I ran two Trail of Cthulhu sessions over the weekend (a stealth proof-of-concept of a possible upcoming setting). At a three or four hour convention game, the pressure of time means every scene has to count. There’s little time for backtracking or encounters that don’t go anywhere, and that pressure’s compounded if you’ve got a table of players who aren’t familiar with the GUMSHOE system. You want to shovel clues and benefits at them whenever you can. There need to be clues everywhere (and they all need to converge and lead onto a small number of possible next scenes, to keep the scenario on track).

Most players quickly grasp the big idea of GUMSHOE, that you always find clues instead of rolling for them, but point spends are a little more confusing. New players ask if they need to spend points for core clues, or think they need to roll like a General Ability, or have trouble even imagining what extra benefit, say, Photography might have. They worry about wasting points, and while I assume them that I’ll refund the spend if there’s no added information or benefit to be gained, I always look for ways to make a point spend seem worthwhile.  I don’t like saying no to new players when they try to engage with the mechanics.

After all, one of the big reasons to have point spends is to help allocate spotlight time. Spending a point is like sending up a flare to the GM marked “pay attention to me! Give me a way to shine”). The last thing you want to do to a new player let them feel ignored. (At the same time, the other last thing you want to do is let a loud and enthusiastic new player dominate the game and crowd out everyone else – and the limited number of investigative spends available ensure that doesn’t easily happen.)

Here are my four go-to ways to make any Investigative spend, even an obscure one, pay off, in the absence of a better idea or suggestion.

Gain A Trusted Contact

Any certainty is welcome in a mystery game. Telling a player “you know this guy and can trust him” is immensely reassuring. If a player asks “do I know any X (astronomers, doctors, people who know about the swamp, people who’ll help me move a body)”, I’ll either suggest a suitable ability, or just tell the player if they pick an ability and spend from it, they’ll know someone who they can trust and rely on – ideally, someone who provides access to another Investigative Ability.

Even just the act of saying “you can trust this guy” is often enough. You might not have ever intended for that NPC to betray or deceive the players, but the players usually feel that certainty is worth the point.

  • Art History: A local dealer in fine art. She’s got lots of Credit Rating and can get you an invite to the Ambassador’s party.
  • Geology: Your old university lecturer is also an expert in Chemistry.
  • Cop Talk: Your buddy on the force can open doors for you that would normally require Bureaucracy.

Gain a General Pool

If a player asks to do something with an investigative spend that’s really better phrased as a general ability test, then instead off a 3-point pool of that general ability. If they make a wild spend for information when you’ve no idea what extra details or clues to give them, go for a 1 or 2-point pool of Investigative Abilities. Phrase it as a pool instead of a straight bonus to give the player more control, and to allow for the narratively satisfying possibility of callbacks.

  • Can I make acid with Chemistry and melt the door? How about a 3-point Explosive Devices pool?
  • I use Bargain on the shopkeeper. What does he have for sale that I can buy cheap? Take 3 points of Preparedness, and later on you can say that you bought whatever item you use here in this scene.
  • I spend a point to Research everything! Um, ok. You read everything in the library related to the case. You don’t find anything that seems immediately relevant, but you can have one point that you can turn into any Academic ability later on, as long as it relates to the case you researched. So, if you find, I dunno, a magic dagger, you could examine that item with the bits of Archaeology you recall from your reading, and get clues that way.

Expand The Scope Of An Ability

Especially for more abstruse academic abilities, it’s common for players to try using them as steamrollers whenever they’re even slightly relevant. (“I have Medicine! I’m a doctor! They should tell me everything about the dead guy’s autopsy”). Interpersonal abilities get repurposed (“I flatter him, saying ‘you’re way too tough to be scared of those mushroom guys.” Is he Reassured yet?”) In such cases, charge a point spend to allow for the more generous interpretation of the ability.

Tangential Flashback

If you’re totally stuck for how an investigative spend could possibly apply to the scene, but the player is adamant that they want to try, consider improvising a brief scene that relates to the spend, but gives a core clue or other information. You can also use such little scenes to drop tangentially-related but spookily Lovecraftian foreshadowing or hints.

