Trail of Cthulhu

Trail Cover

Trail of Cthulhu is an award-winning standalone game produced under license from Chaosium, set in the 1930s, now in its third print run, and produced in five languages. Trail of Cthulhu uses the GUMSHOE system, which is finely tuned for investigative play – the challenge is in interpreting clues not finding them.

It supports both Pulp (for Indiana Jones, Robert E. Howard, thrilling locations sorts of games) and Purist styles of play (for intellectual horror and cosmic dread). HP Lovecraft’s work combined both, sometimes in the same story.

It includes a new take on the creatures, cults and gods of the Lovecraft’s literature, and addresses their use in gaming. It adds new player backgrounds, and bulk out the GUMSHOE system to give intensive support for sanity, incorporating into the rule set the PCs desire to explore at the risk of going mad.

Trail of Cthulhu won two Ennie awards for Best Rules and Best Writing, as well as receiving an honourable mention for Product of the Year.

Trail of Cthulhu is a very well supported game, with award-winning supplements by Ken Hite, Robin Laws, Jason Morningstar, Adam Gauntlett, Graham Walmsley, Gareth Hanrahan and Bill White.

Review Highlights

See the complete reviews to date here.

…I was concerned that my traditional style of low prep freeform gaming would have trouble with the GUMSHOE clue system included here… I quickly discovered that this was not an obstacle at all, … it was very easy to constantly push new clues through different Investigative Abilities. In fact, I found that the game worked spectacularly well with this style as the nature of these Abilities encouraged me to constantly engage each of the players thereby resulting in a mystery that was continuously moving forward to its PC driven conclusion. My play experiences have been far more satisfying than I would have expected, though my group has largely avoided physical conflict whenever possible.

CW Richeson on rpg.net

Overall, this is a masterful melding of the Gumshoe system with classic Cthulhu Mythos gaming, an inspired match. There’s so much goodness in this that I’ll be back again and again, not just to play but to mine for ideas whatever I am doing.

Megan Robertson on rpgnow.com

By now it should be evident that I really love Trail of Cthulhu. I think it manages to capture the feel and style of HPL’s stories, particularly when played in Purist mode, with rules built to complement the stories. GUMSHOE is a perfect fit for investigative type adventures, and well-suited for a plotted out set of scenes. It also is simple enough to be run in a more “off-the-cuff” improvisational style and doesn’t require a great deal of prep on the part of the Keeper.

Michael Harnish on RPG Geek

…the section on the Cthulhu Elder Gods/Outer Gods is superb and packed with so many incredibly insane ideas for running plots it is hard to talk about it without waving hands around incoherently. One small sentence about Elder Gods as meme loads was so compelling it was a hot topic in my house for three days. If you’re into CoC at all, this is worth getting to juice up campaigns and take them to 11.

Emily Dresner

The Gumshoe system is an investigation-oriented one, and this orientation is well suited to many Mythos scenarios. We enjoyed playing our characters and didn’t have too much trouble picking up the system. I’d recommend it.

Duncan Hunter on rpg.net

This book is gorgeous; my copy is a lovely 248 page hardcover. Jérome Huguenin does a masterful job with art and layout. That art is consistent throughout– something not to be underestimated as a key to make a game feel complete … Worth buying for any gamer interesting in horror or Lovecraft.

Lowell Francis on rpggeek.com

With enough for everyone and a system flexible to have from a purely investigative adventure to a action fuelled Indiana Jones style game, if you like Lovecraft, you simply can’t go wrong with it

Paco G Jaen of G*M*S Magazine

Related Links

  • Sample pages from Trail of Cthulhu.
  • Order from the Pelgrane Press Store
  • Visit Yog-sothoth – the Trail of Cthulhu forum.
  • See the complete reviews to date here.
Stock #:PELGT01D Author: Kenneth Hite and Robin Laws
Artist: Jerome Huguenin Format: 248-page, two-color, smythe-sewn hardback

Buy

A Dreamlands Location

When traveling through the Dreamlands, especially when accompanied by Luis Buñuel or Salvador Dalí, one may come upon La Abadía de los Putrefactos, an imposing structure of suffocating order. It appears as a counterforce after you move the Dreamlands too quickly toward chaos and freedom. Should you attempt to move away from it, it shifts its position, placing itself always in your way. With great effort, you can sidestep it, but if you do, it will be all the harder to avoid the next time it places itself before you. The only way to dismiss it, and then only temporarily, is to enter it and interact with its mummified inhabitants. Like the dream-structures they are, their corridors defy attempts to remember where you’re going. As you wend your way through its cyclopean hallways, you hear shuffling feet but likely see no one. Then you find yourself outside an arch, from which low murmurs emanate. Inside you may find a chamber of empty chairs arranged around a dusty table, perhaps strewn with the bones of a child or minotaur.

