Trail of Cthulhu: First Impressions & Campaign Journal

I had a chance to join an online game of Trail of Cthulhu (on the local Discord tabletop RPG server), and we had our first session last night. I though I’d record my thoughts here, and then follow up with a brief journal entry in-character.

If you’re not interested in RPGs, you may want to skip this.

If you are interested in RPGs, then your mileage with this post will vary depending on how experienced you are with Gumshoe, whether the spoilers in the campaign log will ruin anything for you. Beneath the cut, the post is marked up periodically to point out things that may or may not be of use to you. 

You done been warned. 

First Impressions: TRAIL OF CTHULHU and GUMSHOE

So… Gumshoe. If you know the system, my first impressions are probably not exciting to you. You may wish to skip down to the character writeup and/or campaign log below. Just scroll down, I’m not putting anchor links in. 

I know I’m late to the party, but I’ve been curious about the system for a while, and when I heard that the Yellow King RPG that used the system, and had an attractive Kickstarter campaign going at the time, I jumped on it. It seemed like a good way to get my hands on a Gumshoe game that is new and, unlike Trail of Cthulhu, doesn’t already have years of supplements I’ll be struggling to pick up. But I figured I should get some experience as a player, so I can understand what the system feels like from that perspective, so I jumped at the chance when I saw that an online acquaintance of mine, Dean Baker, among other things), was planning to start running a regular game.  

One session in, I’m impressed enough so far that I think I probably will eventually want to spend some of my game-books budget on at least some of the Trail of Cthulhu books… and maybe Timewatch or Nights’ Black Agents, perhaps even Cthulhu Confidential, if I can interest my wife in playing a mini-series with me on my days off.

That said, I feel like GM prep for this system might be pretty intensive: right or wrong, my vague impression after one session of play is that you a GM seems to perhaps need to prepare a lot of potential clues, knowing some of them will not be pursued. Not might not, but rather will not. Also, that a clue might be gotten any number of different ways, all of which you (kind of) need to be ready to deal with. Er, but I’m getting ahead of myself.  

Anyway, like with any radically different ruleset, adjusting takes time, but it’s not a steep learning curve with this system, really. There are a few fiddly rules (they make sense, but they’re still special exceptions and stick out as such), but I’m finding really that most of the adjusting actually relates to changing how I think about gamey stuff. Auto-successes are nothing new, of course: those date back to the beginning of RPGs, in some ways. Characters have always been able to automatically succeed at, say, opening unlocked doors, for example… if they had to roll every time they tried that, then a lot of wings of dungeons would have gone pointlessly unexplored, after all.

So it’s not much of a stretch that for an investigative game, you’d give characters automatic successes in their investigative skills: after all, a lot of clues will go pointlessly uncovered if you make players depend on die rolls. But the twist is that it’s not as simple as that: characters may auto-succeed in finding basic clues, but if they want to try find more, they’ll need to spend skill points on it. You have a number of skill points roughly equal to your score rating in a given area, and players are encouraged not to pile on more than 3-4 skill points on any given investigative skill: a larger pool of skills that make sense for a given character is better than a small number of skills they’re really good at, because, after all, characters will be grappling with a wide range of clues across many different kinds of domains: law, chemistry, astronomy, intimidation, interrogation, biology, history, the occult, and so on.  

This is where the adjustment happens: while your occupational general skills auto-refresh their skill points much more often, your investigative skill points refresh only once you’ve solved a given mystery. That means you’re playing a resource-management game. Should you spend a point to get more information, or ensure that some investigative move succeeds? (Say, to make sure you really intimidate a suspicious NPC so you can get a name out of him, or to make sure you nail down exactly what chemical reaction causes that weird chemical residue you noticed at the murder site?)

I wasn’t alone in feeling a little uncertainty about spending in this way, and I should add that the GM made the system clear, and I already knew we’d be guaranteed to get all the clues we’d need to solve the case. The uncertainty is, I think, supposed to be there. It’s a bit like reaching for the Jenga stack in a game of Dread, you’re supposed to feel that unsettling worry. Where’s a good place to spend? Where should I just shrug and let the opportunity pass by? It’s vexing, and yet I suspect it adds to the experience somehow. 

That said, here’s where I feel like GM prep might be heavy, on the order of populating massive hexmaps knowing characters are never going to visit every single hex. That’s something I’ve very much moved away from, toward a more modular design, since after all those “other” populated hexes, if they’re unique to the setting, get wasted if you can’t recycle them in some other setting. Better to prep a smaller number of modular and/or linked “story” hexes that can be dropped into the path of the party when needed, I think, especially if it can seem to the players as if it was supposed to be there all along: terrain specific sets of hexes, in other words, are highly movable, and then you only need detail the hexes with really important locales the PCs might want to go out of their way to visit.)

