The following article originally appeared on an earlier iteration of See Page XX in October 2007. 

An Interview with writer Kenneth Hite

Kenneth Hite is designing Trail of Cthulhu – a licensed version of Chaosium’s Call of Cthulhu. Here, Ken answers questions posed by our redoubtable forum members.

1. How will sanity and madness be handled- especially as they relate to the fairly strong link in Lovecraft’s fiction between Finding Things Out and Going Crackers. Might sanity be treated as a resource that can be used up to help in an investigation? Or rather, less cynically, will there be some (perhaps dubious) advantage or beneficial side-effect in losing sanity?

In Trail of Cthulhu, Sanity is separate from the GUMSHOE trait Stability. Sanity measures your ability to believe in limited human reality; Stability is a mental health rating. (Dr. Armitage, from”Dunwich Horror,” has a very low Sanity, but a fairly high Stability,for example.) Using your Cthulhu Mythos skill helps with an investigation, but such “piecing together of dissociated knowledge”costs Sanity, and potentially Stability as well.

2. Will there be an introduction adventure included in the book as with the “Esoterrorists” and “GuH” book?

There will be an all-new introductory adventure in the Trail of Cthulhu core book.

3. Do you plan to include an default setting and background organization (a la Delta Green or Ordo Veritatis from Esoterrorists) or will it be a setting without background organization (like in CoC or GuH)?

My current plan is to include three separate narrative structures in the Trail of Cthulhu core book, and give some guidelines for constructing your own. Of course, Keepers and players will be welcome to follow the venerable Call of Cthulhu model of “you all meet at the reading of a will/museum opening/seance” if they like.

4. Will the book be written entirely from the viewpoint of those combating the unspeakable horrors or will there be focus on those who embrace the truth about Cthulhu & the mythos?

This book will be entirely about Investigators who discover, suffer from, and combat the horrors of the Mythos. Players who want to take the role of soulless inhuman monsters have a plenitude of other roleplaying choices in other roleplaying games.

5. Will the works of other Mythos writers such as Ramsey Campbell & August Derleth feature in or influence Trail of Cthulhu?

As with Call of Cthulhu , the entire Mythos will provide potential material for Trail of Cthulhu games. That said, the core ruleset will be primarily influenced by Lovecraft and Howard, with nods to otherwriters (I just wrote a fairly nice treatment of Campbell’s /Revelations of Glaaki/ if I do say so myself), including Derleth. The game is named after a Derleth story-cycle, after all, so it would be churlish to leave him out.

6. Do you think the Mythos has losts its power to inspire fear? Was the horror of the Mythos ever fully expressed in Call of Cthulhu?

The Mythos, like any other literary or artistic material, depends on the skill of its author and the acceptance of its audience for its power. This is true in roleplaying games as well as novels or short stories.The game Call of Cthulhu — SAN rewards, Elder Signs and all –expresses the maltheist, implacable core of the Mythos to a remarkable degree, and many of the published scenarios are quite terrifying to run or play. Assuming the Keeper is any good, and that the players aren’t being jerks, of course.

7. How much power do you think PCs should have over the Mythos? Will you present elder signs, for instance, as standard issue equipment or as arcane mysteries?

This is a Keeper call; the rules will support whichever flavor she wants for her game. We’re including special hard-core rules for Purists, and easier-going, more adventurous rules for Pulpier games. There will be Elder Signs in the game — they appear in Lovecraft, after all — but their narrative role and general availability is up to the Keeper.

8. You’ve said in the past that Call of Cthulhu is your favourite game. How will Trail of Cthulhu improve on CoC?

It won’t “improve on” Call of Cthulhu across the board; it will do some things more easily, and with a different feel or emphasis. The 1966 Shelby Mustang is my favorite car, but it’s not a particularly good SUV. Sashimi is my favorite food, but it’s not what I necessarily want for breakfast.

9. If I disagree with the central premise that Cthulhu (or investigation-centric) games have traditionally been stopped by a failed die roll, what else does GUMSHOE and Trail of Cthulhu offer me?