  • I spend a point of Astronomy and look out at the stars while the others are talking to the terrible old man! The stars out the window are oddly different – it must be some trick of the light, or a trick of the clouds. Maybe it’s unusually clear here, so you can see more stars. Anyway, you remember one night a few months ago when you came out to a hill near the old man’s shack to do some observations with a portable telescope. Now that you think of, you remember seeing a fire burning that night – and that fire might have been right here, in his back yard. What was he burning that night? (Hints that Evidence Collection or Archaeology might find something in the back garden.)
  • I examine the plants in the garden. Do I get anything for spending a point of Biology? You recall a reference in a biology paper you read in college that talked about the occult properties of certain plants. Out of curiosity – you were a bored biology student – you looked up that second paper, and there you learned that the plants in the garden – sorghum – are associated with a tradition called the Benandanti, a 16th century occult group who claimed to be able to astrally project. (Substitutes for Occult)
  • I spend a point of Craft while examining the table. What?
  • I spend a point of Craft while examining the table. OK. Er. Well, you… know that the table is… ok, it’s made from a hardwood that grows locally. In a forest. And…and in that forest, there are mines running underneath parts of it, and you’ve heard stories about weird stuff there. And dead miners. Buried alive! The roots of the trees there must have fed on human marrow-fat and bones… and now they’re in this table. (There’s another scene in the scenario that points to the old mine, and you’re wildly scrabbling to find anything useful to say.)

Bast_350“What fully civilised soul but would eagerly serve as high priest of Bast?” She Who Scratches, the Lady of the Ointment Jar, the great cat-goddess of nighted Khem comes alive in all her varied forms: as a Trail of Cthulhu titan (complete with her monstrous Brood of Bubastis), mysterious Ashen Stars entity, TimeWatch cult leader, and 13th Age Icon. Good kitty!

Bast is the eleventh installment of the third Ken Writes About Stuff subscription and is now available to subscribers – it will be available to buy in the webstore in February. If you have subscribed to the third KWAS subscription, Bast is now on the Subscriptions tab of your bookshelf.

Stock #: PELH38D Author: Kenneth Hite
Artist: Melissa Gay
Pages: 12pg PDF

As extensively, nay giddily, described in a recent episode of Ken and Robin Talk About Stuff, the two of us received a sneak peek at the books on display in the Royal College of Physicians’ current John Dee exhibition. Among the treasures we examined was Dee’s copy of Trithemius’ Polygraphie. Its pages include several volvelles, paper wheels the reader can turn to use the ciphers contained in this 16th century cryptography text.

Another such tome of interest to Trail of Cthulhu Keepers is the Circumago Tenebrae by Danish philosopher, pastor, engineer, courtier and alchemist Johannes Castenschiold (1532-1574.) Best known today for his spectacular expiration at the feet of King Frederick II, supposedly the result of a Jesuit poisoning scheme, Castenschiold wrote several volumes of cryptography, of which this was the last. He composed its ciphers in the wake of mental breakdown suffered while viewing the heavens through a telescope. Fumes emitted from his alchemical laboratory may have contributed to his fevered epiphany. As described in the preface, his intent was not to reveal what he saw through that lens, but forever imprison those insane truths in a code no one could crack.

Alas, the weird, ornamented alphabet he created for the book took on a life of its own. It now spontaneously turns the several volvelles he included in its pages. Readers sharing its author’s polymath tendencies and propensity for staring into things the eye is best averted from may benefit from this process—though not without risk.

Investigators possessing the Circumago Tenebrae may choose to concentrate on a thorny question while caressing the book’s rich red leather cover. When they come back a few hours later, they find a volvelle turned to highlight one of Castenschiold’s strange letters. For best results, frame the question so that it can be answered in a single word, ideally a noun. Cryptography finds the equivalent Roman letter that starts the one-word answer, in the language best understood by the questioner. So if you want to know which bank Eula Whateley’s unborn son is buried under, the process will yield an M for ‘Milford Federal.’ Its results can be ambiguous. Ask it who killed the mad radio hound Christopher Fife, and it gives you an L, which might refer to either Kent Leman or Raymond Loesser.

