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.
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.
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
- 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.
||Author: Kenneth Hite and Robin Laws
|Artist: Jerome Huguenin
||Format: 248-page, two-color, smythe-sewn hardback
Here is an example of Trail of Cthulhu combat, in which three plucky adventures confront a crypt-dwelling corpse-eater.
The consumptive Professor Oberon Lankwiller
Health 5, [no rating in Firearms], Scuffling 4
Weapon: Webley revolver +0
Hit Threshold: 3
The brash Tag Hunter
Health 13, Firearms 10, Weapons 8, Scuffling 2
Weapons: Remington M32 double barreled shotgun +1 (+2 point blank, +1 when fired both barrels), machette +0
Hit Threshold: 4 (Athletics is greater than eight)
The trigger-happy Anabelle Swift
Health 10, Firearms 8, Scuffling 6, Weapons 4
Weapons: Twin Colt Revolvers +0 (You can fire two revolvers in a Pulp game if your Firearms is 5+), hat pin (-1).
Athletics 9, Health 7, Scuffling 9
Hit Threshold: 4 (5 underground)
Weapon: two claws +1 and a bite +0. Two bites in a row means it latches on. Ghouls take half damage (round up) from firearms.
The Investigators are cautiously exploring a tunnel which runs under the Arkham municipal burial ground. They disturb a ghoul, partially concealed behind a stone slab, which is sucking the marrow from some cracked bones, .
They must all make a 4-point Stability roll when they see the ghoul (you see a supernatural creature up close). After Stability rolls, a combat ensues.
The order of action is determined at the beginning of combat, just once, according to the characters’ current pool in their chosen method of combat. This gives us:
- The Ghoul
- The Prof*
The Prof has no Firearms skill so goes last, and Larry has to decide in advance what to do. He chooses “shoot the Ghoul”
Tag gives the ghoul both barrels at point-blank range. It has partial cover, so the ghoul’s Hit Threshold is unchanged at 5. Tina spends four points from the Firearms pool to ensure a hit. She rolls a 2 for damage, +4 for the double barreled shotgun fired at point-blank range gives six, halved because of Ghoul Armor. The Ghoul’s Health tumbles to 4.
The Ghoul launches itself at Tag, and makes its three attacks.
The Keeper spends 2 points from Scuffling on the first claw and rolls a 3 making 5, a hit for 4 damage. He spends 2 on the second claw, rolls a 5, another hit for 5 damage. Then it’s a bite (2-point spend and 5 damage). The Ghoul’s Scuffling is now 3. Tag’s Health is now -1 – Hurt. (In theory, Tag must make a Conciousness roll but the Difficulty is 1 – an automatic success.)
Annabelle wants to distract the creature from its feast, so she jabs it with her hat pin, spending all of her 4 Weapons points to ensure a hit. She rolls a 3, causing 1 point of damage (you can effectively miss or do no damage with lesser weapons and fists). The Ghoul has 3 Health points left.
The Professor closes his eyes and squeezes the trigger of the unfamiliar Webley. He has no Firearms skill (see p. 60 sidebar), and unfortunately rolls a 1. The Keeper decides that he shoots himself in the foot. He rolls a 3 – minus 2 because of his unfamiliarity – knocking his Health down to 4.
Tag frantically wrestles with the ghoul, trying to hold its festering mouth away from his face. That’s Scuffling. He spends his remaining 2 points on his roll. The Difficulty is the ghoul’s Hit Threshold (5) plus 1 because Tag is Huty. He needs a 6. He rolls a 2 plus the 2 for his Scuffling, a 4 – not enough. It’s not looking good for Tag
The Keeper decides to spend 2 on a ghoul claw roll to finish off Tag. He rolls a 1 – making 3, a miss. He spends 0 on the next roll and gets another 1. He spends the final point on the bite, rolling a 6. As this is is second succesful bite attack, he does double damage. He rolls a 2, for the bite for a total of 4. Tag’s Health tumbles to -5. Tina opts not to make a Conciousness roll for Tag (which would require Health expenditure) and Tag falls into merciful oblivion. He is Seriously Wounded, and requires First Aid and hospitalisation if he survives.
Annabelle opts to fire both pistols at the creature (a Pulp-only option). She spends a Firearms point to do this. She spends 3 points on the each roll (as they are simulataneous Andrea needs to decide before rolling both dice), and she rolls 6 and 6 doing 2 (3 halved and rounded up) points and 1 point of damage. The ghoul only had 3 points of Health, so it is down.