Trail of Cthulhu, specifically, offers you a number of interesting character filips, from core Drives (why are you in this ruined crypt,anyhow?) to personal Pillars of Sanity, as well as having my own delightful prose throughout. GUMSHOE, of course, offers an elegant, quick-to-learn ruleset focused for investigation and mystery narratives.

10. Are there any obscure corners of the Mythos you plan to give greating-than-usual attention (I hope)? If so, mind telling us which ones, or at least giving us a few hints to salivate over?

I think there’s plenty of interesting stuff we can do with some of the old standards yet, and hopefully my takes on Hastur, Nyarlathotep, andso forth will pique your saliva. That said, nobody ever seems to give Quachil Uttaus enough love.

11. Will this game have a grittier take on combat than Esoterrorists?

There will be a few new rules for combat in Trail of Cthulhu, covering Tommy guns, explosives, and other necessities of shoggoth-hunting, but in the main Esoterrorists combat system strikes me as admirably clean, staying out of my way while I’m trying to scare people half to death, so I’m sticking pretty closely to it.

12. Will Trail of Cthulhu give an overview of the Mythos, or will it be designed to focus on just a small slice?

The corebook will give an overview of the Mythos, although by now even focusing on Lovecraft’s creations is “just a small slice.”

13. Is Trail of Cthulhu designed to be a one-shot game or the first in a series of Cthulhu products?

All the plans I’m privy to indicate that Pelgrane intends to put out a series of products in the line, but Simon would be the person to ask about that.

[Ed: Ken, Robin Laws and others will be working on supplements for Trail of Cthulhu]

14. I’m partial to Robert E. Howard’s Cthulhu writings, so I was wondering if the game would be exclusive to Lovecraftian Cthulhu or if it would encompass parts of other writers as well?

A Cthulhu game without Robert E. Howard is like a day without sunshine.As I mentioned above, Trail of Cthulhu will have not just some of Howard’s monsters and tomes, but mechanical rules switches: flick them on to make the game feel more Pulpy and Howardian; leave them off for full-on tweedy collapse in Purist late-Lovecraft style.

14. Which period will this be set in? If you are thinking of Between the Wars, do you see a principal difference between 20’s and 30’s games? Will Gaslight or Modern be supported at all?

Trail of Cthulhu assumes a default setting of the 1930s, which was a darker, more desperate decade than the one before, what with the Depression, Hitler, Stalin, and so forth. Lovecraft’s stories begin to show the difference, and I’ll try to capture that difference in the setting material. I don’t know if Pelgrane intends to expand the line into other eras just yet, although adapting the ruleset to other decades should be fairly simple.

14. How does Gumshoe support period play? In other words, does Gumshoe allow modifications that can support different periods, or can Gumshoe be altered so that it actually enhances the period feel needed for a particular era?

Given the intentional compression of the GUMSHOE weapons table, the primary ways to alter setting feel mechanically are in the ability rules. In Trail of Cthulhu, the various abilities provide only period knowledge, of course. The Credit Rating ability can be used (if the Keeper so wishes) to enforce different social realities across decades. I think the biggest change is that Explosives has become a chancy General ability, not an automatic Investigative one. But really, the best way to support period feel is to write and run adventures dripping with it. That said, though, say good-bye to bulletproof vests!

Trail of Cthulhu is an award-winning 1930s horror roleplaying game by Kenneth Hite, produced under license from Chaosium. Whether you’re playing in two-fisted Pulp mode or sanity-shredding Purist mode, its GUMSHOE system enables taut, thrilling investigative adventures where the challenge is in interpreting clues, not finding them. Purchase Trail of Cthulhu, and its many supplements and adventures, in print and PDF at the Pelgrane Shop.

When Ken selects his favorite monster, he goes for creepy crawlies with a viewpoint. Plus special bonus F20 monster!

Trail of Cthulhu is an award-winning 1930s horror roleplaying game by Kenneth Hite, produced under license from Chaosium. Whether you’re playing in two-fisted Pulp mode or sanity-shredding Purist mode, its GUMSHOE system enables taut, thrilling investigative adventures where the challenge is in interpreting clues, not finding them. Purchase Trail of Cthulhu and its many supplements and adventures in the Pelgrane Shop.

