A Tale of Two Investigations (Trail of Cthulhu Adventure Review)

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Trail of Cthulhu coversTrail of Cthulhu covers

Back in November I reviewed the Trail of Cthulhu RPG, and now it is time to turn our attention to some of the adventures that have been published by Pelgrane Press for the system. For many of gamers, a roleplaying game is only as good as the adventures that are published for it, and this is especially true as we try to shoehorn in gaming sessions into our busy lives. Nowadays, low prep or no prep sessions are almost a necessary for me and therefore I am always looking for published adventures to either use whole cloth, or at the very least to serve as models of how to structure my own adventures. In this review I will look at two different scenarios written by Graham Walmsley.

Trail of Cthulhu adventures (or what are more accurately called investigations) come in one of two flavors: Purist scenarios are designed to evoke the feel and style of H.P. Lovecraft’s stories where the best investigators can hope for is to escape with a shred of their sanity intact after having gained a glimpse of the cosmic horror waiting just beyond the fringes of reality. In contrast, Pulp scenarios take H.P. Lovecraft and apply a liberal dose of action-adventure, creating scenarios in which investigators often end up fighting Mythos horrors with tommy-guns and dynamite. Both are interesting and equally fun, though they typically end up appealing to different types of players.

Graham Walmsley’s adventures are very much in the Purist camp, and it’s clear right from the start that Mr. Walmsley has done his homework in getting to the heart of what makes Lovecraft’s stories so enduring, without simply replicating them directly. As such they are great fun, especially for those of us who love Lovecraft’s creepy, ambiguous monsters and nihilistic outlook.

St. Margaret's CoverSt. Margaret's CoverThe Dying of St. Margaret’s

The Dying of St. Margaret’s comes in the form of a 28-page PDF, with an attractive color cover and a black-and-white interior with a few tasteful pieces of art. As such it’s fairly reasonable in terms of ink/toner if you’re going to print the book out. The layout is neat and easy to follow, although the three-column format makes it less suitable for use on a tablet since the text tends to be quite small.

The investigation, which is set in ToC’s default 1930 time-frame, takes place on a remote Scottish island and is centered around a decaying private girls’ academy. The standard set-up is that the investigators are all friends or acquaintances of a group of staff from the school that have recently gone missing. Strangers at the beginning of the adventure, each of the investigators meet on the boat ride over to the island where they have each taken a temporary staff position — ranging from divinity master to assistant-gardener — in order to gain access to the school grounds and hopefully discover what happened to their friend.

While this set-up may be a bit harder to fit in to an ongoing campaign, it’s well suited for a one-shot, purist adventure and towards this end the adventure includes five pregenerated characters that are perfectly matched to the set-up. It also works extremely well because the ultimate outcome of the adventure is supposed to emulate that of an H.P. Lovecraft story in which the investigators come face-to-face with the realization of their own insignificance in the universe and often end up physically or mentally damaged. In other words, played as intended PCs are not supposed to exit this scenario unscathed.

This, in my opinion, is the most polarizing feature of the scenario because groups that want the bleak outcome typical to many of the original Lovecraft stories are going to really love the feel of this adventure. In contrast, those that prefer to shoot deep ones or ultimately “win” against the Mythos are going to find the adventure really unsatisfying. All is not lost though because Walmsley does include suggestions, including creature stats, in an appendix that lets you convert the adventure to a “pulp” style one.

The investigation itself is fairly straight-forward and while not built on rails (PCs can go where they want and no events are really time critical), it does have a fairly predictable flow that helps a GM keep the suspense building throughout the session. While the core clues of the investigation follow logically from one another, the PDF really could use a flowchart showing how the core clues (and some of the axillary clues) relate to one another.

The scenario is very manageable in terms of locations and NPCs, thanks to the fact that it’s set in a small, isolated location (essentially the PCs only can wander the school grounds, the nearby village, or the area in between). Thus, the number of NPCs is fairly limited and easy to keep track of, although making some notes to reference is advisable. In addition, the scenario itself includes a great bunch of roleplaying tips including suggestions for body language that really help bring the NPCs to life. Kudos for that feature: I wish all of the ToC scenarios followed the same format.

Aside from the actual content of the scenario’s investigation, Walmsley also has included some specific tips and scene suggestions utilizing flashbacks and specific events that directly connect to the investigators’ Drives, pushing them forward at certain points and undermining their confidence at others to turn up the psychological elements of the scenario. This is perhaps my favorite part – although it is also the one that takes the most mastery to fully utilize — because done well it really helps create a sense of history initially and then pushes the investigators to the brink as their mental fortitude starts to unravel in the face of a truly cosmic force.

I have run this scenario twice and had a fabulous time in both cases. I love running it late at night, with the lights turned down and just a couple of candles lighting the table. Atmosphere is critical for really raising the suspense and horror of the scenario. I also like the scenario because it’s incredibly flexible — it will work for one to five players equally well (though smaller numbers work best in my opinion) and works equally well for those new to RPGs or grizzled veterans, as long as they’re on board with the Purist style. As such, it’s now one of my “go to” scenarios for cons. As such I would highly recommend checking it out.

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