Catalogues of Cthulhu

One of the advantages of a game line which has lasted as long as Call of Cthulhu and has maintained an excellent level of backward compatibility (7th Edition may offer the largest change, but even then you can fit conversion guidelines onto one side of a business card) is that there is an enormous amount of source material to draw on, official or otherwise, with exciting new additions to your portfolio of tricks offered up in numerous adventures or supplements.

This is also handy for Chaosium as a publisher, because it puts them in a position to sell you convenience. All they need to do is draw together a bunch of different monsters or spells together from the massive pile of adventures they were introduced in and put them between two covers, and they produce a tool that’s both handy for those with massive Call of Cthulhu collections and who don’t want to go combing them for that one spell from one scenario they vaguely half-remember, and provides a whole bunch of material which would otherwise be inaccessible for those who don’t have the money, time, or inclination to acquire all the sources these collections draw on in the first place.

The new management clearly understand this, because one of their first major supplements for 7th Edition (aside from the various Kickstarter stretch goals) is a big book of spells – so now’s a good time to take a look at that, plus the monster book whose approach it draws on.

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Mapping the Trail

This Cyclopean textwall is a review of the Trail of Cthulhu RPG which got way, way out of hand. I considered breaking this into several parts, but then you’d get the thing where people start commenting and responding to an earlier part when they’ve not yet read and digested the later parts, so you’re getting the whole epic in one big post.

Disdain For Derlethians

My favoured flavour of Lovecraftian RPG is and always has been Call of Cthulhu, which may partly be down to my familiarity with the system and the sheer amount of material out there for it but I think also comes down to the strength of the original design (the lack of major revisions from early editions to 6th Edition is testament to this) and the way that 7th Edition has made genuinely useful improvements to the system (along with optional systems like luck spends or pushing rolls which help dial back the swinginess of the system).

Some of the significant improvements to 7th Edition seem to be a reaction to or refinement of ideas from Trail of Cthulhu from Pelgrane Press. Trail has carved out a niche for itself as perhaps the most significant of the surprising number of “it’s Call of Cthulhu, but with a different system” games out there, and I think you can track this pre-eminence to three important factors. The first is that Pelgrane have gave Trail it a fairly substantial support line right out of the gate, whilst much of Trail‘s early run has coincided with the old regime at Chaosium being in a bit of a decline and therefore not producing so many Cthulhu products in their own right (though in fact Trail is made by arrangement with Chaosium, so they probably get their cut out of this). The second factor which made Trail stand out from the crowd comes from it being written by Ken Hite, who’s well-versed both in Lovecraftiana and in horror in general – his Nightmares of Mine is still the definitive text on horror RPGs as far as I and many others are concerned. The third factor which put Trail on the map comes from it being a Lovecraftian implementation of the GUMSHOE system by Robin Laws, which unlike most systems people try to convert Call of Cthulhu to is designed from the ground up to support investigative RPG play.

That said, I resisted trying out Trail for a long time. There is an irrational part of me which largely rejected it because it’s named after August Derleth’s absolute worst Cthulhu Mythos story, an incredibly repetitive “novel” lashed together from a set of short stories which are outright mutually contradictory – and not contradictory in a cool, evocative cosmic horror sort of way so much as a “this is a massive display of basic authorial incompetence” sort of way. Hite seems to have this enjoyment of Derleth which is weirdly uncharacteristic of someone who is even remotely discerning in terms of their reading material – tastes do vary, but there is such a thing as objectively bad writing and Derleth’s Trail is living proof of that – though Hite at least admits that his is not the majority opinion.

This Trail of Cthulhu is bad and should feel bad.

Continue reading “Mapping the Trail”