Our new Pelgrane Video Dispatches series continues with Ken’s favorite GUMSHOE ability. Robin’s was easy to predict. Will Ken’s choice come as a surprise?

Night’s Black Agents by Kenneth Hite puts you in the role of a skilled intelligence operative fighting a shadow war against vampires in post-Cold War Europe. Play a dangerous human weapon, a sly charmer, an unstoppable transporter, a precise demolitions expert, or whatever fictional spy you’ve always dreamed of being — and start putting those bloodsuckers in the ground where they belong. Purchase Night’s Black Agents in print and PDF at the Pelgrane Shop.

confidential2Cthulhu Confidential, the flagship title for GUMSHOE One-2-One, is now available for pre-order! GUMSHOE One-2-One is designed for two players: a GM and a player who takes the role of a solo investigator, solving Mythos mysteries. In Cthulhu Confidential our PCs are hard-boiled shamus Dex Raymond, investigative journalist Vivian Sinclair, and private eye Langston Montgomery Wright.

We asked the Pelgranistas—as well as some friends of Pelgrane—which fictional characters they’d most like to have a GUMSHOE One-2-One mystery adventure with. You’ll never guess who is Kenneth Hite’s choice:


ken-and-jason-christmas_400Jason Bourne

I know it’s one of many obvious answers – Randolph Carter, Abraham van Helsing, and Thomas Carnacki also pop to mind – but the challenge of a One-2-One protagonist who must also solve the mystery of his own past while dodging assassins is pretty irresistible. Bourne always has the skills to live another day, but he doesn’t know what he should be living for. Furthermore, the player won’t even know which Jason Bourne they’re playing: is he the novel’s Special Forces hired killer aimed at Carlos the Jackal, or the movies’ CIA super-soldier aiming for revenge?

Preorder Cthulhu Confidential at the Pelgrane webstore, and get the PDF plus a preview of the first Dex Raymond adventure, straight away!


GUMSHOE One-2-One retunes, rebuilds and re-envisions the acclaimed GUMSHOE investigative rules set for one player, and one GM. Together, the two of you create a story that evokes the classic solo protagonist mystery format of classic detective fiction. Can’t find a group who can play when you can? Want an intense head-to-head gaming experience? Play face to face with GUMSHOE One-2-One—or take advantage of its superb fit with virtual tabletops and play online. Purchase Cthulhu Confidential and future GUMSHOE One-2-One products in print and PDF at the Pelgrane Shop.

The Game’s The Thing Podcast features guest star Kenneth Hite, and they discuss Night’s Black Agents at length. Apparently, Night’s Black Agents is really, really neat.




In the latest installment of their Pelgrane-sponsored podcast, Ken and Robin talk food, imagined worlds, Kenneth Grant, and the War of 1812.

RetroPunk, our Portuguese translators, interviewed Trail of Cthulhu author Kenneth Hite and allowed us to publish the untranslated version here.

How long have you been into RPGs?

I’ve been playing (and mostly GMing) RPGs since 1979; I got into it with Basic Set D&D and then right into AD&D; from there, it was an explosion of games: little-black-books Traveller, Top Secret, some Gamma World. Then in August of 1981 I bought the first copy of Call of Cthulhu sold in Oklahoma, and it was love at first sight. I haven’t stopped gaming since then, although I haven’t played Call of Cthulhu in far too long. Gosh, it’s been five years, maybe longer.

Do you keep up a group of regular play? What are you playing right now?

I’ve been running RPGs on Monday nights ever since I moved to Chicago in 1988. One of the players in my current game was in that first game; although he moved out of town for a while, we got him back. Right now, we’re playing R. Sean Borgstrom’s Nobilis; the next game coming up looks like it might be some sort of world-hopping, parallel-Earths Savage Worlds campaign, unless everyone changes their mind between now and then.

In your opinion, which would be the best systems and scenarios, exclusing GUMSHOE.