Each time the volvelle leads the team to a core clue, the investigator who posed the question loses 1 Sanity.

See the volvelle turn in this GIF from the RCP.


Ken’s upcoming Fall of Delta Green will get Trail of Cthulhu as far into the modern era as it’s likely to go for a while. In the meantime, here’s a quick and dirty ability list with which GUMSHOE investigators can learn too much about the Mythos in 2015 and beyond.

With its forensic procedural vibe, The Esoterrorists has a few too many technical abilities. So you’ll see Forensic Anthropology and Forensic Entomology merged into Trail’s more general Forensics ability.

Modern characters needn’t show New England restraint, so I’ve added in a few interpersonal abilities that appear in other games.

Where the general abilities are concerned, I dropped Disguise as a thing that seems less realistic out of the pulp era, replacing it with Impersonate, which is more oriented toward identity theft.

Riding also went, as something that will come up less in contemporary games. Fold it back in if you expect the characters to chase serpent folk on the range.

In my own games I’d drop Weapons, collapsing it into Scuffling, but that’s about how much you want to evoke Call of Cthulhu’s look and feel, not a time period issue.






Art History


Cthulhu Mythos






Library Use







Bullshit Detector



Cop Talk

Credit Rating






Oral History







Data Retrieval

Electronic Surveillance

Explosive Devices

Evidence Collection






General Abilities




Electrical Repair




First Aid





Mechanical Repair






Sense Trouble





# of players

Investigative Build Points










General Ability Points: 60

UPDATE: Thanks to Chris Huth for wrangling the above into character sheet form.


Trail of Cthulhu is an award-winning 1930s horror roleplaying game by Kenneth Hite, produced under license from Chaosium. Whether you’re playing in two-fisted Pulp mode or sanity-shredding Purist mode, its GUMSHOE system enables taut, thrilling investigative adventures where the challenge is in interpreting clues, not finding them. Purchase Trail of Cthulhu and its many supplements and adventures in the Pelgrane Shop.

See P. XX

A column on roleplaying

by Robin D. Laws

Lovecraft specialized in tales of cosmic horror, in which the insignificance of mere personality pales when confronted with the utter indifference of a materialistic universe. His heroes go mad or are destroyed by monstrous stand-ins for a reality that takes no note of human concerns. Our motivations and choices don’t just mean nothing when viewed against the Mythos’ geological time scale and the mindlessly biological nature of its entities. They lie entirely beside the point.

The school of personal horror, as found in Fear Itself, instead explores the horror within. The heroes, or perhaps anti-heroes, of personal horror tales meet destruction when taken to the cruelly logical endpoints of their own inner struggles.

Many modern horror writers, in keeping with our era’s focus on characterization, prefer to meld the Mythos with tales of personal horror.

If classic Lovecraftian protagonists can be said to be destroyed by a personal flaw, that would be a particularly scholarly or scientific variety of hubris. Their need to look where all the omens tell them they should not leads to mind-shattering truths they wish they had never sought. In this they follow the template of the venerable granddad of science horror anti-heroes, Mary Shelley’s Victor von Frankenstein. He in turn traces his mythic antecedents to the Prometheus of the novel’s subtitle, and also to Daedalus. Both lofty, symbolic figures far from the sources of literary psychological realism.

Trail of Cthulhu pulls its protagonists toward horrific revelation with Drives. These allow players to choose why their characters read books of madness, go off on jaunts seeking suppressed cults, and descend into Antarctic tunnels.

Fear Itself has you personalize your character by specifying The Worst Thing You Ever Did. This not only gets you to think of your PC as an anti-hero and not a problem-solving ass-kicker, but gives you, the inner corruption that may lead to your undoing. To help you and the GM turn it into narrative, it asks you to express this in the form of an event.

The upcoming GUMSHOE One-2-One doesn’t use either mechanic. However the political and individual corruption of its introductory setting, 1937 Los Angeles, filters into scenarios that fuse the personal and the cosmic. And while I’m not the boss of Ken, I wouldn’t be surprised to see personal horror also infuse its way into The Fall of Delta Green, set in the era when hubris spiraled into a shattering of collective norms and the flying of any number of freak flags.

