So I finally finished my first Trail of Cthulhu campaign after several months of madness, murder and mysterious unexplainable events. It went extremely well and while I am never 100% satisfied, the conclusion worked almost (but not quite) perfectly in the end. A lot of mistakes were made, given I was running a new system for the first time and that I really had some difficulty letting go of many years of Call of Cthulhu assumptions. As this game has now concluded, I’ll just talk about the system and some of the interesting things that ended up happening along the way. Sort of an overall view instead of my 5E (if you read that thread) descriptions of my game that go into a lot of detail.
Let me begin by just saying how much I love Trail of Cthulhu as a system. I found it immensely easy to convert into a modern day setting by customizing or adding a few skills here and there. In fact the minimal work that Trail makes in going straight from a historical 1930s setting to a modern day one is really fantastic. Just add some relevant new skills or take some from the already modern GUMSHOE Esoterrorists and you’re set. By far what I love most about Trail compared to Call of Cthulhu is how investigation parts of the game works. Trail assumes that investigators always uncover the key clues when they search a scene, without a chance of failing to read the “Great Big Evil Book of Cthulhu” for important clues. In Call of Cthulhu, I often have to make complex webs of clues, with multiple redundancies in case of the “Latin expert fails to read latin” or “The private investigator can’t actually interrogate the prisoner” or whatever. This is a lot of backend work and ultimately if players have a bad enough series of rolls, can easily grind a game to a screeching dramatic halt at a moments notice.
Trail assumes that the only things players can fail are things that don’t inherently need to drive the plot forward. A dramatic car chase can result in death or injury, so needs to have rules that involve dice and failure. Reading the “Slightly Evil Tome that Will Make you a bit Kooky” for important clues that advance the plot and the game does not need to involve failure. This isn’t to say that a player gets all of the information automatically just because they are skilled: By spending points they might be able to discover more information that tells them something important. A good example is you read said Tomb of Slight Kookiness and find out that the required summoning needs several clear stars in the sky, visible from a certain mountaintop. Spending points would elucidate more information that could be very important to confronting the cultists in question, such as what the star sign is (hinting at the elder being behind this plot) or just what objects they actually needed (perhaps they needed something rare or unusual, giving players the ability to figure out what they’re doing more precisely).
This system just works fantastically, is clean to work with and during the course of the campaign I often brought in other new people to roleplaying just by asking “Hey you ever played some Trail?” and then giving them a character for the game I could make in about 5-10 minutes that instantly worked well (given I tailored their skills to the adventure as well).
Trail is also brilliant for dividing sanity into two stats, basically being Sanity as “You are becoming a warped being who is becoming infused with mythos knowledge” and Stability being “This is your day to day mental health”. This works fantastically, with Stability being your every day shocks, recoiling in horror at bodies and so on. Sanity is your actual “Oh my god, what on earth is that and why does it have so many tentacles and OH DEAR GODS” stat. In practice this works perfectly and means players don’t lose Sanity constantly, while still having that ever present slowly ticking clock of mental doom over their heads.
My campaign: The Signal
When I wrote this I started with a basic idea and assumption that I had not tried before from my Call of Cthulhu games. Trail of Cthulhu sets itself up nicely as a “Crime Procedural” type game, divided into chapters, acts and scenes. I thought to myself, what shows would I like to potentially replicate and ended up cross breeding X-Files with CSI. So I naturally went with Delta Green, which largely being setting and world building in the modern era (albeit, not so modern anymore given it was 1990s or so) perfectly captures that X-Files feeling. The other design intent I put in place was that one session = one investigation or basically one “episode”. So as much as possible everything self-concluded. While I started out envisaging this as a creepy horror game, with a strange signal driving everyone mad, I soon changed it into an X-Files like MotW (Monster of the Week, I will use this acronym a bit!) with “The Signal” being a plot macguffin that let me do whatever I want. Cultists of Hastur? The Signal! Fire Cultists? The Signal? Strange Shoggoths in the sewers? You can bet the signal had something to do with that.
Ultimately this sounds a lot more cliche’d and stupid than how it actually worked in practice and was a logical way for me to have the creative freedom to insert any elements I wanted at any time. However, this soon meant that for whatever reason I abandoned running a “Purist” game and actually ran a very pulpy feeling, kick in the door and shoot cultists in the head game. This worked really well and I was able to have some pretty dramatic gunfights, chase scenes and even a swordfight. Additionally, I felt the need to stick in various mythos beings (Byakhee, Shoggoth, Serpent People etc) into the game and that made for some more unusual and typically “Lovecraftian” encounters requiring quicker thinking and decision making. One player even became a cultist and another went all the way into being a full fledged ghoul by the end.
