Helmed by Kevin Ross, Chaosium’s Down Darker Trails is a major new Call of Cthulhu supplement that takes the action of the game into a whole new realm. Whilst previously most supplements along these lines have been dedicated to covering a particular time period, the era covered by this one actually overlaps the existing Cthulhu By Gaslight period – for Down Darker Trails challenges players to mosey on down, saddle up, and shake hands with danger in the Old West.
Though this is an area that Call of Cthulhu has touched on before – useful notes on existing adventures set out West are included – it’s one which hasn’t seen this extent of development, but it makes a lot of sense. As well as Lovecraft himself writing a few quite significant tales set in the American West – including The Mound, perhaps the most significant of his ghostwritten pieces – Robert E. Howard wrote a number of horror tales set there which drew on the history of the region. (Whilst I cannot say I especially recommend Robert E. Howard’s work, fortunately Chaosium’s treatment of the subject matter largely avoids the stuff which usually infuriates me about Howard.) So on a simplistic level, adding this allows Call of Cthulhu to more completely incorporate the action of its source material.
In addition to that, though, the Old West can lend itself to a range of Pulp or Purist approaches. For those who want a full-bore pulp approach, there’s a few pages dedicated to offering Pulp Cthulhu-style Talents specifically oriented for Western action; for those wanting a more purist approach, there’s suggestions to the rules which allow you to toughen up characters a bit without turning them into the proto-superheroes that Pulp Cthulhu tends to make them into, which I find more attractive than full-bore Pulp itself. Lastly, it also makes sense to detail the Old West as a locale which can fruitfully cross over with the Gaslight setting – as the supplement notes, there’s an Old West section in Arthur Machen’s decidedly Purist-oriented and Gaslight-flavoured Three Impostors.
The handling of indigenous people is always a tricky one when it comes to RPG material set in this era, but Down Darker Trails manages to be impresively clue-ful. It does use the term “American Indian” as the collective term for the indigenous peoples of the West, but notes that the more modern “Native American” isn’t necessarily considered to be that much more accepted or appropriate – more importantly, it goes out of its way to make the point that many members of the tribes in question prefer to be referred to as members of that specific tribe, because treating pre-colonial North America as being a culturally homogeneous bloc is perhaps the most offensive thing at all – it’s like portraying everyone from Scandinavia to the Sahara as having a single culture. True to this, the supplement gives a more complete listing and basic introduction to different indigenous groups than any I’ve seen in an RPG supplement.
In fact, the “Historical West” chapter is by far the fattest in the book, and deservedly so. Ross and his team are acutely aware of how mythologised the West has become and go out of their way to avoid it, teasing out how racially heterogeneous it really was, giving an honest and unflinching account of the experience of women but also holding up those women who bucked the trend, and including a range of historical NPCs who are at once more diverse than any Western I’ve ever seen and at the same time are one and all absolutely appropriate to the setting. If you want evidence of how baseless and ridiculous politically-motivated whining about “forced diversity” is, consider how this chapter, by providing a story of the West that includes its full diversity of experiences, ends up depicting a place which is far richer and more vivid and real than the typical Western setting – which too often ends up as flat and lifeless as the propped-up plywood sets of a cheap Western, especially by comparison to the treatment here.
As well as taking in the full diversity both of indigenous tribes and of the waves of settlers, the chapter also gives more attention to the history of the region prior to the US expansion than is typical. Not only does this helpfully steer away from the harmful (and, I would say, positively evil) myth that there wasn’t much of anything out there before the US settlers arrived, but it’s also important to capturing the action of the source material. Lovecraft and Howard both had serious issues concerning race, but you can at least give them some credit: they were fully aware that the West had a rich history prior to the coming of the US caravans, with Spanish colonists and various pre-Columbian cultures making their marks across the continent, and used that deep history as an inspiration for their stories.
So you have this extensively researched introduction to the historical West, but naturally that’s not all you get – there’s also an extensive range of suggestions about what various Mythos entities may get up to out there, with a particular emphasis on entities like Yig or Yidhra that have featured in notable Mythos stories set in the West, notes on how Mythos books might end up in the West (and examples of texts that might originate there), and optional rules for folk magic if you want to give indigenous tribes a little occult potency of their own without making them go full Mythos. Perhaps the tastiest addition on the supernatural side of things is a range of “Lost Worlds” that could be found in the wilderness, from the nightmare of K’n-Yan to a deliciously pulpy lost canyon where various dinosaurs can be found – probably in MST3K-worthy stop motion at that.
Lastly, we get a couple of pocket settings – a decidedly Deadwood-esque mining outpost, Pawheton, and the Texas-Mexico border town of San Rafael – and a couple of adventures to round things off, the adventures doing a particularly good job of blending Western-style action with Mythos horror. Perhaps the biggest job a supplement like this has is convincing the reader that there’s merit to the particular model of Cthulhu gaming it’s offering – judged by that criterion, Down Darker Trails passes with flying characters, and is particularly impressive at how it enables a broad range of action from extremely dark and Purist to hyper-Pulp and covering most points in between.