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Lately I've been reading and reviewing a number of supplements and adventures for the Trail of Cthulhu RPG, and it finally dawned on me that I have never gotten around to writing a review of the actual game. So rather than continuing to put the metaphorical cart before the horse, I've sat down and written a full review of Trail of Cthulhu (ToC).

Trail of Cthulhu is a game written by Kenneth Hite, and published by Pelgrane Press. It uses Robin D. Laws' GUMSHOE system for its underlying engine (i.e., the mechanics the game is built upon), which had previously been used in Pelgrane Press's Fear Itself and The Esoterrorists RPGs. The GUMSHOE system is specifically designed to create stories focusing on investigative mysteries and thus is perfectly suited for exploring the setting based upon the writings of H.P. Lovecraft (HPL) and his emulators. ToC retails for $39.95 for the hard cover version and $19.95 for the PDF version. I am reviewing the hard cover book.

Just in case you're not familiar with the Cthulhu Mythos...
The Cthulhu Mythos milieu focuses on mankind's interactions - whether they be ordinary citizens, dark sorcerers, or insane cultists - with primordial alien races, dark gods, and other ancient beings that we were not meant to know. As such it's generally a very dark and grim setting, where insanity, death, or worse await those who delve too far into the details of the Mythos. The basic idea both in HPL's writings and in the game itself is ignorance is bliss and knowing too much can shatter a person's mind. As such, the setting is one where PCs' lives can be very short indeed, especially if one sticks to the tone established in the majority of Lovecraft's stories (Robert Howard's stories tend to have more of a pulp-tone, in which investigators fight the horrors using weapons).

A bit of nomenclature: Keeping true to its Call of Cthulhu roots, player characters (PCs) are known as Investigators in the game and the Gamemaster (GM) is known as "The Keeper." I'll be using these terms extensively in the review below.

The Physical Product
This book is beautiful looking, with a tight binding and an attractive, very evocative, color cover. Its 248 pages are printed on high quality paper with a gray-scale interior, although page headers, dividers, frames, and markers are done is a brassy-brown tone which adds a nice antique effect that fits the material well.

The book's layout is done in a narrow, three-column form which looks attractive but tends to make the pages feel really dense. It also creates some rather cramped lines at times, something that's exacerbated by a few editing/layout gaffs that lead to spots where words have no real space between them (this is particularly problematic with the italics) or where bullet points aren't indented causing them to blend into the text above and below the list. This is evident particularly in the tables and sidebars. Similarly, while the book's editing is good, it could have used another couple passes of a careful proofreader since there are missing words and other typos still evident. All of these criticisms are minor points though since they are hardly common nor problematic, and taken as a whole, the book is very well edited and laid out.

The artwork, all done by Jérôme Huguenin, is for the most part excellent, and in places down right awesome. I realize that others don't share my opinion, as a quick search of the internet will turn up all kinds of opinions - the chief complaint is that some of the artwork looks murky or smudged, and indeed it does. However, I think this was intentional as Lovecraft often describes his creations in very vague terms and thus it seems that the artist is trying to capture the spirit of those descriptions by presenting the form of the creatures and leaving the details to the imagination. Whether you agree or not, it's hard to dispute that some of the art is simply fantastic.

One bit about the layout deserves special mention: throughout the book, a pair of symbols are used to denote rules or material that is particularly well-suited for either a "Purist" or "Pulp" play style. As I mentioned previously, Cthulhu Mythos stories come in two basic flavors: one in which the investigators are generally up against creatures and forces beyond human comprehension or influence (i.e., you generally flee for your life and a good outcome is one where you make it home alive and still sane ) - that's "Purist" in ToC nomenclature; in the other, characters struggle against the forces of the Mythos and in some cases can fight back (i.e., you pull out your Tommy gun and dynamite and go Migo hunting). ToC does not favor one style of play over the other, and instead provides rules that work for both, supplemented by material, optional rules tweaks, and GM advice denoted in the text by the two symbols. I love this approach since it both widens the variety of play the game supports and allows the group to tailor the game to their particular tastes and needs.

The Contents
The book is well-written, with a clear, conversational tone which is both scholarly and easy to follow. Kenneth Hite is well-known for his knowledge of H.P. Lovecraft's work, and that comes through loud and clear in the tone of the book which offers analysis of both Lovecraft's works as well as how they can be translated in to the game. For those coming from a Call of Cthulhu (CoC) background (whose core products were set primarily in the 1920s), ToC moves the time line forward about a decade and uses the 1930s as its default time period. While this choice may seem odd or even arbitrary at first glance, Hite explains in his typical logical and scholarly manner why he chose the 1930s, and his rich and frank analysis of the time period and really helps sell the reader on the decade as a great place to set a ToC campaign.

