Roleplaying Game review: Trail of Cthulhu

Originally posted on December 5 2008

About a month ago, a friend ran  a one-off session of Pelgrane Press’  Trail of Cthulhu (by Kenneth Hite), which is an alternate system to Chaosium’s Call of Cthulhu game.  Bearing in mind the fact that it was a playtest written by a third party, and we gave a lot of feedback on the module, it was also my first experience of the ToC system, although I had already bought the rules.  It is a stand alone setting supplement for the GUMSHOE system, written by Robin D. Laws   My comments below are on the system, based on my experience.  I’m not discussing content (which we have done extensivly for the author of the module), and I’m not commenting on B’s gming, except in the context that she was the person who ran the game for us.

It wasn’t a bad system, but it feel a lot like spoonfeeding, or that we were in a scripted play rather than an investigation module – there is automatic success on clue finding, as long as a character has the requisite skill. Which meant that as all the investigation skills were spread out between the characters, it seemed to become a revolving door at times – we would keep trying until the right person entered the room.  Not that I wanted to play like that, but there seemed to be little point attempting any other way.

One of the things I like about CoC is that as an investigator, one has to be clever, creative and often ingenious in order to find clues (depending on both the GM and the module), and the chance of failure due to dice rolls is part of the experience.  Just having the clues handed to me once my character walked through the door with the right skill took the challenge out of it, and with it a large part of why I enjoy investigation games.  As a comparison, even proficient detectives like Hercule Poirot and Lord Peter Whimsey have to revisit scenes of their respective crimes to get clues they missed the first time, I don’t see why it has to be any different for PCs.

While I understand why some people prefer this system – and I didn’t totally HATE it – I don’t think I’ll be running it myself any time soon.  The justification of ‘I don’t want to play a character who is crap at things’  doesn’t sit fantastically well with me, because in the real world we all have strengths and weaknesses, and I like to play a character that is a balance of both.  By giving an automatic success to strengths and effectively ignoring weaknesses, it felt like we were in a play and the outcome was going to be the same no matter what I as a player wanted to do.  However, it seemed that politely giving feedback via a forum I belong to – talking about what I seek in a game and why I didn’t feel that ToC provided that, although I would be happy to recommend it to other gamers who do prefer that style – caused a lot of people to get very defensive about it.

For the record, I find the much quoted ‘it’s not how you get the clues, it is the moral choices of what you do with them that counts’ a big cop out.  What one does with the information one has is – at the most fundamental level – the point of any roleplaying game.  It doesn’t matter if it is a hack’n’slash dungeon bash or a systemless ‘arty’ game, the actions of players are all about the choices they make (or in some cases, don’t make), and I didn’t think that ToC was different or groundbreaking in that way.

All in all, it is an interesting system, and for players who prefer a virtually diceless experience (and thus less exposure to the vagaries of chance) it is probably a game you would like.  For those of us who – rather than a guaranteed, no-frills success – enjoy the chance of great success or critical failure (generally found amongst those who play rolemaster) it might not be the best option..  Having said that, by all means give it a try, and let me know if you think I am wrong.  For me, it just lacked some of the things I want in an rpg.

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