Before I get into the successes and description of the final scenario “Starfire and Patriots”, there were a lot of things I did poorly or that just plain didn’t work out in this game.
Sources of Stability: One of the best things about Trail of Cthulhu is that a players day to day stability is linked to real people who they have to interact with on a regular basis. This also provides avenues for drama, roleplaying and most importantly: interesting targets for cultists and other creatures to potentially attack PCs indirectly. Unfortunately, when I first wrote this I said “I used this poorly” but in reality “Did not use it at all” is more apt. I also allowed PCs to make sources things like pets and so forth, which does kind of make sense but I have firmly ruled isn’t going to happen in future. This is a fantastic mechanic and I just didn’t use it at all, for two reasons:
A) I constrained myself in time, so I focused on plot related scenes mostly
B) Mostly I didn’t really look into who these people were or thought about how to bring them into the game.
This meant that something that is very unique and cool about Trail, well at least until CoC 7th edition also adopted it (because it’s a fantastic idea), was not used. This is by far my biggest regret and not a mistake I will be making in the next game.
Episodic: Constraining investigations to one session and trying to resolve them in that time was a huge mistake and a bit of a nightmare. Some investigations jumped illogically from one scene to the next simply to meet time constraints. I honestly used such a limited array of investigative skills that I wondered why I even included them (archaeology, accounting, entomology and a few others never got used much for example). This was partly because of the time constraints, which meant I just stuck to certain obvious linking clues that I didn’t really give myself time to explore things in any depth. Additionally, I wrote almost like Tom Clancy or similar with a constrained “arc” of “Here is stuff happening”, here is a scene that elucidates what that stuff might be, a linking action scene, a scene where the players figure out what is happening and then the final confrontation.
This interacts with a MotW campaign in a really obvious way and bothered me considerably. Once again, more time given to investigations and more natural progression would easily solve this problem, which is exactly what I am doing in the future. The other problem, even if it is symptomatic a bit of the inspiration material in CSI, NCIS, X-Files was the whole “Shoot your way out of things” philosophy I allowed the players to adopt. Most final scenes were climatic gun battles – 90% of the time against cultists – where the players generally managed to get themselves through without really dying horribly. This isn’t really a fault of the Trail combat rules and more that with such a quick time frame, one battle or two was all I generally got in an investigation. So mistakes like being shot were generally not immediately life threatening or that scary – again something I have conclusively addressed.
My recommendation for combat in Trail btw is to make it as short, violent and messy as you possibly can. Up tension and drama, but don’t let it drag out or similar, unless there is a really compelling reason (ALA: It’s the last session of the game). Also be careful with the pool size (number of skill points a creature or cultist can add to the d6 rolls in combat) of weapons, firearms and scuffling you give enemies: Even 1-2 points is practically enough to guarantee hitting a player at least once in combat.
The Mythos is Never your Friend: Due to running a pulpy mythos game, I allowed my players to interact with a variety of mythos monsters like Byakhee, Ghouls and so on. However, I made them a bit complacent about several of these things and ended up making them feel too comfortable with these things as allies. This is something I deliberately used to my advantage at the end of Starfire and Patriots, bringing in a chimera (a person who has had mythos monster parts infused in them, such as a heart, limbs and so on) they had assisted and protected but having him turn on the party to abduct one of their members (albeit one he had a grudge against) for his own sinister purposes. Simultaneously leaving the main player character who had aided him in the past to die a (near) grisly death. Part of this was that “The Signal” amped up magic and I had some weird rules for it, which I have entirely gutted in my next game. One of them was that summoning and binding monsters was generally much easier, but in the next game binding a monster is going to be a substantially more difficult affair deliberately.
Making bargains and talking with even the lowliest of mythos entities should be a near madness inducing encounter – not something that happens routinely.
Escalation: I took this idea somewhat from 13th Age, but what it was is that over time a d6 pool would build up that mythos monsters and other creatures could tap into. Effectively it worked like 5E advantage, you rolled it with your normal die and then took the higher of the result for skill checks, attacks or damage. Overall while the building dice had a nice psychological effect on the players, as any large pool of them was worrying for any combat, I felt it worked poorly in the end. It didn’t convey the sense of desperation and horror that is building as an investigation starts to snowball towards its end. A revised idea called “Paranoia” seems to be working much better and I’ll introduce in my next game – after I see how it works at the table!