Or you might stumble upon the putrefactos themselves. Gaunt, whispering, coughing up clouds of dust, these dried-up liches wear the uniforms of authority, dressing as businessmen, military officers, and most of all, bishops and cardinals. They direct querulous stares in your direction. A skeletal functionary, its forefinger an ink-filled pen nib, records each command they make of you, skritching down a transcript of proceedings on an infinite vellum scroll,.

The putrefactos know many esoteric secrets, and may share them with you, in exchange for your deference. Bold dreamers may succeed in intimidating them: they fear satire, sex, and fire. Should you want to tamp down the liberties of a fellow dreamer, they’ll eagerly provide the poisons and gems of control necessary for the task. Waking visitors to the Dreamlands can take these artifacts back with them to the real world. They aid you as you perform acts reinforcing what the putrefactos call the stasis quo. But beware: keep them too long and they harden the arteries, induce arthritis, and degrade your bones.

Louis Aragon says that church and state will crumble if only a surrealist dreamer can find a way to destroy the abbey once and for all. The hopping moonbeasts of Leng, it is said, despise the putrefactos, and have developed a weapon to trap their abbey for eternity in the tear of a swan. Dare you venture there, and ask them for this gift?

 


 

In the Trail of Cthulhu campaign sourcebook Dreamhounds of Paris, you play the major figures of the surrealist movement as you discover your ability to manipulate the fantastical realm of the sleeping mind.  Order it today, or the bulbheads will get you!

Dreamhounds of Paris sandbox structure requires players to know what they want to do as their surrealists explore and alter the Dreamlands. Knowing what you want from a sandbox roleplaying environment can be harder than it sounds. Luckily, the unconscious automatism so beloved by the historical surrealists can come to your rescue.

Just scour the net for your favorite, most horrific or darkly fantastic works of surrealist art. If you’re playing an artist, you can limit your scope to your PC’s work alone. Or you can widen the field, as the setting assumes that multiple surrealists are changing the dreamscape to more closely resemble their own paintings, and vice versa. There’s no reason you, as René Magritte, can’t stumble into a Picasso vista haunted by cubist maenads.

You might want to print them out. Or you could collect them on an image curation site like Pinterest or Dropmark.

In the first case, you can shuffle them like cards, pull a random one, and show the Keeper and rest of the group: “Hey, I want to go there.”

Or you can adopt the more narratively proactive, “Hey, look where we are.”

For the virtual version, you could number the entries and then use a random number generator to pick one of them.

Not that you have to randomize; you can scan the list and pick one that strikes you as matching the themes and images of the series so far.

If you’re lucky, some enterprising Dreamhounds readers will read this and build their own repository of suitable images, grouped by painter, for everyone’s use.

So if you’re playing Salvador Dalí, you can start the session by saying:

“We’re going to go see this guy hatch out. I’m certain that it will be delightful to discourse with him, as he will have many insights to inform my paranoiac-critical method!”

At this point a cautious other player might decide that whoever comes out of that egg will be much too dangerous. If it’s Max Ernst he might instead say:

“That can’t possibly end well. I promised Leonora we would meet her in a verdant jungle. Let us avoid danger and horror for at least one night.”

You might respond in turn that the weird idol face in the corner suggests more weirdness than your man hatching from the egg.

Whatever decision you come to, the Keeper has had time to think of what might happen in both Dreamlands locations, already vividly realized in your minds.

Don’t worry too much about the period in which the painting was made. A later painting could easily be based on an experience the artist had in the Dreamlands during the period of your game.

Want to cross over from the Spanish Civil war setting of Adam Gauntlett’s Soldiers of Pen and Ink to the Dreamlands exploration of Dreamhounds of Paris? Connections abound.

