Given my strong interests in RPGs and Lovecraft, it was probably inevitable that I’d end up playing one or more of the X of Cthulhu games. I actually bought the core rulebooks for both Call of Cthulhu and Trail of Cthulhu during my Lovecraftian sojourn last summer (there is also–and seemingly unnecessarily–an Age of Cthulhu that I haven’t yet checked out. EDIT: Whoops, my bad, Age is not a different game, it is a series of officially-licensed adventures for Call, which many people seem to really dig). But I never quite got a game together. My first time playing either game was last October at the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology meeting in LA (I know, that’s like a stack overflow of geekery). John “of the Freezers” Hutchinson ran a pretty epic CoC session on Oct. 30 as an early Halloween celebration. Everyone in the adventure ended up dead, insane, or translated to an alternate universe, so it was of course a rousing success. But I hadn’t tried to run either game myself until today.
So why’d I pick Trail over Call for my first run as a Keeper? The story-gamey aspects of Trail weren’t off-putting so much as unfamiliar, given my more old-school background, and I approached that system with a fair degree of trepidation. But three things tilted the scales in favor of Trail: (1) I’d read that making up characters was a lot faster than in Call–and I believed it, after having played Call; (2) the Trail book has many fewer tables than the Call book, and I hate having to look stuff up mid-game; and (3) I liked Zak Smith’s description of gameplay in Night’s Black Agents, another Pelgrane Press title that runs on the same system as Trail:
Using GUMSHOE’s nondiegetic-thinking-style spendy mechanic, you, in effect buy ease and choice at the beginning of the session and pay for it with desperation at the end of the game. [emphasis in the original]
I like fast chargen, light rules, and desperation, so I decided to give it a shot.
In another Zak-Smith-inspired move, I hacked the character sheet to make it basically DIY even for people who had never played. Which meant rearranging things to get all of the useful options on the page, and ignoring any fiddly bits (seriously, Pelgrane: a character sheet with ten footnotes is horked). I also deep-sixed the Stability stat to run with just Sanity, as in Call. Here’s my version:
This afternoon our friend Eric came over and I ran a game for him and London. It was pretty sublime. I brought the disorienting visions and midnight scuffles with invisible opponents, and they supplied the irresponsible use of firearms, dinner table catatonia, and theft of a valuable museum specimen (all in-game, of course). The boys had to deal with knife attacks, severed heads bouncing off windshields, and washing dishes when they couldn’t pay their way. At the climax of the adventure, Eric’s archaeologist was hanging upside down by one foot from the open door of a stolen propane truck, having gotten tangled in the seatbelt in his attempt to leap free, while London’s ex-military drifter was firing a stolen rifle from a treetop perch to hit and sever the seatbelt and thereby release Eric’s character before the propane truck collided with the reality-warping tentacle monster that had eaten an entire town.
Yeah, that’s the stuff.
Mechanically it was fine. The system really gets out of the way and lets everyone at the table get on with the story. It wasn’t a railroady adventure at all–I had about six possible trails of clues, and all roads led to Weird–but Eric and London didn’t roll much until near the end. Their characters were roaming around, having conversations, and having weird stuff happen to them, but mostly in ways that didn’t require skill checks or opposed rolls. Just growing realization that Things Are Not What They Seem, and the slow erosion of sanity. And at the very end, desperation, depleted ability pools–they go pretty fast when things get hot–mad improvisation, and madness full stop.
At the end of the adventure, both PCs were shell-shocked, suffering from temporary insanities, and supported by a friendly and not-entirely-stable hobo as they limped away from a mostly destroyed and burning town. London jumped up, shook his fists and said, “That. Was. Awesome!” Like I said, sublime.
A lot of the people that I would normally roll with are out of town–most of them in the field, digging up fossils, or visiting relatives in other states or countries–but when they get back, I’m going to run some more of this. Stay tuned.