You can add horror to standard Trail games set in any era by adding an inverse quality to the Drives. Ask players to specify not only a Drive, but a Worst Thing You Ever Did. Suggest that they tie one into the other. This creates a unity of character—even a DramaSystem style pair of dramatic poles, from the sympathetic intentions of the Drive to the dark side of the WTYED.

Invite stumped players to steal from the following list of example Worst Things. For those who prefer to create their own personal nightmares, I’ve left some of the Drives as exercises for the reader.

Adventure: “I left my wife and children at home while I went off on a journey to the South Seas. The opportunity to fight pirates thrilled my blood. A year spend marooned on a tiny atoll taught me strength. When I returned, it was to their graves—they had died, alone and afraid, taken like so many others by an influenza epidemic.”

Bad Luck: “While helping my young brother string Christmas lights, I fell from a ladder. I landed on him, killing him. I didn’t do it on purpose. That doesn’t mean I don’t feel responsible for his death. Because even then I knew of my curse, and should never have exposed him to the danger of my presence.”

Curiosity: “They say curiosity killed the cat. It certainly killed the cat I performed a live vivisection on, when I was seven.”

Duty: “I officiated at an exorcism. Sanctioned by the church, though they will never confirm that. I did not listen to the others who cried out that the girl could not breathe, so intent was I to drive the demon out. They defrocked me, said the girl had epilepsy. Maybe she did, but at least the devil inside her no longer walks the earth.”

Ennui: “I grew so bored once that I toyed with a young man’s heart, merely to see it break. Perhaps I thought his naivete and freshness would once again open up something alive in me. But I tired of him before the experiment had ended, and discarded him. One night I came home to find him in my bed—a gun still entwined between his dead fingers, a fatal self-inflicted wound marring that handsome face.”

In the Blood: “My mother said she wanted me to kill her, before a terrible transformation turned her into something I would not recognize. I laughed. I always told her she was prone to drama. Then one night she disappeared, leaving behind the corpses of our chambermaid, the chauffeur, and the village doctor. I should have listened. When it starts to happen to me, will anyone believe me?”

Revenge: “In my haste to avenge myself against the marauders who slew my parents, I captured the mad wanderer who sometimes trespassed on our estate. Certain he knew more than he would admit, I tortured a confession from him. A confession that led me nowhere. The poor devil would have said anything to escape my misplaced wrath.”

Sudden Shock: “I don’t know what the worst thing I did. I just remember that after they found me in the park, there was something in my mouth—a fingertip, severed by my teeth.”

Thirst for Knowledge: “I stole a forbidden book from the Ashmolean Museum Library. As soon as I knew of its existence, I had to plunder its ancient Aramaic and fully comprehend its demonic lore. Other minds could not stand the strain, would be implacably drawn to do evil with its secrets. But I knew better. I could keep them, safely. What I did not predict is that, while in my possession, the book would be stolen. And those others, whoever they were, slew innocents and summoned a terrible being to stalk the land. Had I not been rash, that dread tome would still be in the Ashmolean today.”

SourcesDriven By Our Loves

A New Sources of Stability System for Trail of Cthulhu by Cat Ramen
Trail of Cthulhu makes it clear that the Investigators are not simply pushed by their own need to investigative the Mythos; they also need the support of the people closest to them, their Sources of Stability. This system expands on the basic rules to give players and Keepers more options for using Sources of Stability. While it can work in conjunction with Pillars of Sanity, it can also serve as a replacement for them.

There are two components of this system: a statement for the PCs Drive and each Source of Stability, indicating what the Drive or Source means to him or her; and the use of hard and soft Drivers by the Keeper on the Sources, using the Statements as guides to the form the Drivers will take.

Value Statements

A Value Statement is a brief sentence indicating how the PC views that Source or Drive. A good Statement will provide a hook for the Keeper to introduce negative elements of that Drive or relationship in play.

For example, Joyce Summers is a pilot with long experience of fighting the creatures of the Mythos. Her drive is adventure, so her player writes “Violence is always an option” as her Drive statement. Joyce’s player can expect the Keeper to give her Drivers pushing Joyce towards violent action even when not appropriate.