The war takes a profound toll on Salvador Dalí, whose rightward political shift can be traced to the leftist capture of his hometown, Cadaqués. Revolutionaries destroy his home and that of his father, execute thirty of his neighbors, and, it seems, rape his sister. Given the power he amasses in the Dreamlands, might he be able to send surreal dreamforms to the real Spain to exact revenge? Your Pen and Ink characters might find themselves battling stilt-legged tigers or chest-of-drawer minotaurs.

Picasso, radicalized by the war, might to do something similar to fight for the Republican cause. His minotaurs are bigger and scarier, and you don’t want to mess with his harpies.

Surrealist painter André Masson is personally present for the siege of Barcelona and experiences a metaphysical epiphany on the mountain of Montserrat a year later. With a bit of date-squishing you could play him in a Pen and Ink campaign and then carry him over to Dreamhounds, or vice versa.

For a literal portal from one series to the next, maybe the PCs get thrown into the torture chambers described here. According to Franco-era prosecution reports discovered by a historian in 2003, an anarchist named Alphonse Laurencic constructed prison cells meant to subject prisoners to “psychotechnic” torture inspired by modernist artists. Their punishing angles and off-putting visuals supposedly broke down the wills of those held there. As did, it is alleged, screenings of Salvador Dalí and Luis Bunuel’s Un Chien Andalou.

Now, as something that actually happened, I have my doubts. Claims made by fascist prosecutors have to be taken skeptically. Maybe some form of psychotechnic prison existed. However, prints of the rarely screened Un Chien Andalou would have been extraordinarily hard to get ahold of anywhere at this time, let alone during the chaos of the civil war.

Still, let’s not allow likelihood to get in the way of a good horror story. Player characters placed in Laurencic’s cells, no doubt due to the constant inter-factional struggle on the Republican side, might not only resist their mind-bending properties. The strange geometric forms painted on the walls might shatter the resistance of their fellow prisoners. But characters already exposed to the much worse resonance of the Mythos could leverage them to their own psychic ends. They might find themselves conveyed to the Dreamlands to meet the dream forms of Dalí or Buñuel. From there a little narrative hocus-pocus might lead to one or more of the PCs joining a Dreamhounds campaign, escaping from Spain to Paris.

Dreamhounds of Paris brings sandbox play to Trail of Cthulhu, as the surrealists of the 20s and 30s discover their ability to consciously reshape the realm beyond waking.

I play with a group that works best either in the completely dramatic realm of Hillfolk and DramaSystem, or in a procedural game with a strongly laid-out goal, like GUMSHOE in its default format. Their struggles with Dreamhounds proved instructive and helped me to improve the book’s GM section.

That’s not to say that they didn’t have any fun, or that nothing happened in their series. Its most memorable events include:

  1. A murder in Man Ray’s apartment building, with him the apparent target.
  2. Chasing the pulp anti-hero Fantômas through the marbled halls of Thran, while being accused of complicity in his murders and thefts.
  3. Dalí raising dreamscaping havoc in a Serranian tavern, striking terror into the hearts of its reticent citizens.
  4. The blossoming of a Dreamlands cult propitiating the dread god Buñuel.
  5. Giorgio de Chirico confronting his guilt for starting all of this in the first place.
  6. Going to the top of mount Hatheg-Kla to find the ancient gods of man, having hatched a plan with the poet Louis Aragon to extirpate them.
  7. Journeying to the shores of Lake Hali to open the coffin of the King in Yellow, only to find Magritte inside.
  8. Meeting Picasso in a Dreamlands grove, musky with corrupt fecundity. They found him and a minotaur engaged in leisurely congress with voluptuous plant women. The player characters declined Picasso’s offer to join in.
  9. A picnic with Nyarlathotep, who gave René Magritte a beautiful silver gun.
  10. A waking world raid on the chateau of a sinister Parisian occultist. There Nyarlathotep’s aforementioned beautiful silver gun took on a will of its own, massacring the servants in a spectacular fountain of gore.
  11. Salvador Dalí’s fateful meeting with Gala, wife of fellow surrealist Paul Éluard, at his family home in Cadaqués, Spain. His love for her cures him of his laughing fits.
  12. Shortly thereafter, Buñuel strangling Gala, the other pulling him off her before he kills her.

Items 11 and 12 are well-documented in the historical record. The others can be proven only by visiting the shores of dream, which still bear the scars of what the surrealists did to it ninety years ago.


