Tuesday, 11 October 2011

Trail of Cthulhu

I've written a few things for Trail in the last year or so. Not So Quiet is already in electronic print, and is now one of the scenarios in Pelgrane's Out of Time compilation. Other Pelgrane projects are in playtest stage, including a few Great War scenarios and a historical piece set just before the American Revolution. The Unspeakable Oath has published another Trail scenario, The Brick Kiln. I also helped with the map indexing for Bookhounds of London, a suppliment I very much admire.I've been discussing other projects with Pelgrane and those may come to fruition; if they do, they'll probably see print next year, as I haven't finished writing the most recent one. What with playtesting, layout, editing and other issues, I don't see that getting done before Christmas.

I suppose I ought to discuss Trail as a system, and say why I've grown to like it more than its parent RPG system, Call of Cthulhu (Chaosium). As this is where I discuss books, I'll treat Trail to the Bookshelf format. So, here goes!

My copy is the 2008 hardback edition, with Jerome Huguenin's evocative artwork on the cover. I think I bought this at Dragonmeet in London, which would mean I had it the same year it came out. I remember being a little reluctant. Not that I didn't like it - I did - but I was between jobs then and I was money conscious. For some reason the Yankee Dollar price and the GBP price for RPG stuff tends to be roughly the same, which means the book cost me forty quid, roundabout. That was about thirty nine quid more than I really wanted to spend on anything, leave alone a system I knew little about beyond a few favourable words on Yog-Sothoth. However I bit the bullet, though when the fella behind the counter tried to persuade me to buy something else I declined. I suppose I ought to regret that, since whatever it was is certainly out of print by now. I don't. I've never been very good at impulse buying. I tend to keep my hand on my wallet and smile politely.

Though I suppose if you want to look at it in crude money terms then the cash I've earned from scenario sales by now outweighs the initial investment by at least a hundred to one. So there's that. If only everything I invested in had the same result!

The book is well put together and sturdy, which is saying something for the RPG market. The binding is stitch, not glue, and it stands up to hard wear. I've owned hardback suppliments that collapsed after three or four months, shedding pages like a dog does fleas. In fact, the only other time in my recollection that I've bought a hardback RPG book which actually took punishment was when I bought the AD&D DMG, Player's Handbook and Monster Manuals. I've still got those in a box somewhere. The pages may be yellowed, but they never once fell apart, despite the hundreds of hours they spent being knocked around at school or dragged from house to house. Hopefully this book will last as long.

The rules are based on Robin Laws' GUMSHOE system, which tends to emphasise roleplay over dice rolling. In GUMSHOE each player character has a certain number of points spread over several investigative abilities. When an ability is used, the player is supposed to spend a point and describe how he's going about the investigation. So if it's a situation where X is in a shady part of town trying to track down a hired gunman, he might say something like: "I go to my usual haunts, chasing up snitches. I spread a little payola around, because what else are you going to do? Whisper sweet nothings in their ears?" Then a Streetwise point is spent (representing the character's known interest in snitches and shady places), and the result of his investigations is adjudicated by the Keeper. It's a fairly simple system which doesn't need dice to make it work, most of the time. The key thing is, it lends itself to player control. It was the player who decided to have a point in Streetwise, the player who decided, not just to spend it, but how it was spent.

That's the key issue for me. I prefer a roleplay style of game. Anything that promotes roleplay is aces in my book, and leaving the responsibility in the hands of the player makes things very interesting. The Keeper has to think of more eventualities, anticipate players' responses to the ongoing plot. The players have to take responsibility for their characters' actions; it isn't just a roll of the dice any more. If anything, the GUMSHOE design reminds me not a little of the old Troupe style of play popularised by Ars Magica. In that game, everyone had responsibility for world design as well as character design. Building a covenant of magi was a group activity, based on point spend with a set budget. The group had to decide what they had and did not have, and in the process they ended up describing a fair part of the world they lived in. So too here with Trail, except that now the group is de-emphasised and the individual has control.

Take the Streetwise example. The player only spent one point, enough to get the information. If the player had spent two points, they could have had the information and also bought themselves an additional asset - the Black Cat Club, for example, and its owner Jack Quimper, half-French former crook turned solid citizen, who passes the player the information and also says that the gunman will be in the Black Cat later on, as he always shows up when Lola's singing. The player gets the Black Cat, which he can return to again and again in future scenarios. The game world gets a new location, which the Keeper can then  plan around for his own nefarious purposes. It's a brilliant idea, and one I wish more players were courageous enough to use.

The other standout for me is the game's treatment of its bestiary. The Cthulhu universe is well populated, and by now veteran players will have worked out what most of the creatures can and cannot do. Trail specifically encourages the Keeper to "rework the creature to suit the setting or the scenario, keeping their basic nature the same. Should ghouls be albino, almost insectoid creatures like Morlocks, and attack subway trains instead of grave robbers? Should byakhee emerge from deep wells or simply assemble themselves out of trace metals and corpses in the vicinity? How does the Colour work as the Sound out of Space?"

This is giving the Keeper carte blanche to do as they like. Of course, Keepers have always had that power, but they battled against player expecation. If the players know that X is X, then they're justifiably suspicious when X suddenly resembles Y, or Z. For much the same reason rolling dice behind the Keeper's screen is perilous, as is fudging die rolls. The fudge itself isn't the problem. The issue is the Keeper's basic sense of fairness. If the players get even a whiff of an idea that the Keeper isn't playing by the same rules they are, they'll start wondering whether the result of the last few dice rolls had more to do with a personal vendetta than good game play. Once that idea gets into people's heads it's impossible to dislodge, and can ruin a long-running game. This way, both sides know ahead of time that the Keeper may change things to suit the situation and the rules allow for that to happen. The fairness issue is taken off the table.

Moreover the statistics are streamlined. There's just enough here to be useful and not enough to be cumbersome, while some entities have no statistics at all, on the understanding that the Keeper has the final word as to what it can and cannot do. This speeds things along while keeping the player in control, since the existing stats are less 'what It can do' as modifiers to the player's dice roll. The Stealth Modifier affects the player's chance to Sense Trouble, its Alertness Modifier affects the player's chance to Sneak. That and a small scattering of abilities and armour is the sum total of most creatures' write-up.

Now, pros and cons.

Pro One: This is a well-designed roleplay system which puts emphasis on player's actions and responses, as well as encouraging more Role (and less Roll) play. People looking for a less dice-heavy game should look no further.

Pro Two: It's a very faithful adaptation of Cthulhu mythology. I haven't discussed the Sanity and Stability mechanics in any detail, but they do work well in a Purist setting, where the assumption is that everyone is doomed from the outset as the Horrors reveal themselves. It also lends itself nicely to a more Pulp style game, particularly if the Bookhounds of London suppliment is used.

Pro Three: The emphasis on storytelling and scenes rather than dungeon crawling is a welcome change. Veterans of CoC may remember some of the older scenarios with their vast, mapped-out locations crawling with unspeakable things, and shudder as I do not at the horror but at the prospect of working through the bloody thing room by room and corridor by corridor, changing characters every third or forth chamber as the previous ones get et. This isn't that sort of game.

Con One: While not strictly diceless, it is remarkably dice free. That will be a turn-off to some gamers.

Con Two: The players may be overwhelmed at first by the amount of responsibility put on their shoulders. Gamers are used to the Keeper doing most of the work. They sometimes seem afraid to spend points, or reluctant to embrace the challenge. This can be a stumbling block at first, though overcoming it (provided everyone's willing) isn't impossible.

That's it from me! Have a good one. 

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