After the requisite introduction - in which the ubiquitous "What is roleplaying?" section is thankfully not present - the book moves directly in to character creation which leads players through the process of building an investigator: 40 pages are dedicated to this, covering the various occupations, abilities (essentially skills) and motivations available that are used to define a character.

Characters are built based on a point-buy system in which characters are defined first by an occupation (including archaeologist, artist, clergy, dilettante, and even hobo). The choice of occupation then helps determine the types of Abilities (more on these later) the character can buy at a discounted rate, as well as the limit of their credit rating (naturally a dilettante has access to more money than a hobo) as well as any special abilities unique to that occupation. Characters are also defined by a personal Drive, which is what motivates them to be an investigator, as well as one or more Pillars of Sanity, which are the principles that the investigator relies on to maintain their mental health.

After character creation, the book dives into the actual rules of play in the Clues, Tests, & Contests chapter which takes up 31 pages, but don't let the relatively low page count fool you: There's a lot of meat packed in those pages and the game is a complete system, albeit one that is relatively rules light since it uses a unified system to determine success and failure at various tasks. The remainder of the book (roughly 140 pages) is dedicated to background information about the Mythos, GM advice, a sample adventure, and various appendices.

The Rules
It's all about the investigation
Trail of Cthulhu is built upon the GUMSHOE system (created by Robin D. Laws), which was first used in Fear Itself and since then has seen multiple games based on it, including The Esoterrorists, Mutant City Blues, and the upcoming Ashen Stars. GUMSHOE is specifically designed to be used in investigative games, where the characters are finding and interpreting clues in an attempt to solve a crime or problem. As such, it's a perfect fit for the typical Cthulhu scenario which involves investigating supernatural phenomena, locations or crimes.

The basic premise of GUMSHOE is that investigative skills (i.e., those you use to find or interpret clues) do not rely on a random chance for success. Instead, a character with an appropriate skill (in game terms, an Investigative Ability) is guaranteed to find the core clues necessary for them to move forward in their investigation. Gone are the days where a single failed skill check would lead to a dead end for the party. Each character has a number of investigative abilities, representing their specialties and areas of knowledge. The goal is for the group as a whole to be able to cover all the important bases collectively. Thus, Joseph may be skilled in the academic fields of Archeology and Anthropology, while Cecilia's specialties are Forensics and Cop Talk (i.e., talking to the police).

However, there's more depth to the game than simply a "if you have the skill, you succeed" because each character has points assigned to these skills which can be spent to gain additional information in a scene. These secondary clues are meant to add more details to the core clues, providing insight in to the overall plot, revealing information pertaining to a side story, or perhaps speeding the investigation by allowing the players to bypass some obstacle, location, or requirement. These points only refresh at the end of the adventure so players need to manage their use carefully. Thus, what you have is a very simple "automatic success" mechanic in terms of finding clues, and a resource management mechanic for determining success at finding additional information and making a character shine in a particular scene.

Besides investigative abilities, characters also have General Abilities which are used for your typical "skill test" situations. Characters have a number of these skills, which range from Athletics to Piloting to Stealth. General Abilities have ratings which provide a pool of points to spend from (similar to the Investigative Abilities), but these expenditures work somewhat differently because they are used to modify a roll. For tests of General Abilities, the Keeper sets a difficulty for a given task (the default value is 4, which is used in most situations), and a player then decides how many points to spend from the appropriate Ability's pool. This is then added to the roll of a single six-sided die, and if the result is equal to or greater than the set target the character succeeds. This is a simple and elegant mechanic which means that the average, untrained character succeeds at most things 50% of the time and that training in a relevant ability then modifies this. Once again, it's part resource management, part traditional chance which fits the genre and setting very well. One of my favorite touches is the fact that the most useful General Ability in the game is Fleeing.