Dreamhounds of Paris and its companion The Book of Ants are now available for preorder. Print copies will debut at Dragonmeet in London, on December 6th.

a column on roleplaying

by Robin D. Laws

Trail of Cthulhu maven Tony Williams asks, regarding Dreamhounds of Paris:

I would be interested in Robin’s opinions of surrealist art. Does he enjoy it? What does he think of the major surrealists movers and shakers as people, having researched them so thoroughly? Are they all insufferable poseurs or do some transcend that with what they produce?

I’m glad you so ably set up a column topic for me, Tony.

First of all, I feel a deep connection to the art, film, decorative art, and fiction of the surrealist movement. This fascination started in an eighth grade classroom, when our teacher, improbably and no doubt improvidently, screened a copy of Un Chien Andalou for us. Young teenage mind blown!

I first got the idea that eventually turned into Dreamhounds of Paris visiting an exhibition of surrealist decorative art at the Art Gallery of Ontario a bunch of years back. Looking at the paintings, so many of them struck me as entrancing nerd culture fodder sealed behind the wall of high culture awareness. The works’ horror and dark fantasy imagery in particular seemed like an obvious vein to mine as a gaming influence. Looking at the imaginary landscapes of Max Ernst or Yves Tanguy, they jumped out to me as a mutant evolution of Lovecraft’s Dreamlands.

As far as I’m concerned the word poser doesn’t apply to any of the surrealists. They all believed intensely in what they were doing. They didn’t earn anything resembling widespread praise for making work that freaked people out, confronted them with disturbing images, and challenged ideas of what art was for. There was certainly no money in it for them during this period of their greatest innovation. A few became popular later, but not at this point. Posers appear when creative efforts become fashionable, lucrative, or both. Somebody today who follows in Marcel Duchamp’s footsteps by making art installations might or might not be a poser. But these guys (and a select few gals) were the real thing, on which later posers would model themselves.

If poser simply means an intellectual interested in ideas and art, well, that describes me, too.

Many argue that Dalí wound up bastardizing his art by milking his celebrity. That starts at the end of the Dreamhounds period but becomes truly egregious decades afterwards. Even at that, by making his own persona more important than his art, and the media his canvas, Dalí was doing something that summed up contemporary life way more than any abstract expressionist ever did. When he did it, it wasn’t a cliché, it was a thing he invented. To work his magic the trickster must also be a charlatan.

That said, other surrealists, like the movement’s autocratic “pope” André Breton, would be the first to deny him that slack. Breton called Dalí by the anagram Avida Dollars, and decried the chattering Spaniard’s commercialization of his psychic revolution. Breton genuinely thought his movement would change the world, literally altering human psychology.

It’s the utmost seriousness with which Breton regarded himself that sets him up as an inviting target for satire. Other members of his circle certainly mocked him when they fell out of favor with him, Dalí most effectively of all. (See the book for his famous night of many sweaters.)

His bullying makes Breton the hardest of the bunch to like. The book treats him as an antagonist figure, and tweaks him by describing him as lacking the imagination to enter the Dreamlands. I certainly can’t admire Breton’s habit of launching physical attacks against his aesthetic adversaries. On the redeeming side, however, Breton earns props for being the first major French leftist intellectual to see through on Stalinism, at the time of the 1936 show trials. With the benefit of historical hindsight that might not seem like a perceptive breakthrough but in the context of the era and milieu it’s a big deal. By contrast, many top names in the French art scene remained hardcore Stalinists well into the 40s and 50s.

As far as the rest of the Dreamhounds cast goes, I view them as richly complicated people. They led messy, interwoven lives, over which a year or so of research makes me no kind of judge. They’re certainly realer, as you would expect, than the fictional characters we’re used to playing in RPGs, most of whom bend toward wish fulfillment. I’d even stick up for the figures art historians vilify.

Many accounts treat Gala Dalí, previously Gala Éluard, as a lascivious, money-hungry monster. Yes, she absolutely was hunting for a meal ticket, which she found in Dalí. But then her brother died of starvation during the Russian revolution, so it doesn’t take deep Jungian analysis to see what was going on there. And Dalí, a brilliant man-child barely capable of crossing the Paris street on his own, benefited from her hardheadedness. Slut-shaming pervades so much of the writing about her, but she treated men the way figures like Picasso and Ernst treated women. Granted, she didn’t paint Guernica, but neither do most of us.