Is there an equivalent way of cutting down on the work in Trail of Cthulhu? I’m not sure, having played only one session: I wonder whether there were writeups for the other NPCs watching our characters at the dock, though I suspect not… There may be a skill to deftly half-tossing clues at PCs in a way that makes them feel like they can follow up  or not—or like deciding whether to follow up or not is a resource-management problem, as much as spending points is. I’m not sure, and I won’t know till I have a chance to look at some prepared adventure materials for one or another of the Gumshoe-based games.  

Anyway, the occupational skills work much more like in some other RPGs: the higher your skill rating, the higher your chances of success. For Trail of Cthulhu, higher occupational skills means more bonus points to spend on a given roll, and thus a better chance of success, but you can point-spend without worrying too much, since Occupational skill points refresh more frequently than the Investigative skill points.

That is to say: 

  • Investigative Skills always auto-succeed, but point-spends can add additional clues or leads. One must carefully manage point-spending for Investigative Skills because they don’t refresh often.  
  • Occupational Skills don’t automatically succeed, but the resource management of aspect is less tricky since they refresh more frequently.

I haven’t had much experience with the system, but it seems like a cool and tricky balance between broad skill types, and how they can relate to different game genres. I’ve seen people slam it—especially in OSR circles—but I think there’s something interesting here, and I suspect that on some level, GMs have always done something like this: telling players a limited amount of information, and then allowing them to poke around and search for more (when the adventure-completion stakes were low) while making it tougher to miss big encounters and stuff when the adventure-completion stakes were higher. To see it represented in a set of mechanics designed around a different genre is still innovative and interesting… or, I guess, it was. I’m late to the Gumshoe party, I know. 

In any case, that’s the limited extent of what I’ve seen so far. We haven’t had any combat encounters, or even done many resisted rolls or with anything related to Sanity, Stability, or Health ratings. I’ll say this, though: it’s an interesting system, a refreshing change of pace, and it’s making me rethink how automatic success can work in other contexts in a game, as well as how fun resource-management can be as the primary (or a primary) player-facing problem for an RPG.

I’m also finding the Tribes of Tokyo actual play podcast useful—unlike a lot of actual play podcasts, which I cannot listen to—in terms of getting a sense of Gumshoe. It’s Night’s Black Agents, which is why the guy GMing our Trail of Cthulhu campaign recommended it: none of the published adventures for ToC will be spoiled, and despite subtle system differences, hearing the system in play helps clarify a lot.    

About My Character:

As for my character, well, I originally considered running a sort of early-pulp SF author, perhaps modeled after Cordwainer Smith (international experience, ties to China, psy-ops expert, maybe throw in a little espionage experience, but personality-wise, a zany SF nerd at heart).

Oliver, Okay, actually this is “Mad” Mike Hoare, a South African mercenary my dad told me stories about as a kid, and (like my dad) one of the inspirations for the character.

It turned out someone else had already decided to run an author, so I went with my second choice, a military/tough-guy type.  The character’s name is Oliver Smith, and I imagine him to be someone from the generation before my dad’s: a British colonial police officer who ended up being born in (and growing up) in Nyasaland (the British protectorate that we now know as Malawi). He came of age in the 1920s (because our game is set in the mid- 1930s), and worked for a little under a decade as a colonial police officer, a position which is a bit different from the typical police officer in Trail of Cthulhu: his skills are sort of a mixture of policing skills and military experience, in practical terms. There’s bits of Orwell-in-Burma and a little bit of Kipling in him, too, though he has absolutely no literary inclinations whatsoever (beyond reading Kipling, though Charles Gordon (“Chinese” Gordon, later known as “Gordon of Khartoum”) is a much more significant historical touchstone and role model as far as he’s concerned).

He left the colonial police force and Nyasaland alike for a mixture of reasons: losing his last tie to the country when his mother passed away after her last bout with malaria; disgust at the way the British were treating the local people (to whom he’s sympathetic, despite sharing some of the problematic attitudes typical to his time), and a mysterious experience he had out in the bush—something that he wishes he could say can’t have been real, and ought not to be possible, but which he remembers too vividly for it to have been a mere dream or hallucination. It’s also something he never speaks of, unless he’s had far too much whiskey… which only happens when he’s struggling with similar experiences of a more recent vintage. 

I’ve written an in-character journal entry recounting the first session’s activity. It’s below, though before sharing, I’ll caveat that Oliver Smith may be progressive about race for the 1920s, but… he’s still in the 1920s. His attitudes obviously aren’t mine. There’s an art to depicting bigotry without purveying it. I’m doing what I can to pull that off. 

Campaign Log #1:

Repeat warning: as I’ve said above, this campaign log includes some spoilers for the “Shanghai Bullets” adventure, from Robin D. Laws’ adventure collection Stunning Eldritch Tales. If there’s any chance you will be playing through this adventure, do yourself a favor and avoid reading the damned thing till after. 

