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.
…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.
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.
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.
…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.
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.
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.
A GUMSHOE core clue can be seen as a key, giving the PCs access to a door, behind which more of the story waits. With the key, they can interact with, change, master, and adjust that story.
Sometimes a core clue can be a literal key. Literal for the characters, that is, and imagined by the players and GM. The appearance of a mysterious key is all the premise you need for any GUMSHOE scenario, whatever the game.
To make this work you need two elements:
a reason to think of the key as mysterious
information allowing the investigators to find the door or box the key opens
The key might be mysterious because:
The investigators know who sent it to them, and mystery already surrounds that person. The sender of the key could be dead or missing. Alternately, the sender might be an antagonist figure the heroes don’t expect to do them any favors. It comes from a mutant serial killer, a lackey of the hated Quandos Vorn, or Nyarlathotep himself.
Something about the arrival of the key signals sinister purpose. Blood dots the envelope it arrived in. Or ichor. It comes with some other document or object of interest to the investigators: a compromising photo, a scrap from an arcane manuscript. Somebody tried to mug the mailman before he could deliver it.
The simplest way to move the investigators from the discovery of the key to the lock it opens is to have whoever sent it helpfully supply the address. In that case you should open the scenario with the investigators already there, with key in hand.
To make the transition interesting, give them a reason to gather additional information before going to the site. For example, if they know Quandos Vorn wants them to go there, they might want to scout for traps and evidence of his current crimes before arriving.
Alternately, the key becomes a pipe clue, to pay off later. Here the investigators are already on another case, and the key arrives without explanation or a means of finding its corresponding lock. Later their inquiries lead them to a locked door or box, and voila, they know what the key is for.
The big trick, and the exercise we leave to you, the GM, is to make sure that whatever they find when they turn that key justifies the build-up.
Forget your shrooms, your blotter dots. For me the opener to the gateway of creativity was always speed. Gobble a handful of bennies and work through the night boom flash bang. Only problem I faced or so I thought was making sure I had enough canvases on hand to last through a period of explosive muse channeling. Crank up the Skrillex, grab the paintbrushes and go. At the time I was going through a real surrealist phase. Giorgio de Chirico in particular. I was looking at so much of his work so intensely that his subject matter, those puppet-like figures, the vast empty vistas, started to creep into my own work. But what the hell call it remix culture, call it appropriation and keep painting man, that’s what I kept telling myself.
At some point the zone of chemically pure work flow takes a left turn, or at least it did for me, and the lines between sleeping and waking got blurry. I’d come to, lying on the floor in a pool of my own drool, and all over my images the wooden puppet men danced. Faceless and staring out at me, like expecting me to let them loose from the canvas. I got mad at them and repainted all of their hands to look kinda like dicks but they seemed to like that.
I take a commission to mural a door at the Cafe Arabica. So I paint the penis-handed dolls on it, piloting a ship. As I painted the finishing touches I somehow realized I’d given them permission to take me somewhere.
A couple of days later I take a turn on Queen West and all of a sudden I realize I’m dreaming. One minute I know I’m in Paris. Only not the Paris of today, but way back before World War II. Then I’m somewhere else again, on a windswept plaza. Sitting at a cafe table under a Greek statue wearing shades is this woebegone dude. I realize it’s my hero, de Chirico. Who died in the seventies. I sit down next to him to quiz him, and he’s all, oh no, now I’m bring them back in time. It was bad enough already.
That’s when my Dreamlands adventures began. It was the 21st century in my waking life but the early thirties when I dreamt, in this weirdo place, haunted not only by de Chirico but all these other platinum names from the art history books.
When Kuranes blasted my brain and I couldn’t dream any more, I woke up that morning and standing over me were the members of my old band. Gez, Marcos and Sarah. I said you were there, you were there, and you were there. You were Buñuel, Éluard and Gala.