Janet is an investigative reporter who has been caught up in the fight against the Mythos. One of her Sources of Stability is a private investigator named Jimmy Wright; their relationship is ambiguous, leading her player to write “Whatever else, Jimmy always protects me” as her statement. We can expect her Keeper to give her Drivers about how she feels about Jimmy’s latest rescue mission.

Drivers and Statements

During play, the Keeper can introduce Drivers against Sources of Stability as well as against a PCs Drive. These can be hard or soft Drivers, as per the rules on pp. 72-73 in the Trail of Cthulhu corebook. However, the Keeper should use the Values Statements to guide the form the Driver takes; a PC who has the Statement “I always tell Father Brown my worries” should get Drivers urging him to go to Confession, even if the summoning ritual is happening later that day…

Challenging Statements

As the player characters adventure, their experiences will change them, causing them to examine their values in a new light. At certain dramatically appropriate moments, doing so may give them a sudden surge of resolve. This process is called Challenging a Statement.

When a player Challenges a Value Statement, she should tell everyone which value she’s Challenging, and explain why what she’s doing or about to do is causing her to change the value. She can then refresh a number of General Ability points equal to her PCs Sanity. She can even use these points to refresh Stability or Health, but not Sanity. For the rest of the session:

  • She cannot Challenge that Value.
  • She cannot recover Stability from that Source. She can still lose Stability for refusing a Driver against that Value.

At the end of the session, she must rewrite the Value to reflect how it has changed.

Any session in which a player character Challenges a Value earns the PC an extra experience point, to reflect their growth as a person.

For example, Joyce Summers currently has her Drive’s value as “Violence is always an option.” Trying to escape from an insane asylum, one of Joyce’s companions convinces her that attacking a guard will be too noisy and attract too much attention. Joyce’s player decides to Challenge her Drive’s Value, and uses the refresh on her Stealth, enabling her to escape. At the end of the session, Joyce’s player changes the Drive Value to: “Sometimes it’s better to strike unnoticed.”

Shattering Values

Sometimes, the Mythos overwhelms a person, forever changing their relationship with the world. This can result in a Value Statement becoming shattered.

This works essentially the same as Shattering a Pillar of Sanity (see pp. 75-6 in the Trail of Cthulhu rules). The player character takes the same penalty–6 Stability and 2 Sanity. Whatever that Source of Stability associated with the Shattered Value is, the PC can never recover Stability from that Source again.

Like an invalidated Drive, player characters are still subject to Soft and Hard Drivers from the Keeper against the Shattered Value.

At the end of the session, players should rewrite any Shattered Values to reflect how their PCs have lost all hope in what they once held dear. Players can change them at the end of any future sessions if they like, but they’ll never be able to Challenge them or utilize that Source of Stability.

For example, Janet has suffered some bad times, but has managed to hold on to her Drive’s value of “The Truth will break the spell.” In a horrific moment she discovers that all along she has been manipulated by Nyarlathotep, and nothing she has done will stop his plans. Her Value shatters, and she changes it to “Plaything of the Immortals.”

Recovering Shattered Values

In some campaign modes, it may be possible to recover lost Sanity. For every two points of Sanity a PC recovers, he or she can rebuild a Shattered Value, and thus regain use of that Source of Stability–although, depending on how the player writes the new Value, it may make more sense to change Sources as well.

The_Long_Con_cover_350Sidney Pryce wants the protagonists’ help to set up a Big Store, to sucker a rich American into thinking he’s buying into a Burnt Auction. The rewards, Pryce promises, are incalculable; but soon after Pryce enlists their help, strange bird-creatures haunt the protagonists. How, they wonder, does Japanese folklore figure into it?

The Long Con is a new stand-alone Trail of Cthulhu scenario from the pen of Adam Gauntlett (Soldiers of Pen and InkDulce et Decorum Est, and many more).

Stock #: PELGT41D Author: Adam Gauntlett
Artist: Pat Loboyko, Eric Quigley Type: 32-page PDF


New Jerusalem colourThe Secret War is coming to England. Will you be ready?