Meanwhile, for a GM whose players really drop the ball… maybe this could be a useful resource, found in a diary with the pages after it torn out, somewhere in Shanghai? This or some subsequent entry could, I’m guessing, be just the thing. Or not. It’s up to you.  

Alright, warning and caveats dispensed with, here’s the first page of the diary entry:

If you’d like to read the rest of the diary entry in PDF format, click on the first page image above… or right-click and save to download it.

Oh, and a note about formatting: while I first did the file up using the Lovecraft Cursive HLPHS font used in the Trail of Cthulhu book, that font in fact looks like this, and pages upon pages of that turns out to be really something of a slog to read. Finally, instead, I’ve decided to use Christopher Hand for Oliver’s diary entries.

As for future installations: I can’t promise I’ll keep up with this indefinitely, since it’s unclear whether this is a weekly or biweekly game, but I will be doing it for at least the first little while, I think. In-character journaling is a fun exercise: one can draw in backstory stuff, throw in misinterpretations of things, add little linguistic and personality tics (as well as idiosyncratic observations about fellow player characters), and more, and it’s a bit of a voice exercise for a writer like myself, too.

But even just in terms of gameplay, I find it’s absolutely helpful when still building up a character for a narrative-type RPG, and I’d like to think it’s a nice record of what happened in play for referring back, as well as something that might be fun to look back on sometime later down the road. That said, it is somewhat time-consuming, which is why most RPG players burn out on it eventually, even for campaigns that they wholeheartedly love. 

10 thoughts on “Trail of Cthulhu: First Impressions & Campaign Journal

    1. Yeah, I quickly skimmed your copy way back, but as it turns out most of what I retained was all the unusual “how to frame this Lovecraftian entity” bits for each of the deities: how they could be manifestations of aspects of the universe’s physics, or psychological projections of humanity or the collective unconscious, and so on. It was cool to see interpretations that went beyond, “Interdimensional Evil Deity, period.” (Whether that’s something that was ported over from Call of Cthulhu or unique to Trail of Cthulhu I don’t know, though!)

      As it turns out, I dig the rules system too. And am pleased I have Yellow King coming, as I think it includes things I’d be eager to port back to other Gumshoe games (like the shock and injury statuses/cards).

  1. This is gonna be a wicked campaign, really looking forward to it. ^^ (This is the GM here.)

    On GM prep, it’s not so bad if you’re running published modules. Requires a bit more reading though. But it’s fun.

    1. Hey,

      Funny thing: I don’t think I’ve ever run a single published module in my life. Even back in the days when I was starting out as a GM, my sense was always that making up my own adventures was the point. (Campaign settings was another thing entirely, though.) I like reading published modules—and have a fair number—but I don’t usually run them. I think, though, with Gumshoe, I’d probably go ahead and try run a few, to get a sense of things, but also because I think I’d need to in order to get a better sense of how scenario design actually relates to play.

  2. I didn’t run modules until I got much older and busy with work and baby stuff. Nowadays, I highly value the time saved by running modules. I do a bit of extra work to keep the overarching storyline tied together though, and edit specific parts of the modules as needed.

    I will say, getting over my do-it-yourself attitude and trying modules has introduced me to some excellently designed stuff. Love modules now. (But I still love designing my own stuff even more, especially for one shots.)

    I would suggest starting with published scenarios for ToC and see how it goes from there.

    1. Yeah, I should caveat all this by saying I also took a long hiatus from RPGs, spanning the period from grad school to just a couple of years ago. I might have tried to run a module sooner if I’d kept on while I was busier. Then again, maybe not. I dig making up my own stuff a LOT. But yeah, with Gumshoe I think I’d pretty much have to try some published stuff first to get a sense of how to best structure them. (Or at the very least to accelerate my rate of internalization of that.)

    2. Oh, also: I think some of what put me off published scenarios was how many railroady ones I ran into for [A]D&D, and how few good ones existed for Wraith: The Oblivion, which was my other main RPG in undergrad, while I was taking a break from D&D.

      The Wraith scenarios—which were few and far between—were a mixed bag, but they all were kind of railroady on some level. Add to that the fact that I tended to have groups that shared my own interest in a mortals-centric Wraith game (sometimes with characters dying off and becoming wraiths in-game) and there were basically no modules I *could* use for that purpose.

      So by the time I actually got back to running an AD&D game later in undergrad, I was in the habit of always desigining my own stuff. Plus my players were more accustomed to a more plotty, character-driven, narrativist style. I threw Spelljammer at them and in the end (at leas as I remember it from the notes I skimmed last summer) it was Space Pirates Ahoy!, with the captain of the PCs ship having fallen in love with some space vampiress, who I think was the captain of a rival band of space pirates, with the Chinese, er, I mean the Shou Lung fleet hot on their tails. I don’t even dig Spelljammer that much, but that group somehow managed to spin gold out of it.

      These days, I have a bunch of Paranoia XP stuff, including piles of adventure module material, which I look forward to someday running.

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