Hands down, the greatest RPG ever designed is Sandy Petersen’s Call of Cthulhu. No other game even comes close. The best campaign frames and scenarios for CoC are a little bit more of a judgment call, but Delta Green, “Raid on Innsmouth,” and Masks of Nyarlathotep have to be in anyone’s top five. Outside Cthulhu, I’d give John Tynes and Greg Stolze’s Unknown Armies, Greg Stafford’s Pendragon, Vincent Baker’s Dogs in the Vineyard, and Jonathan Tweet’s Over the Edge as the next four, but you can make principled arguments for six or seven others as absolutely A-list. Stafford’s The Great Pendragon Campaign, for the most recent version of Pendragon, is probably the best single campaign book ever written, although again you can get some worthwhile arguments for other adventures or campaigns.

How was your first contact with the RPG “industry”?

When I moved to Chicago, I started going to GenCon: it was a $20 train ride up to Milwaukee, and if you volunteered to run events Chaosium would badge you in and put you up in a hotel. So my introduction to the industry was as a con volunteer for Chaosium, running Call of Cthulhu scenarios and eating company pizza. A couple of years later, I and two friends submitted a proposal to Steve Jackson Games for what eventually became GURPS Alternate Earths; after several years of me “reminding” him about it at GenCon, he finally read my proposal and hired us to write the book. At almost the same time that Steve was getting around to reading my submission, a friend of mine, Don Dennis, sent me the playtest draft of Chaosium’s version of Nephilim. Don had been in my Call of Cthulhu campaigns in Oklahoma City, and at the time worked for Iron Crown, so he was already an insider; he remembered my game (heavy on the occultism and black magic) and thought Nephilim would be better if I looked at it first. So I read it and emailed Chaosium about 10,000 words of comments and back-sass, and then Greg Stafford — The. Greg. Stafford. — replied and asked if they could publish my comments in the book, and what Nephilim book did I want to write next? After I picked myself up off the floor, I called dibs on the Secret Societies book, and it and GURPS Alternate Earths came out at almost the same time. Suddenly, I was in the “industry,” and could afford a better brand of pizza at GenCon.

How do you see the RPG industry today?

There’s an increasingly stark divide between the states of the industry and the art form of the RPG. I don’t think it’s any secret that sales, player numbers, and any other metrics you want to use show that the RPG “industry” is a shadow of its former self. The CCG boom shoved RPG books out of their previous privileged position in distribution, and the collapse of the d20 bubble destroyed any pretense of strength left in the RPG segment of the hobby. That said, the art form of the RPG is in a fairly robust Golden Age of design: Vincent Baker, Jared Sorensen, Luke Crane, Jason Morningstar, Ron Edwards, Paul Czege, and Emily Care Boss (to name just a few) have been breaking new ground in design; Shane Hensley’s Savage Worlds, the Evil Hat team’s work on FATE, and yes, Robin’s creation of GUMSHOE, have proven that “traditional” RPGs can still be innovative and successful; D&D 4e and Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay 3e are folding new systems and techniques into RPGs from the best-of-breed boardgame designs. In terms of choice, accessibility, and sheer quality available, here’s never been a better time to be a dice-and-pencils tabletop roleplayer.

There is an amazing portfolio developed by you. What motivates you to create more?

Being paid to create them motivates me, first and foremost. My wife is very patient, but my cats aren’t, and they’ve gotta eat. I’m very fortunate, in that I’ve mostly been paid to create games about things I’m already interested in, from occult conspiracies to Star Trek to Lovecraftian horror. And once I’ve created them, I’m always delighted when I see other people playing with things I’ve built: if money gets me going, the fact that I’m actively making other people’s lives more fun (if occasionally more surreal or scary) keeps me going. At this stage of my career, I like the fact that I can sell something to somebody based mostly on what I want to do next: I wanted to do a vampire-hunting spy thriller, and Simon was willing to buy one from me. And with the rise of the PDF direct market, I don’t even have to wait for a publisher’s okay to start writing.

After the play testing phase and official publication of the book, do you play in any table, whether as GM or player? How do you view this experience? Does it makes you take notes of what could be improved, corrected, etc.?