It is 1927.  As Britain continues her slow recovery, August Darcy, a young journalist, is seized with a strange obsession.  He must recover the very essence of England – her traditions, customs, and legends – and he must do that even at the cost of his livelihood; even if he loses the woman who is to be his wife.

The Book is replete with mythic sites, occult rumours, and clues which will guide you on your quest for forbidden knowledge.

Then, in the early 1930s, England experiences the first portents of a magical war. Darcy’s mythic sites are the hidden battle fields; and that forbidden knowledge, the esoteric ordnance of the forthcoming conflict.

Within these covers are the never-before-published early writings of the author of the Book of the Smoke. Sketches of English life, in his unique style, are interspersed with private letters and diary extracts to offer an extraordinary insight into the victim of England’s most notorious occult crime. These are not romantic yearnings for a golden age long gone, but a timely reminder that the terrors of our forefathers still linger on the fringe of modernity.

Written as the companion volume to Fearful Symmetries for Trail of Cthulhu, the Book of the New Jerusalem can be used as a Keeper’s resource as well as an in-game artefact for players in any Mythos game.

Status: In development

Fearful_Symmetries_Blake_350For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places.

– William Blake, The Four Zoas (from Ephesians 6:12)

The Secret War is coming to England. And you are the warriors.

Albion, the primeval and perfect England of William Blake, is broken – by war in heaven, and turmoil amongst mankind. Heroes arise to build Jerusalem anew in the Green & Pleasant Land guided by Blake’s visionary poetry.

In this supplement to Trail of Cthulhu, you play a group of magicians exploring the magickal revival; wielding the terrible, double-edged power that grants both dominion and degeneration.

With its companion volume, The Book of the New Jerusalem, Fearful Symmetries gives the Keeper guidelines for building an improvised campaign with dangers drawn from English folklore and Mythos abomination. Four systems of magic are described, along with locations, threats, tomes, and characters. Use Fearful Symmetries to flesh out the struggle between the lurking horror, and the shrivelled good intentions of those who think such power can be contained, and controlled, by mere mortals.

The magical battle for England is coming. Is your humanity the price of  victory?

FASTCARIf you go down the down to woods today…

The shadowy depths of the primeval forest are the ancient source of our collective fears. But there is worse in the woods than timber wolves and fairy tales; you can lose not just your way, but your mind, too.  This brand new collection of Trail of Cthulhu adventures explores hidden groves and endless avenues – the hideous soul of Lovecraft’s forest.

  • Midnight Sub Rosa. The diary of Ezekiel de la Poer, a colonial-era French necromancer hanged for child-murder in 1736 was stolen at the home of an emeritus professor in the small town of Rosa, Alabama. His house lives in the eaves of a forest of white ash. Can the Investigators find the book before its thief becomes something else entirely?
  • The Silence Mill In a small village in Brittany close on the Arthurian forest of Brocéliande, a friend of the Investigators stands accused of serial murder, cannibalism and even lycanthropy. Can they ascertain the truth, or will the truth find them?
  • Dreaming of a Better Tomorrow for 30 Dollars a Month Amongst crowded green precipices and muttering forest streams of Vermont, labourers from one of Roosevelt’s integrated Civilian Conservation Corps camps disappear. In an atmosphere fraught with political intrigue and Jim Crow laws, can a mixed bag of Investigators find the primordial peril which threatens more than just one camp, or even one State?
  • The Coldest Walk. Deep in Wisconsin’s northern woods lies the town of Four Pines – a quiet, almost forgettable community. However, whenever the aurora flashes in the sky the inhabitants have a terrible choice to make. Can the Investigators stop the inevitable, or must they take the Walk for themselves?
  • Trembling Giant In 1937, the United States government transferred 300 acres to the newly recognized Koosharem Band of Paiute Indians. But this new land is throttled by distorted trees and stalked by unnatural beasts. Nightmares grip the shaman and warning totems shatter – what is the legacy of this ancient land, and can the tribesfolk fight this ancient evil?

Out of the Woods features three writers new to Trail, and two old hands to take your hand and lead you through the eaves and into the darkness…

…you are in for a big surprise!

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