In-Depth RPG Review: Trail of Cthulhu

Geek Culture

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 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.

Book cover

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 H.P.L.’s writings and in the game itself is that 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.

Physical Details

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

The 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 downright amazing. 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 style actually captures the essence of Lovecraft’s own approach: he often described his creations in very vague terms and the art in the book captures the spirit of those descriptions by presenting the basic form of the creatures and leaving the details to the imagination. 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 are particularly well-suited for either a “Purist” or “Pulp” play style. As I mentioned previously, Cthulhu Mythos stories come in two basic flavors. In one, 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 shoot Deep Ones) – that’s “Pulp.” 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.

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