Contests and combat work in a similar way, using opposed tests. Damage is handled using a traditional "hit point" type system, and keeping true to the original CoC RPG, ToC also includes a mental health system via the Stability (short-term mental health) and Sanity (long-term mental health) stats which I will discuss in more detail later. Combat itself is very simple and streamlined, opting to emphasize narration and story rather than "tactical" decisions but there is enough crunch to keep things interesting. The one criticism I have about combat is that the firearm rules contain a bunch of weapon-specific rules (e.g., there are a few different rules specific to shotguns) which can be a bit overwhelming at first, especially since they're spread out over a couple pages. This is further complicated at the table by the fact that the firearms table is located 125 pages after the fighting rules. However, compared to the average RPG, these types of exceptions are quite minimal and any group should have them mastered with just a few games under their belts (the Keeper's Screen is also helpful).

Rules for magic use are also included, although these are a bit difficult to find at first, because they're located in the Cthulhu Mythos section, sandwiched between the "Gods & Titans" and "Creatures" sections. This placement is somewhat awkward from the PC perspective, but ultimately makes sense for the "traditionalist" in which spells, tomes, and magic in general is supposed to be dangerous and a bit of a mystery and therefore is something that the Keeper is aware of but the players are not. The rules also provide ways of handling disease, illness, recovery, and advancement. All of these are simple, straight-forward rules that are built off of the core mechanics.

One design choice of GUMSHOE, and thus ToC, is that most rolls are "player facing" meaning that NPCs never roll independently of the PCs to determine success or failure - instead players pick up and roll the dice to determine the outcome of most situations, either testing one of their skills or making an opposed test versus the NPC. For example, an NPC doesn't use Stealth - the PC uses his Sense Trouble ability. While this may seem like an odd bit of minutiae, it has the effect of putting success or failure into the hands of the players and means their fate is largely determined by their rolls, rather than a series of mysterious rolls hidden behind a screen. It also keeps players engaged and streamlines a lot of ordinary situations by eliminating a bunch of extra die rolls and stat referencing in determining success or failure: it doesn't really matter what the shaggoth's Stealth ability is, because you're only using the PC's Sense Trouble ability. If this seems like a recipe for disaster where PCs need to "have a point in everything" to be viable, keep in mind that the ranks in Abilities are only used to optionally modify rolls, and so even an "untrained" PC gets to test any particular ability. Thus, investigators are pretty competent at just about everything and at least have a shot of success in most situations.

Going insane - the decent in to madness
Like its predecessor, ToC uses a Sanity score, and many events in the typical session will threaten the investigator's fragile grip on reality and thus their Sanity score, driving him toward eventual post-traumatic stress or full blown insanity. However, unlike most other games, ToC actually breaks mental health into two separate stats: Stability and Sanity. Stability represents a PC's resistance to mental stress and their ability to handle short-term, acute stress. Sanity, in contrast, is a measure of a PC's ability to handle the mind-blowing revelations associated with the Cthulhu Mythos and remain in touch with ordinary human concerns - it's all about the long-term spiral in to madness associated with knowing "too much" about what's really going on. While Stability returns after each adventure, Sanity, once lost, is never recovered.

Stability and Sanity also interact with other PC characteristics, specifically a character's Drive (what motivates them to investigate the Mythos) and Pillars of Sanity (what ordinary things anchor them to their human existence). Drives function in a carrot or stick fashion, pushing the PC forward in certain situations and providing a bit of reinforcement for behaving in ways consistent with that drive or punishment when one goes against one's primary motivator. Pillars of Sanity, of which each character has one or more, serve a similar type function, providing the character something story-wise to rely upon to maintain their own sanity as well as providing the Keeper with some character-relevant details to incorporate in to stories or even threaten.

In my opinion, this dual mental health model is particularly ingenious since it allows for a PC's mental health to slowly erode over a series of adventures (via the Sanity stat) while allowing acute stressors within a particular investigation to be handled via the Stability stat. The result is that you avoid the "I avoid reading the Mythos tome because I don't want to go insane, but I must read the tome to solve the mystery" type of emergent behavior that plagues many CoC games since the immediate consequences of dangerous or frightening actions are somewhat decoupled from the long-term, character-ending consequences. This does not mean your character can't go insane during a single adventure - they most certainly can - only that running up against the Mythos in the form of creatures, tomes, or Great Old Ones results in accumulated stress that is tracked separately from your day-to-day (or more accurately adventure-to-adventure) stress levels. As such, ToC is geared towards a slower descent in to madness than Call of Cthulhu, which makes it better suited to long-term campaign play.