Likewise Jean Cocteau gets a lot of stick in the various biographies as a preening climber. For a climber he left behind a crazy large legacy of creative work in forms from theater to illustration to film to the novel. When he made a fool of himself seeking acceptance he was wearing his heart on his sleeve. We need a new biography for him that doesn’t feel the need to treat his sexuality as a matter for nudging and winking. He was the original out gay icon, a heroic role to adopt at the time.

The Dreamhounds PC most like me would be René Magritte: quiet, composed, happily married, uninterested in the drama Breton constantly generated. Players may gravitate to him for that reason, as he makes for a solid contrast with the others. But if the surrealist circle was made up only of unassuming, reasonable people, there would be no point writing a sourcebook about them. Or playing them when they go off to surreally transform Celephaïs and later deal with the repercussions.

Hemingwayby Adam Gauntlett

Dos comes in. Has found out Robles executed. Wants to investigate. Discuss with Hem the danger of D investigating. R had fair trial – gave away military secrets. Josephine Herbst, a novelist and columnist covering the Spanish Civil War, wrote that entry in her diary after a post-artillery bombardment drinking session in Hemingway’s room at the Hotel Florida. It was the first indication of what was to become a serious rift in the friendship between Hemingway and Dos Passos, over the fate of Jose Robles, a mutual friend who had been taken by the authorities. Hemingway believed the action, and execution, had been justified; Dos Passos was appalled that a secret trial – if trial there had been – could result in summary execution. Was this Madrid, or Chicago under Capone?

That event is the inspiration for Soldiers of Pen and Ink. Imagine a world in which anyone could be snatched off the street and just vanish, as if they had never been. Imagine what your friends would say. Would they be like Hemingway, unquestionably accepting your guilt without demanding evidence? Would they be like Dos Passos, an anguished man trying to find out what happened to his friend? Would they do as Robles’ own son did, and publicly accept his father’s guilt for the sake of the Republican cause?

Even now nobody really knows what happened to Robles. None of the people who were there at the time agree; was Robles a Fascist spy, caught with sensitive documents in his possession? Was he falsely accused? Was his knowledge of Soviet backstage shenanigans inconvenient to the Stalinists? Was there even a trial? Was he shot by firing squad, assassinated by the NKVD, or did something else happen to him?

That kind of world seems, in retrospect, to be almost a fever dream. I’m irresistibly reminded of Through the Looking Glass, in which the Mad Hatter is accused and sentenced, not of a crime he did commit, but for one he might commit at some future date. Or perhaps he won’t commit it at all, but since when did Wonderland care about these piffling details?

Fever dreams lead, of course, to Carcosa, in the Lovecraftian mythos. I’m particularly fond of John Tynes’ take on the concept: It breaks things down not from without, but within. As perfect a description of the Fifth Column as you could wish for, and what is Carcosa in this context if not the ultimate Fifth Column, with the ultimate goal of making all things like itself, in the end?

Or put it another way:

The Tattered King may be symbolic of the beginning of the end, its shredded form a warning that the viewer is reaching lethal mneme toxicity. That would suggest the Tattered King is not actually part of the Hastur mneme at all, but a projection of the viewer’s own mental state. That would make it a kind of forerunner of destruction, the Pallid Mask the viewer’s own face, so distorted due to the influence of the mneme that the viewer can no longer recognize it.

I trust you’ll enjoy your time in Madrid. You may never want to leave …

 

FourmisTRADE 11SepFrom City of Lights to Palaces of Dream

Evocative, enigmatic, and haunted by airborne polyps, The Book of Ants, a.k.a Livre des Fourmis, gives Trail of Cthulhu Keepers and players an essential window into Paris of the 20s and 30s, and into the Dreamlands beyond.

From November 1918 to September 1929, the young poet Henri Salem fell in with the surrealists of Paris. Swept up by the imperious charisma of group leader André Breton, he rapidly found himself sharing cafe tables with the key figures of this most influential and fractious art movement of the pre-war period. According to this, his diary of the era, he traded quips with Marcel Duchamp, feared the madness of Antonin Artaud, and served as model for the famous shot of ants crawling from a hole in a man’s hand in Salvador Dalí and Luis Buñuel’s scandalous film Un Chien Andalou.
If his tale can be fully believed, he stepped with them from waking Paris to an ancient yet surprisingly malleable realm of dream. (Save for Breton, who could never make the leap.) There he walked alongside such Mythos figures as Randolph Carter, King Kuranes and the ghoul once known as Richard Pickman.
As such his diary serves as an indispensable guide to anyone wishing to explore the dangerous demimonde of the Parisian art scene, where disagreements over aesthetics are often settled with knife wounds and broken bones. Even more, it provides a rare look into the ever-shifting shores of the Dreamlands, just as its air of the fantastical gives way to horrific reflections of a world spinning into chaos and death.