I occasionally play games using systems I’m writing for, because it really helps bring out what kind of feel you need to work toward in the design process. But I don’t usually go back and play my own stuff again, not least because my players are usually all sick to death of hearing about it every week while I’m writing it, or playtesting it afterward. That said, I did run a GURPS Cabal game a year or two after it got published, which mostly made me wish I hadn’t had to write it for the basic GURPS magic system. GURPS has a lot of magic systems that would have fit the setting better, but I was kind of locked into one from the get-go. Sometimes, I run games I’ve written at conventions, but convention play is so wildly different from normal gaming that I’m not sure how much useful feedback I could get out of that noise.

How have you know the “dark” writings of Lovecraft? How did you feel?

I’ve been a Lovecraft fan since I was eleven years old. I first read “The Colour Out of Space” in an otherwise entirely non-scary anthology of science fiction stories, and it terrified the living spit out of me. Two years later, I discovered a whole paperback full of Lovecraft stories in the garage, and the memory of that stark terror made reading the new tales maddeningly wonderful. I rationed them to myself over the next year or so, just to make sure they’d last. And so they have.

What was your biggest motivation to do a game based on the Mythos? I mean, the work of Lovecraft is canonized by fans, how was leaving it with a new “tone” for the purpose of this game?

Simon provided the motivation when he asked if I’d be interested in adapting Call of Cthulhu to Robin’s excellent and exciting GUMSHOE engine. I think I may have waited forty or even fifty seconds before hitting Reply, just so Simon wouldn’t think I was easy. I have two great “first nerd loves” in my life, the original Star Trek and H.P. Lovecraft, and now I’ve gotten to make both of them into games. (If Sherlock Holmes counts as nerd love, I have three … and I have hopes for Holmes, too.) As far as tone goes, I don’t think I brought anything new to the Mythos that Lovecraft and his better disciples didn’t already place there. I put Trail of Cthulhu in the Thirties, but Lovecraft wrote six or seven stories set in that decade; I added wildly variant visions of the gods and titans of the Mythos, but Lovecraft beat me to it with his many versions of Nyarlathotep as mindless beast, dark prophet, mocking villain, and alien deity. I see my job as opening up the box a little wider; maybe as saying to fans, “you’ve canonized this ten percent for a while now, let’s look at some of the rest of it.”

Writing about the Mythos requires a good deal of knowledge about the work of Lovecraft. How have you conducted and prepare your research to write about this universe?

Well, a lot of my “research” into the Mythos consists of stories and novels and books and compendia and fanzines and games that I’ve been reading since I was eleven years old. I’ve been marinating my brain in Lovecraft for three decades now. When Simon hired me to design and write Trail of Cthulhu, I consciously set out to re-read all of Lovecraft’s fiction just so I wouldn’t overlook anything. That reading project turned into Tour de Lovecraft: The Tales, my volume of Lovecraftian literary criticism, and also into the various essays on Lovecraftian magic, horror imagery, and so forth that I’ve put into game books since. But it also informed my decisions throughout the game; things like the various Drives, and which monsters to include, and some of the gaming advice. Alongside all that, I’ve intentionally developed the habit over the years of reading almost everything as possible grist for the Mythos: this probably came out of running Call of Cthulhu for eight years straight and always needing more scenario ideas and weird coincidental stuff to put into the game.

In your view, how was the reception to the Trail? I mean, the CoC is on the road for a long time now and it has a loyal audience, how was presenting Trail to its fans?

By and large, Trail of Cthulhu has had a pretty great reception. It’s still a strong seller, which is not business as usual at this stage in the RPG industry. I see people playing it at conventions, and I read online discussions of the game by active players. It got almost uniformly good reviews, was nominated for an Origins Award, and won two silver ENnie Awards, which is about as good as any non-d20 product does at the ENnies. Even hardcore Call of Cthulhu fans who still prefer the original game mostly find some good things to say about Trail — usually Jerome’s amazing art, but sometimes some of the things I put in the mix.

Did you even fear that your work was compared to other RPGs, especially the CoC?

The liberating thing about designing a licensed adaptation of Sandy Petersen’s Call of Cthulhu is that nothing you do will match the original. Someone on the Internet says “Kenneth Hite is no Sandy Petersen” and I respond, “You said it, friend!” In the introduction to Trail of Cthulhu, I compare adapting Petersen’s game to making a samurai movie out of King Lear. Now, you may wind up making the best samurai movie ever (and Kurosawa’s Ran comes pretty darn close to that) but you’re never going to touch King Lear. It just won’t happen. So you’re freed up to really think about adapting the game to the new system without any pressure to equal perfection.