I also think the system models the "shock" versus "Oh the horror!" mixture of events that a typical Cthulhu investigation involves much better by separating "ordinary" bad stuff from cosmically mind-blowing revelations - these differing elements are part of H.P.L.'s writing as well (e.g., contrast the Shadow over Innsmouth's narrator's fear during his escape from the town versus his realization of his own patronage afterward) and thus I think the game captures this dichotomy very well. In addition, each character's Pillars of Sanity and their personal Drive interact with these choices, making for a very rich system that really makes investigators feel "real" to me.

Of course, there's a bit of a down side to all of this: the Stability/Sanity rules are easily the most complicated system in the game and take some effort to really learn because the two interact with each other - Stability losses caused by running up against Mythos encounters can also lead to Sanity losses and how these interact is a tad bit fiddly. However, like the weapon rules, these issues are quite minor when compared to other RPG systems (e.g., the modifier system for ranged combat in GURPS is infinitely more complicated). In addition, the ToC Keeper's Screen is a valuable resource in these cases since it summarizes the Stability and Sanity loss rules on one of its panels, and thus is highly recommended.

Explaining the unexplainable
More than half the book is dedicated to explanations of the Mythos including its Gods, cults, monsters, and magic. This includes an awesome breakdown of the Cthulhu Great Old Ones in which Hite provides a variety of alternate explanations for each of the major "Gods." These are based on the various Mythos stories, as well as some more modern twists, and provide the ability for the Keeper to tailor the Mythos to his or her own tastes and needs. While some GMs may find the lack of specific information disappoint ("but I want to know how many hit points Cthulhu has!"), I find the vague, but colorful, explanations much more useful since they help put a fresh spin on a very old set of "bad guys" and also let me find explanations that best fit my particular campaign theme. Thus, the idea that Ithaqua is an air elemental, while Cthulhu is tied to water, offers a very different interpretation of these entities than say Ithaqua as "the inevitability of thermodynamic decay." The lack of game stats for these deities isn't really an issue, at least in my opinion, since you're not supposed to be able to fight these all-powerful forces - even in a Pulp-style game, the game takes the stance that the PCs simply cannot hurt Outer Gods and thus there's no point in providing any type of in-game statistics for them.

Details on the spells and major tomes is equally excellent. The rules for using tomes and magic are fairly straight-forward and accurately represent what occurs in the literature that inspires the game and genre: magic is something that one delves in to very cautiously and ultimately there is a price to be paid for its use. In particular I love the explanations of the various tomes since they're both interesting and inspirational. For those interested in a more detailed treatment of magic, I can highly recommend Rough Magicks as a nice addition (you can check out my review of it here).

All of the major (as far as I can tell) Mythos creatures are described in some detail, including game stats since these are the types of monsters investigators can actually fight. One thing that may disappoint some readers is the lack of illustrations for most of these creatures, although they are provided detailed descriptions which in actual practice is more useful at the table in helping a Keeper describe what the group sees.

The Mythos section of the book wraps up with descriptions of the major cults associated with the Outer Gods, providing a description of each group, their locations where they're likely to be active, and a set of hooks that a Keeper can use to incorporate the cult in to their campaign. These are all well-written (and researched since most of them come straight out of the source material) and are there's a lot of information that can be mined from this section as inspiration.

The Thirties - Setting & Background
As mentioned above, ToC use the 1930s as its default setting, and the author provides a really detailed overview of the the events and culture of the 1930s to provide the reader with some insight and inspiration about the time period. Of course, the section is fairly brief and any good Keeper is going to want to consult some outside material to provide further details, but even this is made easy since the book provides some recommended sources to start with. In terms of what is provided, actual historical events are interwoven with fictional material culled from the various Mythos stories seamlessly and it's a very interesting read. This includes an overview of some of the major "hotspots" around the globe, providing both historical material and Cthulhu Mythos teasers and hooks for the Keeper to work with. One of the advantages of advancing the time line in ToC by roughly a decade compared to the HPL stories is that all of those events happened in the past, providing some historical Mythos events to build the campaign upon.

All the rest
The remainder of the book (roughly the last 45 pages) consists of Player & GM advice (most of it is geared towards the Keeper) along with a set of sample "Campaign Frames" which are essentially thematic premises or concepts upon which a series of adventures can be built. Three are included in the book, with each providing an overview of the setting, style, Mythos details, key NPCs, and possible rules variations that can be incorporated in to the campaign. I have to say these are cool and evidently others, including Pelgrane Press, agree since two out of the three presented in the core rule book have since come out as full-fleshed out supplements (The Armitage Files and Bookhounds of London). What I love most about the three that are presented is that each is completely different: One involves a purist-style group from Miskatonic University, another Pulp-style X-Files sort of government team, and the third (and coolest in my opinion) a group of unsavory rare book dealers based out of London.