They laughed said I was still high, and I was. But for the last time. The same magic of Celephaïs that stole my ability to enter the Dreamlands took away my body’s response to mind altering substances. Not even caffeine works on me any more. And my work’s nothing now, a boring retread of what used to be great.
The following memo was found in the archives of the Russian Academy of Sciences. It sheds light on the complicated relationship between the surrealist Dreamhounds of Parisand both the French Communist Party (PCF) and the intelligence arm of its Soviet masters.
Regarding your request for information arising from my office’s ongoing operation against the French so-called surrealists, I am authorized by my superiors to share the following.
First, our office agrees with your assertion, in your memo of June 21st, that the sealing of the Dream Zone remains an utmost security priority of the Soviet state. The threat of supernatural forces becoming manifest in this world undermines the dialectic and our officially held doctrine of materialism. In particular the prospect of workers being able to depart this realm for another of infinite color and wonder is one which, as your message underlines, a threat to productivity we can ill afford as we struggle to increase crop yields.
We continue to work through a valued asset in the field, Elsa Triolet. Now married to surrealist poet Louis Aragon, she encourages him to undermine and discredit the group. Once it has burst apart it is our hope that its members will, unable to form a psychic collective, lose the ability to transmit themselves into the Zone. This will, we predict, close it off and eliminate it as a danger.
Unfortunately Aragon’s new-found dedication to Stalinism has decisively parted him from the group, when we would prefer him to weaken it from the inside. In January Aragon attempted to republish a poem, “Red Front”, advocating the shooting of police. This led to his indictment on sedition charges. Local party officials unaware of this office’s aims and activities repudiated Aragon’s gesture as an act of childish stunting. They further scolded him for a pornographic daydream by the Spaniard Salvador Dalí, published in a recent surrealist propaganda organ. (Dalí is the most potent of surrealist magicians, against whom we may soon contemplate decisive action.) Aragon conveyed to surrealist commandant André Breton the PCF complaint that such obscene sexual fantasy complicates what should be simple relations between men and women. An inexplicably amused Breton then mockingly included this phrase in one of his publications. (Though also a PCF member, Breton has long marched to an unacceptably eccentric beat.) Aragon has now split from Breton, blaming him for revealing internal party communications.
In short, a rupture has now opened between Aragon and Breton. Triolet pushes him toward reconciliation but the long-fraying bonds of friendship and rivalry between the two poets may well preclude this.
It is this office’s contention that relations between the local party and surrealists be taken out of PCF hands and placed in ours, preventing further unfortunate tactical confusion. If you could use your influence to recommend this transfer of authority, I am confident that our position against the Dream Zone and its art magicians would be strengthened considerably.
Dreamhounds of Parisalready stretches Trail of Cthulhu’s default time frame by covering events of the surrealist movement from the 1920s. While researching the book I found some details ripe for Lovecraftian parallel that fell on the other side of the time divide.
Although the surrealist movement never recovers from the Occupation and the flight of key figures out of Paris, their lives don’t end there. André Breton, the stuffy, bullying chief ideologue of surrealism, winds up in New York City in 1941. He does not enjoy it there. He makes little attempt to learn the language. In the face of American informality, his ultra-serious, parliamentary way of running surrealist meetings seem patently ridiculous, even to him.
One pleasure occupies his unhappy days in the Big Apple. Throughout his career he has been fascinated by non-Western artifacts, venerating the superior wisdom of the cultures that created them. Rare ethnographic objects litter the shelves of New York antique shops. No one else yet shows much interest in them, so he is able to amass an impressive collection of authentic pieces for a pittance.
Breton, never been able to travel to the Dreamlands, now denounces dream imagery as useless. He declares that surrealism must return to the magic of its earlier automatism period, when the group met to conduct seances. Can this be anything other than the influence of ancient items of power among his tribal antiquities?
In 1942, he declares the need to create a new mythology. He proposes the existence of the Great Invisibles, undetectable beings who surround humanity at all times. Without clearly spelling out whether they’re a metaphor or a force he literally believes in, he describes them as “insubstantial nodal points of human desires and aspirations toward the marvelous.”