Larry opt to spends two points of the Professor’s First Aid to stabilise Tag. If they can get him out of the crypt, Tag needs to spend a week in hospital recuperating.
In the shadows, creatures drawn by Tag’s pooling blood gather and watch for weakness.
For a minimal prep game, I use a potted version of the suggestions in the Trail book, that is, work backwards from the Horrible Truth to the Hook. I’ll do this now on the fly.
Professor Legato is a puppet controlled by Mi-Go. He is performing sinister experiments on paid subjects. The Mi-Go are using the data. We’ll set it in Cambridge 1931, and I’ll make him a Professor of physics.
I turn to the trusty internet archive and root out the Baedeker guide to Great Britain and old OS maps site to get a plan of the town. I google “Cambridge 1930s physics” and get “The discovery of the neutron in 1932 by James Chadwick, a physicist at the Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge, allowed physicists to theorize that the nucleus was composed of protons and neutrons.” So, Legato is a colleague of Chadwick. Check out Chadwick.
Legato has installed a device which allows people to conceive the true nature of the atom, a revelation of crushing power which shows them their utter insignificance.
Trail of Clues
The volunteers go on to perform horrible crimes, commit suicide or just behave strangely. They were all in debt and without many friends; some were mental patients. What evidence would this leave?
When I think of clues, I don’t worry too much about the abilities. These links are straightforward to improvise, and players usually suggest them.
- Newspaper reports
- Peter Higley in police custody, and crime reports
- Recent patients at the local hospital mental health ward.
- PCs find out their connections to the lab, through perhaps a newspaper clipping (an advert) found in their digs.
- The newspaper has details of who placed the ad, and all those people who responded.
These clues will tend to be free floating – so I can place them in scenes where it is appropriate.
At least one of the volunteer, say Horrace Limnal, a street lighter, is dangerous. He has locked himself in his house. He has painted all the windows black and constructed a model of what he saw out of everything he found in his room. He hides in the cupboard and attacks them when they come in, screaming about the terrible light.
If it’s needed, have a Mi-Go puppet watching Limnal’s apartment notice them and trail them, eventually attempting to confront them in a very non-human fashion (think that android in Alien trying to kill Ripley with the magazine.)
I always use the personal element. Look at the PCs and their Drives. Make them all friends/colleagues at one of the colleges and have one of their friends/offsping of a friend be one of the affected. How about a student goes on a mad rampage during a party – one of the volunteers?
I’d look at all the character sheets and incoporate their abilities into the clues. For example – Astronomy – A weird meteor shower five weeks ago (signalling the arrival of the Mi-Go). Be ready to dole out interesting special benefits, too. In Cambridge there will be tons of academics who will offer help, for example.
Finally I grab a list of names, and I’m ready to go. That’s about enough for a session – and later sessions are much easier.
It was our intention with Eternal Lies, our epic Trail of Cthulhu campaign, to create a book to be brought alive by actual play, not just a handsome shelf-filler. And so it’s proved, with an Eternal Lies Keeper’s Community on Google+, advice and historical props over on the Yog-Sothoth forum, an interactive campaign map and tons of actual play reports such as this by Aviatrix over on Story Games.
Eternal Lies for Call of Cthulhu
Many Call of Cthulhu Keepers, while happy with their own system, are intrigued by our Mythos adventures, and Eternal Lies is the biggest eldritch beast we’ve put out there. Fortunately, Andrew Nicholson has converted Eternal Lies for use with Call of Cthulhu – a free download here – and Paul of Cthulhu and the Innsmouth House Players have experienced the entirety of Eternal Lies, recorded in in 22 audio episodes available to yog-sothoth patrons. The finale was sombre and breathtaking.
Paul has made the first two episodes freely available over on yoggie, and I was impressed by his clever use of an iPad Mini and iPhone built into a Keeper’s Screen to share maps and images of NPCs in an unobtrusive fashion with his players.
A New Ending for Eternal Lies
We want Eternal Lies to stay alive, and so we’ll continue to provide new material for it, and in that spirit, we’ve just released an a new section written by Lauren Roy, which ties all the threads of the campaign together to deliver an entirely different ending.
For Pelgrane Press mail order customers the new ending is available through your order page – check Customer Service if you have problems finding your email. We’ll upload the new ending to Bits and Mortar (for retail customers) and DriveThruRPG soon.
