Tabletop RPG Review: Trail of Cthulhu

Trail of Cthulhu cover

Way back when I first started getting into tabletop roleplaying games, Call of Cthulhu was one that fascinated me.  It was even before I’d read Lovecraft’s work.  There was something about it, the pulp era, the monsters, the dread…  I was hooked.  And it’s always been one of my favorite games, not only to play, but to run.  But, having run it many times, I’ll admit, I’ve sometimes found the system a bit clunky in some aspects.

I remember more than one session where all the player characters (PCs) failed their searching rolls, and I had to scramble to figure out how to get the characters on to the next part of the story.  And that’s one of the major things that Trail of Cthulhu brings to the table.  It uses a very different system, but the thing I think is most important is the idea that your PC investigators are good at finding stuff.  Thus, automatic success.  If there’s a clue to be found, and a character looks for it, they find it.  Maybe it requires they have a certain type of investigative skill (library use, tracking, etc.).  But as long as something makes sense, and the player says she wants to use it, any clues are found.  It’s obvious when you think about it.  But 20 years of running Call of Cthulhu, and I never thought of it.  Even if I don’t use Trail of Cthulhu, I’m going to work that into my next game, anyway.

Some other aspects of the system (it uses the Gumshoe game mechanics) involve a slightly more nuanced Sanity mechanic, which I think is very good, but might be more complex than I tend to like.  And there’s stuff about ‘spend pools’ where you’ve got points you can use in certain skills or stats to temporarily improve your odds of success.

The section on gods and monsters is handy, if for no other reason than it breaks down traditional Call of Cthulhu ideas, and frees you to use the Mythos in different ways.  I like this, and it’s something I’ve always sort of done in my own games.  I’ve always had a certain way of looking at the Mythos that doesn’t go along with some others.

Trail of Cthulhu is a nicely produced book, well organized and thought out.  The art is evocative, if not to my taste.  And I think that, like Eldritch Skies, it does a nice job of deconstructing the Mythos and rebuilding it in a way long time Call of Cthulhu fans might not be used to.  For that alone, I think it’s a worthy read and not a bad addition to the collection.  I definitely feel like I need to play the game to get a feel for some of the rules I’m less familiar with.  But, until that day, it’s given me some ideas for improving my familiar rules system.

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