The Trail of Cthulhu – What I Like Less

Following up my last post on what I like about Trail of Cthulhu, it’s time for what I like less.

The good news is, there’s not much I don’t like.  As this isn’t a playtest review, I’m not sure how well the game does during actual play, but so far it looks superb.  Even better, most of the items I don’t like are largely legacies of Call of Cthulhu’s clunkiness.  Still, they should be noted.

Tomes and Magic –  Many aspects of this particular chapter are good, such as the bonus to particular topics and situations from reading a particular tome.  The spells have a few interesting points here and there, but they aren’t anything to write home about as a group.

Largely, this chapter owes a great deal to Call of Cthulhu – perhaps too much.  Take, for example, this statement:

Reading a clue tome is called skimming.  Skimming takes one hour per 100 printed pages, or one hour per ten handwritten pages.

Can you, dear readers, guess what minor fact is left out of the tome descriptions?

What surprised me here is that the rule in question came out of the Call of Cthulhu rulebook.  Further, it came out of the Call of Cthulhu rulebook published over ten years ago (4th-5th edition rules) – Chaosium removed it from the book later.  Long-time fans of the game will now just how bad a rule is if Chaosium actually changes the rulebook to remove it, and it was surprising to see it here again.  I’d have gone with a set number per book, or dramatic license.

Another peeve of mine with the Call of Cthulhu spell system, repeated in Trail, is the rule about learning spells.  In both games, learning spells is a long, arduous process that can take months – unless, of course, your Keeper needs you to cast it to complete the adventure, in which case you learn it in a matter of hours.  I can accept some concessions for the sake of the story, but this is purely arbitrary.   A number of solutions exist – not using spells as scenario solutions, setting up two classes of spells with different times for learning, or (my favorite) just letting investigators fill up on spells and see how horribly wrong that goes – but none of these have been explored.

Overall, this chapter covered much of the same ground as has been covered before, taking on both the strengths and the flaws.  A re-envisioning of the role of tomes and spells in the game, taking into account the works of Lovecraft and others,  would have been more welcome.

The Cthulhu Mythos investigative ability –  The Cthulhu Mythos skill has always sat uneasily within the Call of Cthulhu game.  One must lose precious Sanity to use it, only to find that it tells you exactly what monster is currently eating you.

In Hite’s game, the Cthulhu Mythos skill is more defined.  Requesting a Cthulhu Mythos roll, as with other investigative rolls, must be used by being stated by the player.  If the player uses the ability, the Keeper should give them a glimpse of the Mythos ramifications of the situation at hand.  Perhaps it’s the examples given in the book – like “Hastur has poisoned the minds of the whole collective” – that leave me cold; whereas in Call of Cthulhu the use of the skill was hopelessly undefined, this usage seems to give the show away.  I’d have liked more pointed hints that lead toward that end.  The use of the skill being involuntary at times would also have been nice, so you don’t have investigators insisting they don’t know the meaning of that strange sigil on the wall.

Also, little guidance is given as to when skill usage is best positioned in the scenario, which for something of this magnitude would have been more useful.  A good Keeper should be able to figure this out, but many people would like to become good Keepers.

That’s all I’ve got, really.   Somehow I thought this was going to be more impressive, but I’m largely reduced to nitpicking.  If I’m there already, though…

Not Telling Me More about Unholy Alliance – Yes, Hite does refer to Levenda’s book as “a crackling blend of foaming madness and fair-to-middling research on the ‘occult front’ in the 1930s and beyond, including thrilling tales of the Ahnenerbe.”  This makes Hite the first person I’ve met to ever give an informed opinion on Unholy Alliance, and I insist on knowing more.  It’s always looked like a fine book to me, but then I remember that it was written by Simon, which makes me wary about citing it or relying upon its conclusions.

The floor is now open for questions from those who don’t have the book and want to know more.

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Published in: on March 30, 2008 at 10:03 pm  Comments (8)  

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8 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. I revived the question of “time to read” in order to create incentive to spend Library Use points. The name of the game is resource management. I agree that I should have explicitly told Keepers to make up page numbers for the tomes to suit their games, though.

    Spell-learning time *is* sheer dramatic license, in all cases, with the times provided clearly signposted as examples of proper dramatic timing. (And like it or not, that *is* how HPL and his epigones used it.)

    In re Cthulhu Mythos skill use — I agree that I should have provided for possible involuntary uses of the skill, especially in Purist games. Perhaps in the Anagnorisis box.

    In re Unholy Alliance — the (minimal) Lovecraft material is hopelessly daft, but the Ahnenerbe material is at least sourced. Most of his stuff on the occult war I’ve seen in other books, but Levenda does provide a compellingly readable one-stop shop (for the ETO, at least) for the interested, with a lot of good pointers to topics and books I hadn’t known of previously. Don’t confuse it with history, of course, but it’s only about an order of magnitude off.

  2. You are right to caution readers not to confuse “Unholy Alliance” with history. Indeed it is riddled with errors far too numerous to mention. Having said that it is an enjoyable ‘read’ in the sense of a quasi-fictional ‘pot-boiler’.

  3. Thanks to both of you for your Unholy Alliance thoughts.

    I’m behind Ken on all of that, save for the dramatic timing. It works for the short-term scenario-based spells like those in “The Dunwich Horror”, but what about the longer spell-learning time? Sure, you have characters learning scads of unholy lore, but I can’t recall a case in which learning a single spell took so long. Maybe I’m being obtuse.

  4. I can’t recall a case in which learning a single spell took so long. Maybe I’m being obtuse.

    Wilbur Whateley, for example, spends months and months poring over his grandfather’s books to learn various spells such as the Dho-Nha ritual.

  5. Clearly this is going to require another post.

  6. “Wilbur Whateley, for example, spends months and months poring over his grandfather’s books to learn various spells such as the Dho-Nha ritual.”

    Perhaps this is because he was, despite being an inhuman hybrid spawn of Yog-Sothoth, he was also a teenage boy and a really lazy student? I can imagine him being nagged by Wizard to take out the trash, feed his brother, and the practice his Voorish sign daily.

  7. If you want something on pre-WWII German occultism that you can cite with confidence and rely on its conclusions, you’d do better reading The Occult Roots of Nazism by Nicholas Goodrick-Clarke. If you want the better book (in English) on the Ahnenerbe and their (mis)adventures, try The Master Plan by Heather Pringle.

    However, Goodrick-Clarke is deathly dull and Pringle’s work is very focused on the Ahnenerbe while Simon/Levenda’s Unholy Alliance hits out in all directions for its madness. And it’s the foaming madness that makes for better gaming material.

  8. […] of Cthulhu Followup: The Spells In my previous post on The Trail of Cthulhu, I talked about what I perceived as a curious holdover from Call of Cthulhu in which spells take […]


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