In your opinion, what is the best point of the setting? Would it be an innovative element in reading the Mythos?

I think the best point of the Trail of Cthulhu setting is that it encourages a second look at Lovecraft. Just moving things out of the bright lights of the Jazz Age into the Dirty Thirties changes the tone of the game considerably. I don’t think it’s particularly innovative per se — Keith Herber was presenting the Mythos against increasingly bleak human backgrounds in Return to Dunwich, among other works — but it’s a change from the received wisdom, switching the default setting from thriller to noir, if you will.

When writing Trail, you allow yourself a certain amount of freedom to create situations under a different point of view of Lovecraft, but have you, at some point, though: “No that would work better this way than the original form designed by Lovecraft”?

Well, as I try to emphasize in Trail of Cthulhu, Lovecraft always put the needs of the story ahead of the continuity of his imaginary mythology. So changing some detail to work better for your game is the original form designed by Lovecraft. I can certainly imagine running a game in which Cthulhu is the sort of mindless extra-dimensional force battering at the walls of reality that August Derleth painted him as, kind of a cross between the shoggoths and Yog-Sothoth, rather than the mere alien invader dead at the bottom of the Pacific that Lovecraft reduced him to in Mountains of Madness. And in Trail, I tried to let the Keeper decide as much as possible about the universe, and about the rules styles: if you want to play Robert E. Howard’s “desperate struggle” instead of Lovecraft’s “doomed destruction,” you can. But as far as the basic core of the Mythos goes, I think Lovecraft built something of supreme power and effectiveness in those dozen or so stories: why change it? If you don’t want to tell Lovecraftian stories, in broad strokes at least, there are plenty of other horror games to try.

There are two styles of play in Trail, which one do you recommend for players who never have contact with the Mythos before? What tips do you can give to novice keepers?

For players who have never encountered the Mythos before … I envy you. You get to run into the Mythos fresh, which is something I can never do again. Of the two styles of play in Trail of Cthulhu, I suspect the Pulp style will work best for gamers who haven’t run into Lovecraftian horror before. It’s a little more survivable, and a little more cushioned; it makes a smoother transition from a conventional fantasy RPG environment. My own first Call of Cthulhu campaign was pretty heavy on the pulp action, as I recall. As far as advice to novice Keepers goes, in addition to the advice in the corebook, I’d say two things. First, don’t be afraid to keep it simple at the beginning. One monster in a ruin somewhere, one haunted house, one murderer with a cursed artifact, is enough for the first story. Concentrate on the scares, and on mastering the art of investigative horror gaming. And second, don’t be afraid of clichés. They’re overused for a reason: they work, and they work reliably. Things always look stranger from the inside; the players may not recognize the cliché you’re using, and if they do, they may lean on it, which will increase their comfort level with the game. Time enough to switch things up when everyone knows how clue spends work, and can guess what a Deep One might be.

The Brazilian market for RPGs is quite restricted. D&D and White Wolf share the spotlight. What would you say to convince the Brazilian players, who know nothing about Lovecraft, to give a chance to Trail?

I’d say that no matter how good vanilla and chocolate are, I shouldn’t have to convince Brazilians of all people, the inventors of feijoada and caipirinhas, that there are more than two good flavors out there. I’d say that Trail of Cthulhu combines player power and character danger better than either D&D or Vampire, and that H.P. Lovecraft kicks elves and vampires to the curb. (Though both elves and vampires are in Trail of Cthulhu. Sort of.) I’d say that knowing about Lovecraft makes you cooler than your friends. I’d say that nothing beats a shotgun down at the old Whateley Place at midnight, and absolutely nothing beats knowing that the shotgun won’t kill the Thing, but going down there anyhow.

How do you see the publishing of the Trail into Portuguese?