Investigators steeped in Mythos knowledge, who bump into Breton and his new myth maybe in a one-shot sequel scenario, feel their hackles rising at the sound of this. Is this Yog-Sothoth posing as a positive force? A fresh scheme of Nyarlathotep’s?
Shortly after the war, Breton’s inquiries take him to Haiti, where he witnesses a voodoo ceremony. Something he sees changes him.
After returning to Paris, he announces that surrealism is no longer about ending the world as it is known, and that the apocalyptic voices they once followed lead to a path of destruction. He delves further than ever into alchemy and the esoteric. In 1953, he starts work on L’Art magique, a book on the connection between magic and art. He finds it tough going, in part because one of his voodoo dolls doesn’t want him to write it, and keeps staring him down from its perch on his office shelf. Acknowledging in 1956 that his tribal fetish objects control his life, he keeps trying to rearrange them in hopes of restoring himself back to health and mental focus.
This might inspire another one-shot sequel investigation. Do the PCs free Breton from the bondage of these objects, or decide that he must be contained by them in order for the world to go on living?
The surrealist films your player characters help to create as the Dreamhounds of Paris one day wind up on YouTube. The ones fit for human observation, at any rate.
In 1928, expat American photographer and painter Man Ray and French poet Robert Desnos collaborate on the film L’Étoile de mer, or Starfish. They film portions of it in the Dreamlands, thereby initiating its lead actress, Ray’s lover, as a dreamer. Getting camera equipment there means going in waking form, not as dreamers. That requires the filmmakers to haul it through Paris’ portal to the Dreamlands, the Catacombs. Fortunately Desnos is on good terms with the ghouls who dwell there and guard the gateway. He and the former human alchemist Nicolas Flamel go way back. Although our veiled senses want to assume that the entity shown in the film is an ordinary starfish in an aquarium, true seers immediately grasp that it is a multi-tentacled avatar of the Old Ones. The creature also manifests the dreamstuff of cabaret singer Yvonne George, for whom Desnos suffers terrible pangs of unrequited love. But that’s a long story, best described in the pages of Dreamhounds of Paris
Five years prior, Ray’s first short film, Retour A La Raison (Return to Reason) debuts in circumstances that for decades eclipse its innovation as a purely abstract piece of cinema. André Breton, the surrealist movement’s oddly doctrinaire leader, is feuding with Tristan Tzara, self-proclaimed impresario of Dada. Tzara stages a night of avant garde performances, including a screening of Retour A La Raison. Breton has no beef with Ray, but considers various other program items, including the participation of surrealist arch-nemesis Jean Cocteau, outrageous. So midway through he leaps onto the stage and breaks the arm of a writer named Pierre de Massot with his cane. In the ensuing mayhem, the innovations of Retour a la Raison go by the wayside.
In 1926 Ray makes Emak Bakia (Leave Me Alone), a longer exercise in abstraction, including stop motion animated sequences and another glimpse of the glamorous Kiki. Breton dislikes this one, too, because it also features the poet Jacques Rigaut, who he has excommunicated from the group. Through a true dreamer’s eyes the elements of filmed sculpture, the departure from narrative, can only be seen as a filmed incantation. The English title gives it away: just what entity is the filmmaker trying to keep at bay? After talking about it for years, Rigaut shoots himself in the heart on November 9, 1929, measuring with a ruler to make sure he hits the organ squarely. Does Ray’s filmed conjuration backfire on Rigaut? Or is his suicide its final, necessary component?
Cinema history does not look kindly on Ray’s last film, 1929’s Les Mystères du Château du Dé, which is hard to regard as anything other than him filming his rich friends and patrons farting around at a manor. However, since the main rich friend is surrealist patron Charles de Noailles, this gives you a great visual of what your characters might see when invited to hobnob with the well-heeled at a villa outside town. However, it can’t entirely be a coincidence that it prominently features d6s, the patron die of GUMSHOE.