The book wraps up with a sample adventure, "The Kingsbury Horror", which is set in Cleveland and was inspired by a real historical event.

The Verdict
By now it should be evident that I really love Trail of Cthulhu. I think it manages to capture the feel and style of HPL's stories, particularly when played in Purist mode, with rules built to complement the stories. GUMSHOE is a perfect fit for investigative type adventures, and well-suited for a plotted out set of scenes. It also is simple enough to be run in a more "off-the-cuff" improvisational style and doesn't require a great deal of prep on the part of the Keeper, an important consideration for those of use with other daily commitments. That said, I think ToC works best when played in Purist mode because, frankly, if I wanted to play a really pulp-inspired game, I think there are better systems (e.g., The Dresden Files RPG which is uses FATE) that I would enjoy more. It's not that ToC's pulp-mode is bad - in fact it's pretty cool - it's just that I think where the real magic lies is in a purist-style game where investigators are outclassed and the emphasis is on investigation and running away. Your mileage may vary of course.

One common criticism of the system that I've heard is that it's very "railroady" meaning that players are locked in to a set of predetermined scenes and outcomes that they have little to no actual control over. However, this criticism seems to be based largely upon a complete misunderstanding about the purpose of the "you always find the core clues" approach to investigation: finding the core clues is not meant to force players in to one particular direction - in fact, the most critical part of the investigation, namely interpreting the clues and figuring out what they mean, is still 100% in the hands of the players. Instead what GUMSHOE is doing is putting the vital pieces of information into the hands of the players so that they can actually make decisions and do something - gone are the days where a failed perception check leads to the group not finding the secret door and thus never discovering the hidden laboratory. In addition, it's important to realize that the typical ToC adventure is based on constructing a "spine" of events or scenes, but that this framework is not a rigid, linear one. Characters can bypass whole scenes or complete them out of order - in fact one of the purposes of Investigative Ability point spends is to provide additional information or details which let the story branch in various ways. Thus, the whole "ToC adventures are built on rails" is completely wrong and instead what you have is simply a system that guarantees that players will have enough information to solve the mystery but not that they will actually come to the correct conclusion or succeed in the end.

Another factor that make ToC simply a great RPG is the quality of the supplemental material that's been published to support the system: all of the adventures published to date are excellent (I can especially recommend Graham Walmsley's adventures if you enjoy HPL-inspired Purist adventures) as are the other supplements. While none of the material is essential, it's all very interesting and useful and largely aimed at helping support campaigns rather than providing an endless series of splat books. In addition, some of the material put out for other GUMSHOE games might also be of interest; in particular the Book of Unremitting Horror is a great source book for adding very disturbing, odd, or horrifying creatures - this stuff is all original and very strange which makes it a good fit for the Mythos and will keep even the biggest Mythos expert on their toes.

Finally, I would be remiss if I didn't mention that the huge volume of material that Chaosium has published over the past three decades can also be used with ToC. While the game mechanics are quite different (ToC does include a basic conversion guide in the ToC appendices on how to convert BRP to GUMSHOE), the vast majority of these publications are system-less fluff and source material and thus very handy.

In the end, ToC is a game I would highly recommend to anyone who is interested in Lovecraft's stories, or horror investigation in general. The game's system, setting, and supplemental material all work together to create an interesting and thoroughly compelling world to explore.
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John Middleton
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Excellent and in depth review! Thanks Michael.
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Eric Dodd
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I think that people may have a different attitude towards ToC depending on whether they have come from Call of Cthulhu or come in fresh. The CoC book gives you the monster descriptions and illustrations and provides other interesting background, but I don't think it's vital for getting the most from ToC. There's great stuff in here that CoC Keepers can also use, especially the information that unlikely seeming skills can give investigators about monsters.

Your comment about some people's opinion of "railroading" in ToC scenarios is further undermined when you read or play The Armitage Files which features no "railroad tracks" at all, just a huge sandbox of leads and characters all of which can be used in at least three ways depending on the group.