What More Would You Like To See?
We have the book itself, James Semples music and Will Wheaton’s voice over, plus the community-created additions, so what next? In May we’ll release the faux leather limited edition version of Eternal Lies.
What would you like to see for Eternal Lies? Authentic props? New sections? Keeper’s commentaries? Let us know in the comments. Also, if you’ve run or played Eternal Lies, we’d love to hear from you, too.
A flood of vintage NYPD crime photos will be resurfacing digitally, thanks to a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities. Many date from the prime period of Lovecraftian horror, making them ideal handout fodder for your Trail of Cthulhu games. These images, including crime scene images from murder investigations, bring real-life grit to a time we often imagine in a prettier, Hollywood studio production design.
First of all, this jury-rigged combination knife-gun-brass knuckles is a wonder to behold. If your investigators aren’t soon discovering it on the body of a murdered thug, there’s really nothing any of us at Pelgrane can do for you.
A prior batch of these are already available online, licensed for viewing but not commercial use. The big images have been watermarked into uselessness for home handout purposes. But if you hit the link for printer-friendly versions you’ll get a smaller but large enough version to pass around to your players. At this scale the watermarks are absent or can be mistaken for photographic imperfections. Keepers with high Credit Rating abilities might decide to spring for actual prints.
Right now most date from 1916-1920, but the grant covers a much longer period.
You will find plenty of actual murder images, who in your version weren’t bumped off by spouses or criminal accomplices but no doubt by tcho-tchos, cultists, and perhaps a star vampire or two.
Each Keeper will have to judge for herself whether the use of very old pictures of very real murders lie within the bounds of horror fan tastes. Poll your group before springing any graphic death photos on them.
However, not all of these pix can be overtly identified as the work of crime photographers. This evocatively empty tenement courtyard shot could easily represent the home of an urban witness your investigators have to find.
Want to see the badge your NYPD inspector might flash?
What creature did this damage to some unfortunate’s unfortunate living quarters? Felonious assault? That’s what they want you to believe.
Surely your characters will sooner or later find themselves in the dispiriting confines of the police psychopathology lab.
You can improvise your way to an urban period investigation by picking out a handful of shots you find evocative, then constructing a mystery that will take the characters there. For an improvised, Armitage Files-style game, have a bunch on hand to spark ideas during play.
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.
On the Flames Rising blog, reviewer Steven Dawes says about the epic Eternal Lies campaign:
“Eternal Lies is simply the most well developed and well designed adventure book I’ve ever seen!”
Steven adds, “The campaign storyline is loyal to and very worthy of the Cthulhu Mythos. The rules and organization of the book are easy to follow, and even the artwork and illustrations in the book were perfectly for the settling. Everything you need for an epic mythos adventure is in this outstanding book! But the authors and the maniacs who run Pelgrane Press must have fallen in love with this book just as much as I did…”
Finally, “Eternal Lies really raises the bar for RPG campaign books. Kudos to the authors, Pelgrane Press and everyone who was involved with (or is still involved with) this incredible book.”
You can read the full review on the Flames Rising blog here.
Jason Thompson, over on his blog, mockman.com, reviews The Dreamhounds of Paris. Jason says,
“This is great stuff. The Surrealists and the Mythos belong together.”
Adding, “The idea of the Surrealists being Randolph-Carter-level Dreamers (or even better than that Carter dude) is genius; I can’t imagine historical figures who fit the role more.”
“In short, this is a fascinating, challenging campaign that pays homage to Lovecraft’s ‘canon’ Dreamlands, but, since it simultaneously upends and mutates them, might be just as well suited to people who *hate* the Dreamlands (shame on you). If I had one wish, I could have used more of everything…”
You can check out the full review here. You can purchase the Dreamhounds of Paris Bundle, featuring The Book of Ants, at the shop.
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.
Tomorrow I start my first shift at Starbucks.
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 Paris and both the French Communist Party (PCF) and the intelligence arm of its Soviet masters.
July 6, 1932
To: Trofim Lysenko, Russian Academy of Sciences
From: Konstantin Strezhakov, Inostranny Otdel, NKVD
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.
While running Trail of Cthulhu for the first time might be intimidating, never fear – there are a wealth of resources to guide you through your first games:
If you still have questions, the friendly people at the Trail of Cthulhu forums, Facebook page, Google+ page and on Twitter are always happy to help.