More about de Noailles in a moment.
The most notorious surrealist film of all remains Un Chien Andalou, a collaboration between longtime friends Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí, both at the very beginning of their long careers. Its central image of a razor slicing across an eyeball freaks out film students even today. On the night of its 1929 debut, a nervous Buñuel hides in the wings, his pockets full of rocks. He expects to have to hurl them at angry audience members when they attack him. Instead, the film receives a stunned but rapturous welcome from Paris’ avant garde. It exerts enough power to convert a resistant Breton, who declares them true surrealists. In Dalí’s case, this is an embrace he’ll later come to regret. What they don’t tell him is that they saw many of its key images while exploring the Dreamlands. If you play either Dalí or Buñuel, you may see the eye slicing image again, in the early moments of the introductory scenario.
The Buñuel-Dalí collaboration hits the rocks—rocks populated by skeletal priests—as they try to follow it up with L’Âge d’or. Dalí wants to further emphasize imagery from their Dreamlands explorations. Buñuel, drunk on the works of the Marquis de Sade, prefers an anti-clerical theme. They clash further when Dalí becomes obsessed with Gala, voracious wife of the poet Paul Éluard, who Buñuel can’t stand and at one point nearly strangles to death. When they show the finished film in Paris in 1930, scandal erupts. The city’s rightist police chief demands that all copies of the blasphemous film be destroyed. Its funder, aristocrat Charles de Noailles, has to distance himself from the surrealists, or face social ostracism. But he does squirrel away the negative, allowing for its rediscovery in 1971.
During their waking adventures, the surrealists discover links between rightist forces and the Parisian occult underground. What magic were they trying to stop by ordering the destruction of L’Âge d’or?
Ray, Desnos, Kiki, Tzara, Buñuel and Dalí all appear as playable PCs in Dreamhounds.
One figure I’d hoped to feature as a possible player character in Dreamhounds of Paris is the painter Yves Tanguy. His imaginary biomorphic landscapes seem as dreamlandish as better-documented movement cohorts Salvador Dalí, Max Ernst, or André Masson. Their undulating forms evoke a primordial soup on the verge of spawning life. His careful delineations of things that never existed suggest a place where biology itself may take revenge on unwary Dreamlands explorers.
I was disappointed to find little biographical information on him in English. It’s not that he wasn’t a colorful character. We know he was taciturn when sober, but violent when drunk. That gives a player seeking a problem-making character who tears things up something to work with. He took part in at least one armed attack on behalf of the surrealists, in 1930 joining the angry gang that descended on a bar run by former movement member Robert Desnos. Desnos’ offense? Naming the place Maldoror, after the protean anti-hero of a novel beloved by the surrealists, and thus cheapening the holy reputation of its long-dead author, the Comte de Lautréamont.
Tanguy lived in squalor but always kept himself fastidiously clean, and fashionably clothed. Concern for hygiene didn’t, it must be said, prevent him from eating bugs when out on country walks. He styled his hair to stand straight up on end and looks not entirely unlike a later exponent of the rebel ethos, John Lydon.
He was sex drugs and rock and roll before rock n roll existed in other ways, too. When movement gatekeeper André Breton first met him, he was hopped up on cocaine. His headlong pursuit of Bohemian excess wrecked his first marriage.
Tanguy roomed with two other men who would go on to shape French culture, the writer Jacques Prévert and the future crime fiction tastemaker Marcel Duhamel.
In 1936 he was pursued by the irrepressible American collector, philanthropist and art groupie Peggy Guggenheim. This could generate some interplay with Max Ernst, who wound up with her later.
Like many others in the surrealist circle Tanguy escaped to the US when the war broke out.
With so many other figures vying for limited space in Dreamhounds, this didn’t seem like enough to go on to give him more than a cursory entry. But maybe you prefer to play someone without too many established life highlights to navigate your character decisions around. If so, this spiky-haired scrapper needs only some game statistics before joining the dreamscaping fray.
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.”
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.