Great review, thank you!
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Peter Schott
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Great review

For me, as a "purist" and Co-worker for the German CoC (and therefore, using only Chaosium's ruleset), it makes me want to check out ToC.
I must admit that I don't really care about rules, and that it is the story that counts, so I don't really care which rulesets I'm using.

From your review, the sanity/stability rules seem to me the most important and fresh, while I always managed to get something like "core clues" to the players even if they failed a roll.

I don't like a transition into the 30s, because playing in Germany (I am German) then automatically involves the Nazis, whereas the 20s in Germany was a interesting time of political and sociological breakthroughs and turmoil. Of course, this has nothing to do with either Lovecraft or your review.

From your mention of Cthulhu as tied to water I come to think that they use a Derlethian aproach to the Deities? Is there something of a fight between the gods in ToC? (I mean, Cthulhu is trapped in water - he can't be a water Deity then...)
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Peter Schott
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Ah, I see you are Greman too whistle
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Eric Dodd
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ToC actually gives a whole range of possibilities for how you portray each of the Gods, from a Greek Elemental Derleth pattern to a strict HPL reading, to a rendering of the Gods as each of the major Physical forces (eg gravity, strong nuclear force, weak nuclear force)! None of these suggestions have any statistics, it's all just Fluff and ideas for presenting the Big Guys in your game.
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Peter Schott
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Quote:
rendering of the Gods as each of the major Physical forces (eg gravity, strong nuclear force, weak nuclear force)!

What, no electromagnetics?
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pethulhu wrote:
I don't like a transition into the 30s, because playing in Germany (I am German) then automatically involves the Nazis, whereas the 20s in Germany was a interesting time of political and sociological breakthroughs and turmoil. Of course, this has nothing to do with either Lovecraft or your review.

Hite actually addresses the rise of the Nazis in the book and specifically recommends not making it a central part of the campaign (since it's too easy just turn it in to the Mythos creating the Nazis), but it is a possibility, using something akin to how the Nazis are used in Hellboy. All that said, you could very easily run the game set in the 1920s since there's little in the actual game that's specific to the 1930s.


Quote:
From your mention of Cthulhu as tied to water I come to think that they use a Derlethian aproach to the Deities? Is there something of a fight between the gods in ToC? (I mean, Cthulhu is trapped in water - he can't be a water Deity then...)
Yes, that's one of the ideas. I was a bit confused about the Cthulhu water connection too except that I think they're suggesting he's retreated there, not bound by the water. All of this is covered in only a few sentences though so it's more of just an idea rather than a fully-fleshed out plot.

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Ah, I see you are Greman too

Actually I'm an American ex-pat living in Germany (in the NRW).
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Mario Perez
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Excellent review!
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Kevin Heckman
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Great review, Michael.

You mention a few times the problem of "you failed the Spot Hidden roll, so now the investigation grinds to a halt." However it seems that many GMs (of all systems) are starting to take investigative, story-critical rolls as not binary succeed/fail, but "succeed" vs. "succeed with consequences". You even mentioned this on a recent post replying to the gentleman with no experience looking to get into the hobby and wondering how rolls to find secret doors were supposed to work.

So for the people (like me) who have been playing CoC like this for years, what does ToC offer for investigative games that is superior?
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The Harnish
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You should be playing Dungeon World
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Good question: My answer is "It's a game focused on investigation" which is a good match for the Cthulhu Mythos. It's not trying to be a "one size fits all." It also does a much better job at handling the role of sanity in the game. CoC is well known for its "Don't read that book!" emergent behavior during long-term play since many players don't want to lose the character they've grown attached to. ToC makes this less problematic while still keeping the slow descent into madness in place. That said, ultimately if you're happy with CoC, I don't think you necessarily need to switch systems.
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Peter Schott
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MJ Harnish wrote:
many players don't want to lose the character they've grown attached to.

In this case they shouldn't be playing something involving Cthulhu in the first place. goo
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The Harnish
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True, but the idea of long-term campaigns and purist Cthulhu is pretty incompatible. The fundamental problem with CoC (and most other long term RPGs) is that they punish you for risking/losing your character, especially in the hands of the typical GM. D&D is probably the worst at this - you spend forever building up your character and all his stuff and even if you're allowed to make a new character at the same "level", all the history is missing and so you're left with just a substitute. It's one of the reasons I prefer short-term games and why I love con games: I can play utterly fearless.
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Dan Owsen
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This is a great review that really outlines the differences in Trail of Cthulhu and Call of Cthulhu.