Stock #: PELGT39 Pages: 184
Artist: Sarah Wroot Author: Robin D. Laws

Pre-order

When the stunning photographs taken by Harry Burton of the Carter expedition’s discovery of Tutankhamun in 1922 were recently exhibited at Oxford’s Ashmolean museum, one print was conspicuously not considered for display.

Those of you with high Cthulhu Mythos ratings know that Nitocris, possible last pharaoh of the 6th dynasty, became a ghoul after her death. So perhaps you will not be surprised to learn that Burton, a Metropolitan Museum of Art photographer on loan to Carter, took an image of in which her blurry outline can clearly be seen. She intruded into Burton’s picture of guardian statues in an outer funerary chamber. Burton, engrossed in his composition, saw her only after he developed the picture. His lack of alarm likely saved him from a gruesome fate.

Why was Nitocris prowling around in Tutankhamun’s tomb, you ask. Who do you think administers the ancient curses of the pharaohs against the plunderers of their grave, anyway?

The photograph, the first ever taken of this particularly numinous ghoul, captured a sliver of her spirit essence. Those who gaze too long on the image form an unwitting bond with Nitocris. No matter where they are in the world, the ghoul queen sends her minions. Individuals judged to be valuable to the ghoul community are devoured and excreted as freshly reborn ghouls. (Yes, that’s how the process works. Your other Lovecraftian sources have been too genteel to tell you this.) The rest are marked for later consumption, after they die.

Flash back to the time of your series, in the 1930s. Renegade NYU Egyptology professor Nathaniel Stonebridge has stumbled onto the secret of the photograph. Driven by a heedless thirst for knowledge, he wants to be the first mortal to witness and document the hideous rebirthing ceremony by which Nitocris brings new ghouls into her flock. To this end he gained access to the suppressed Burton image, normally housed in the Metropolitan’s securest vault. By threatening Metropolitan archivist Norman Lanning with the revelation of certain details of his unsavory private life, Stonebridge got him to strike new prints of the negative. These Stonebridge has been circulating to his many enemies in occult academia, in hopes that Nitocris will choose one of them, and he can watch it all happen.

Since letting Stonebridge strike new prints from the negative, Lanning has vanished. His superiors, afraid that the Nitocris image has fallen into the wrong hands, approach the investigators to find out just what has happened to him.


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.

With the release of Robin’s wonderful new story-explorer The Gaean Reach RPG, GUMSHOE extends its tendrils into one of the oldest and most reliable of dramatic forms: the revenge story. In that game, the player characters unite to destroy the indescribably vile Quandos Vorn in revenge for his prior cruelties to them. And just beforehand, the players (this is the really great bit) collaboratively describe Quandos Vorn’s vileness and determine his prior cruelties. The result? A fresh, involving take on a tale as old as Orestes, if not always quite so damp and naked. From Dumas’ Gothy Edmond Dantes to TV’s dreamy Oliver Queen, doughty heroes have sought revenge on Him (or Her, for Orestes) Who Done Them Wrong for millennia — and if Jack Vance’s SF is anything to go by (and indeed it should be) will continue to do so for millennia hence. So what about our own millennium right here? Why not adapt the brilliant story focus of The Gaean Reach RPG to another of your already beloved if not-quite-so-brilliantly-focused GUMSHOE RPGs? Why not, indeed?

Each possibility here introduces your game’s Quandos Vorn and gives a possible reason you want to get him, although the GM should begin with the good old “Why do you hate …?” and only prime the pump if player creativity seems temporarily throttled. Further possible Terrible Deeds appear, followed by the Quarry’s Masks (how he hides from you, possibly in plain sight) and Obstacles (what he can put between you and him) and then the game’s potential Taglines (things you do or say in play to get Tokens which you spend to pierce Masks and overcome Obstacles).