Characters: Way to many antagonists, characters and so on. There is a saying “Too many cooks spoil the brew” and that’s what happened. I lost track of characters, forgot others, didn’t use some effectively and so on. Combined with sessions being so limited in time and scope, there were some great villains that I wrote like Hilliers, Jessica and Katherine who simply didn’t get the time they needed to be built up personality wise beyond “Dear gods, these people are dicks!”. Then again, a MotW style pulpy game was always going to run into this problem and hence why I made my next campaign much tighter and focused in plot.
Enough of me complaining about my game, what happened anyway?
The Conclusion: Starfire, Patriots and a whole lot of Insane Investigators
So throughout this campaign players have been tracking something called “The Signal” and by this point they have learned the Signal isn’t some mythos entity per say. It’s actually something built by the US Government built under the direction of the “Benefactors”, which are basically classic Greys with a sinister ulterior purpose (beyond manipulating humanity of course). After finding a lead to Baker USA (A real town BTW, totally look it up – its between Nevada and California, or on the route between Los Angeles and Las Vegas), the players investigated, met an insane conspiracy theorist (who was strangely right on some things) and then discovered some key townspeople had been replaced with alien replicants (pod person style, including an horrific on death scream in a clear nod to that movie). They found a man who had been operated on by aliens who had strange technology in him. The investigators had previously seen the organic metal technology in action and knew it was serious business, but letting the US Government get their hands on it was not good and they raced to stop him.
PLOT HOLE – I totally forgot about this guy by the time we next played and so who knows what happened to him.
There was a tense confrontation with some Delta Green agents at the place the man was dumped by the aliens (after operating on him), noting that in this game Delta Green had been compromised by individuals wanting to use alien technology to take over the world (more or less). After resolving that the PCs went back to town, only to encounter Hilliers (the “leader” of the LA Cell of Delta Green, but really a Section 21 alien sympathizer) who had them abducted after the chimera attacked them with a stun grenade (a hideous human/serpent person hybrid with a knack for sniping). This ensured a meeting with the Benefactor (aka Grey) with Hilliers sanctioning the event. Should the Investigators be found worthy by the alien, he was going to let them join but most importantly, the PCs now knew where the source of the signal in LA was (which was where the Benefactor was helping the humans build a hybrid human/AI).
PLOT HOLE – Totally forgot about the US governments pet chimera as well. Whoops.
Unfortunately, an NPC who was trying to help the PCs had his brain melted and when the Benefactor touched the mind of one of the players it got more than it bargained for – as the connection was 2 ways! As a result that player learned some terrible things and the alien made a quick getaway, as another antagonist turned up with some of her Byakhee and started an attack (having followed the PCs to the source of the Signal). This resulted in some desperate running gun battles, copious murder of innocent scientists (they were only following orders to murder and torture people to create AI constructs, honest!) and then the final dramatic showdown with Hilliers, Katherine (Serpent Person) and Adam (the insane human/AI hybrid). During this battle four of the five players went completely and utterly insane, with copious amounts of C4 being tossed around. A notable highlight of the confusion was when one player armed some C4 and sprinted to the exit, where upon reaching the elevator another investigator successfully football chucked the C4 into the elevator with them.
That was a great moment.
Then one player got eaten by the snake person, another got almost clawed into a bloody pulp and finally the AI was destroyed by use of a spell learned earlier in the game, which drained his magic from him and therefore ended his connection to “The Signal”. Without the Signal, he collapsed to the floor uselessly and the PCs chimera “Ally” immediately abducted the sorceress investigator with him without a second thought. Considering being shot by an antimaterial rifle did little to this creature, it was a relief for the investigators when this desperate last trick worked! This left the player consumed by the Byakhee to die in a clearly devastating sudden heel turn! However, C4 + Large snake = Snake everywhere (even if you are an ancient serpent person, swallowing C4 has to suck). Only one player, the newest character after a previous “incident” involving a portal to the center of space and an arm being cut off, managed to actually get his character out without being insane. Thankfully an NPC had provided a parked van full of even more explosives and the entire god forsaken lab and building was buried under tons of rubble, glass and twisted metal.
Without the Signal the large fleet of ships the PCs had seen in visions/heard of turned around, content that humanities time was not yet read and the apocalypse was averted…. for now.
Overall I thought things ended dramatically and appropriately for the highly pulpy, monster fighting campaign that I ended up accidentally running. The important thing is that I really enjoyed it, I’ve fallen in love with Trail as a system (especially now I will be using all of it!) and am already excited to see what my players come up with in my new campaign. Most importantly, everyone had fun and loved the campaign (even if I am noting all the flaws in it still), but I am very much looking forward to the slower paced and more “Psychological Horror” orientated London game. Especially now I have a very good grasp of how Trail works as a system and all the wonderful things I can do with sources of stability…
All the wonderfully messed up things I can do…