police procedural game to (most of) my players than a horror game of any stripe. Now, I’ve got to send out the call for my testers and run the intro scenario.

I’ll let you know how it goes.

* As an aside, I think that the system fits very nicely with horror games. Horror games, in general, seem to mesh really well with mystery and investigation modes of play.

**My friend, Michael, just got back from Spain, and he’s a big Cthulhu fan, so I should be able to talk him into playing in a Trail of Cthulhu playtest.

***That’s actually a much deeper argument for another day, having to do with player perceptions of fairness and entitlement rather than anything that is intrinsic to an RPG in and of itself. But, as I say, for another day.