Night’s Black Agents: Chandler Vaughn

Chandler Vaughn is the guy who burned you. Or that’s one of his cover names. You aren’t actually sure he’s with the Agency any more. If he ever was. Maybe he was a double agent. You’re not even sure what he looks like now. Or looked like, then. But you know one thing: he burned you, and you’re going to bring him down.

Terrible Deeds: killed your partner, aided al-Qaeda in a (lot of) terrorist action, smuggled nukes, killed your family, perverted the Agency’s once-proud ideals into the Orwellian sham they are today, released the vampire virus, vampirized your partner, betrayed your country

Masks: cover identities, plastic surgery, can shapeshift, deniable dead drops, is a hive parasite that lives in many minds, cut-outs, brain-hacking,  literal masks you know neat face-mask technology like in Mission: Impossible

Obstacles: billions of embezzled drug dollars for bribes, Russian mobsters, Iranian snipers, North Korean mentats with telekinesis, lots of pull with the corrupt helicopter-gunship-and-SWAT-team parts of the Agency, Renfields, secure immunity in isolated country, total surveillance of all computers

Taglines: Use the Night’s Black Agents Achievements, which are ideal for this sort of thing, as the source of Tokens, not of refreshes (except refreshes with Tokens, of course).

Mutant City Blues: “Quantum Born”

Not the least of “Quantum Born”‘s sins is to have a really lame pseudonym on the Internet. But he’s a mutant (“born of the quantum apocalypse that is ending your corrupt world system so-called”) and a terrorist and a murderer. At least.

Terrible Deeds: set off a bomb in the subway, killed your partner, leaked your case files all over the Internet and got a jillion hardened criminals set free on technicalities, killed your family, bio-engineered a worse version of the Quade virus for the most destructive possible power combos, provides foolproof schemes to other criminals and terrorists, hacked into a candy company’s mainframe and poisoned several thousand kids by altering its ingredient ordering software, is a serial killer among his other hangups

Masks: anonymous Internet existence with the Tor and the onion and such, hoodie and sunglasses, army of easily-gulled hipster anarchist wannabes to claim his identity, is blackmailing members of the force to cover his trail and feed him clues, shape-changing mutant power, is actually an AI given a computer analog of the Quade virus, surveillance-obscuring software, could literally be anyone at all

Obstacles: insanely devoted online love cult, not actually in your home country to say nothing of your actual jurisdiction, police red tape that says “it’s too personal with you and him,” super-powered goons paid big Bitcoin to hit you a lot, your own online history/credit report/everything ever, previous criminals you put away broken out (or legally freed!) by him, is protected from on high by government or corporations or a big seemingly cool charitable or progressive foundation, army of computer-controlled drones and makerbots

Taglines: Use Achievements, as above, or Taglines, as in Gaean Reach, or both, but sourced from either “gritty” comics dialogue or from police procedural TV shows.

Trail of Cthulhu: Kwan-Ho Wong

Or, sure, if you’d rather be torn apart by peculiarly intelligent wolves than poisoned by enormous purple centipedes, Gennadiy Voronin. He is a dealer in antiquities of a repellent aspect, and the lord of a criminal empire extending from Limehouse to Leningrad to Lhassa. He possesses perhaps the finest mind you’ve ever encountered, all the more terrifying because it is his brilliance that has led him to the Mythos …

Terrible Deeds: unleashed a shoggoth, killed your mentor horribly, stole your research and left you floundering and bankrupt, drove you mad and had you institutionalized in some charming colonial hellhole, denounced you to Stalin/Hitler, assassinated FDR, found the Ark of the Covenant first, raised a god or titan once and didn’t have the courtesy to die or go mad

Masks: master of an ancient serpent-man cannibal shapeshifting technique, is an identical twin, has never been photographed, wears an all-enveloping hooded robe at all times, mind-swapped or drug-enslaved pawns, plastic surgery, is (or commands) an ambulatory shoggoth, yellow mask

Obstacles: hideous and hideously-strong enforcer, Ahnenerbe or Black Ocean or NKVD favors, lives in an immense ruined temple to a Mythos entity, hyperspace gates for escapes, bribed or addicted officials in all countries, byakhee flocks, fanatical cultist followers, cannot die

Taglines: Gain a Token by suitable, effective, in character use of a properly Lovecraftian adjective.