I've played a fair amount of CoC in my day, and just started playing (and GMing) Trail, and I prefer it to Call personally. I like the split between Stability and Sanity, and I prefer the simpler combat and contest resolution of Trail. That being said, I won't pass up a game of Call of Cthulhu or Delta Green!
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Maurice Tousignant
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Excellent review. The CoC players in my area have all warned me to avoid Trail at all costs. I've been told it's a "cheap knock off to the real Call of C'thulhu"

You review seems to strongly indicate otherwise convincing me to maybe give this one a shot. I have the Free RPG day module that was given out, do you know if this would be a good indiator whether or not I would like the system and be interested in purchasing the full game?
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Stefan Koller
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I love Trail to bits, and I'll never go back playing CoC (though I still get a lot out of CoC supplements, especially the current batch of German ones). That said...

First of all, for all the greatness of the review (of which there's aplenty) you didn't mention once how many games you ran with the book. I think the review could benefit if you related some of your play experiences, and related them to some of the claims made in the review.

For instance, to pick the largest loop,

MJ Harnish wrote:
One common criticism of the system that I've heard is that it's very "railroady" meaning that players are locked in to a set of predetermined scenes and outcomes that they have little to no actual control over. However, this criticism seems to be based largely upon a complete misunderstanding about the purpose of the "you always find the core clues" approach to investigation: finding the core clues is not meant to force players in to one particular direction - in fact, the most critical part of the investigation, namely interpreting the clues and figuring out what they mean, is still 100% in the hands of the players. Instead what GUMSHOE is doing is putting the vital pieces of information into the hands of the players so that they can actually make decisions and do something - gone are the days where a failed perception check leads to the group not finding the secret door and thus never discovering the hidden laboratory.


this is barely more than a restatement of Hite's claim that a detective adventure is not about finding the clues but about what to do with them - i.e. what to deduce from them. He mentions CSI. Regardless of having run and played in ToC campaigns for years now, I think it's plain obvious (and not just subjective opinion) that Hite is simply wrong about this. You can't watch the endless scenes of CSI or - to mention a much superior current TV instance of the genre - BBC's new "Sherlock" which are all about the glorious unearthing of clues and go "yeah, that's boring, let's skip that because we (the players) might miss a clue here or there". That's just totally wrong. Investigation is fun, as much as assembling the puzzle and unleashing the 'science of deduction (tm)' is. Taking half of the joy out of the equation was a colossal mistake.

Thank god this doesn't harm ToC in the slightest. Just run the skill system either way you want - resource tokens or good ol' CoC checks - and you'll get your choice gaming experience. But to say that there isn't a serious option here, or that ToC unequivocally does it better, that, in short, "all the criticism is misguided", mars what is otherwise by all accounts a rather great review.
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Niclas Matikainen
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To be fair, MJ Harnish didn't state that "all the criticism is misguided", rather that the claim that "Gumshoe is railroady" is missing the mark.
I completely agree with MJ Harnish on this.

After all:

ToC
1. Keeper describes scene (laboratory)
2. Player makes assumption and uses ability (chemistry)
3. Keeper tells Player clue (poision)
4. Player makes deduction (butler did it!)

is hardly any more railroady than:

CoC
1. Keeper describes scene (laboratory)
2. Player makes assumption and uses skill (chemistry)
3. Player rolls dice (success)
4. Keeper tells Player clue (poision)
5. Player makes deduction (butler did it!)

I honestly can't see how this would remove half of the joy. More like a fifth, if you really like rolling dice.
It does however make sure that you aren't forced to play Inspector Clouseau yet again... whistle
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Karl Larsson
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You forgot the last point.

6. Everyone goes crazy.

-

When first reading and playing ToC I felt it was very railroady, but I have learnt that it depends very much on how you run it.

It sometimes comes down to a lack of imagination. In all games you have something that brings play forward, you want to play the entire session. In ToC it is just a bit more honest. What brings the story forward, and what means a success for the players, isn't always the same thing.

1. Keeper describes scene (laboratory)
2. Player makes assumption and uses ability (chemistry)
3. Keeper tells Player clue (poision)
3b. Players miss the clue about the locked closet. (evidence collection and locksmith)
4. Player makes deduction (butler did it!)
4b. The butler goes to jail(It was really the maid who did it!)
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Niclas Matikainen
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A yes, the infamous 6th point, that render the first five points completely useless no matter what system you are using
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