Altar2During the American occupation of 1915-1934, a wave of Protestant conversions spread through Haiti. Possibly as a result, Vodou congregations began to burn their drums, flags, instruments, and charmed objects, in order to “reject superstition.” The Catholic Church in Haiti saw these rejetes as the opening for a proper Catholic conversion wave, a campagne anti-superstitieuse: the Anti-Superstition Campaign. (The common voodoo practice of using the Eucharistic Host as a “magic item” contributed to the Church’s fervor.) Beginning in 1939, priests and lay brothers moved throughout the countryside where rejete movements had begun, converting peasants and local elites alike to orthodox Catholicism and urging the destruction and dissolution of Vodou temples, or houmforts. Medical missions provided drugs and treatment to the sick, showing up failed or empty houngan rituals. Priests carried the cross ahead of crowds shouting “Down with the Loa!” to bonfires of ritual objects in the houmfort’s peristyle. Those houngans who had lorded their status and power over the peasants found themselves powerless against priests with the peasants and the police at their back.

Initially, the authoritarian government of President Elie Lescot supported the Anti-Superstition Campaign, lending the Garde (the Haitian military police) to still more robust missions. “Superstitious practices” had been illegal since 1935, so the Garde’s destruction of houmforts (often also family houses) and seizure of land (the better to sell to United Fruit or the Haitian government rubber monopoly, SHADA) were just Haitian law enforcement at work. But in February 1942, the Church extended its campaign into Port-au-Prince, the Haitian capital, stirring up mass unrest where Lescot desired it least. Worse still, the apostolic nuncio Msgr. Silvani gave a fawning interview in the Dominican Republic explaining the campaign as an attempt to rationalize Haiti with the dictatorial (but devout) regime of Rafael Trujillo there. Rightly suspicious of Trujillo’s intentions to convert Haiti to a Dominican puppet state, the Haitian press turned on the Church and its campaigners. In March, Lescot ended government support for the campaign, and it fizzled out shortly thereafter.

So where is the Mythos? It lurks somewhere in Haiti, among the sects rouges or zobop societies of sorcerers and murderers. Or perhaps it is a new bauble for Trujillo or some eminence grise in his cabinet to toy with unwittingly. Or it gnaws at the bosom of the Church, as priestly despair in a sea of poverty turns to Hasturist nihilism. But it’s somewhere – and when people burn magic items in a remote jungle temple, so is the action. Herewith a number of possible Trail of Cthulhu campaigns, likely (but not lightly) seasoned with Voodoo.

  • The Investigators are American or European outsiders, missionaries or other do-gooders trying to “better the lot” of the natives, or possibly mercenaries or hired cops training the Garde. The Keeper might use the anti-superstition campaign as background at first, but later force the heroes to decide: join a misguided, even cruel, effort in order to stop the Mythos, or stay true to their human standards?
  • The Investigators are part of the Catholic Church hierarchy. They may be a globe-trotting team of demon-busting exorcists with Haiti the most recent stop, or they may be Haitian priests who have discovered Something in the deep jungles and wild mountains of the country. In either case, they might bring along a few NPC (or one or two player-character) members of the Garde for combat abilities and some broader skill bases.
  • The Investigators might be using the anti-superstition campaign as cover for their own anti-Mythos campaign, or they might believe that the local Vodou communities are inseparably contaminated by the Mythos. One particularly interesting arc might start the Investigators off with the latter assumption – but as they travel deeper into the mystery, they slowly discover that the Vodou communities are the only things keeping the Mythos cults and zobop societies at bay.
  • The Investigators are specifically part of the National Bureau of Ethnology, an alliance of Haitian, French, and American intellectuals headed by Jacques Romain, a well-connected Haitian poet, novelist, Communist, and ethnographer. They begin as staunch foes of the Church and its works, and as defenders of Vodou as “nationalist folk expression” – but when the unnamable enters their world through a Petro sect, what happens to their ideology? As a side note, Jacques Romain dies in 1944 of unknown causes at age 37, for Keepers of a conspiratorial mindset.
  •  The Investigators are part of a Vodou sect – possibly even a cell of a secret society in their own right – who begin the game square in the sights of the anti-superstition campaign, possibly with their houmfort burned down around them. They must still hunt down the Mythos and stop it, all the while dodging the Garde, Catholic priests, and perhaps agents of the Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo.
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