I’m excited and hopeful: if my game can introduce Brazilians to Lovecraft, it will justify itself by that alone. I’m interested to see what Brazilian fans make of the Mythos; how they interpret its grand terrors in their own games. I want to see what variations Brazilians ring on the gods and titans of Lovecraftian legendry. And also, I want to go to an RPG convention in Brazil. Especially one held during a Chicago winter. Hint hint.

What should we expect from Trail, written by you, after publishing Bookhounds of London?

I’m not actually sure. I may let Simon pick the next one; I think I’ve gotten to pick the last two or three projects. It might be fun to do a “Project Covenant” book about the U.S. Navy’s increasingly terrified and over-matched secret monster-hunting unit, or a setting book for European espionage in the Thirties with a Mythos flavor (think Alan Furst meets HPL), or another themed adventure anthology with Robin.

The Pelgrane already started publicizing its new scenario for Gumshoe, Night’s Black Agents. What awaits us in this scenario?

Vampires need to be hunted and killed, and not enough games let you do that. Who’s good at hunting and killing things? Jason Bourne. So Night’s Black Agents is my “vampire spy thriller” game. Think of the Bourne trilogy, or the movie Ronin: now add vampires. The heroes are spies and special ops on the run, simultaneously hunters and hunted; all they know is that vampires exist, and that nobody living is supposed to know that. The GM will be able to custom-build her own vampires to suit her individual game; no two campaigns will be alike. I’ll be building high-powered, thriller-style mechanics into the system, along with guidelines for turning any city into a vampire haven. Anywhere might be the center of the vampire conspiracy in any campaign; it’s my shot at opening out the “multiple choice” stuff people liked so much in Trail of Cthulhu even wider. Plus, did I mention hunting and killing vampires?

What do you hope for the future of the GUMSHOE? What can we expect from GUMSHOE next?

I hope GUMSHOE gets even more popular than it is now; I’d like to see another GUMSHOE game — either Night’s Black Agents or Robin’s new SF game Ashen Stars or maybe Will Hindmarch’s post-apocalyptic game Razed — have the success that Trail of Cthulhu has, so that more gamers in more genres can see how well the system works. I’d like to see ten or a dozen solid GUMSHOE games, and I’d like to write about half of them. If Night’s Black Agents does well, I already know what the werewolf game is like. As for what’s coming next, I’m not sure: Simon and Robin and I have kicked around a lot of good ideas. If we wind up doing a third of those, we’ll be beating the average.

Rough Magicks

Rough Magicks coverA magic supplement for the best-selling and award winning Trail of Cthulhu, written by the master of Lovecraft Lore, Kenneth Hite.


The latest eldritch tome for Trail of Cthulhu unfolds the darkest secrets of Lovecraftian magic to the shuddering gaze of Keepers and Investigators alike! Read it … if you dare!


This book assembles the core of Lovecraftian magic from hints and allusions — and blasts all certainty aside with twelve contradictory explanations for it! Keepers revel in a dozen  new spells, and dubious new versions of some old spells, while Investigators find out what their abilities tell them about this stone circle in the woods …


Using the new optional Magic ability has its own costs, and its own rules, revealed for the first time to a quailing humanity! Gain it how you will, from a grinning Nyarlathotep or a groaning tomb, you will never be the same again. Even the lore of Idiosyncratic Magic, strange fruit grown from the seeds planted in the Trail of Cthulhu corebook, will bleed you while worse things wait …


Learn the sorcerous practices of the unthinkably alien and ancient beings of the Cthulhu Mythos, or scan the dizzying heights to which even human wizards may ascend! Poring over this dread work reveals all of this, plus variant Elder Signs, names to conjure with, and other …


Stock #:PELGT09 Author: Kenneth Hite
Artist: Jerome Huguenin Pages: 40


The following article originally appeared on an earlier iteration of See Page XX in February 2008. 

You can also read Simon’s articles on 1930s Rail Transport and 1930s Air Transport.

an article for Trail of Cthulhu by Simon Carryer

While by the 1930s, diesel engines were revolutionising rail transport, and giving birth to a burgeoning flight industry, on the sea and on rivers, steam was still king. Unlike with trains and aircraft, large ships remained in service for decades, meaning that many of the ships that transported passengers of the 1930s were built as early as the 1850s, and some ships built in the 1930s remain in service today.

The steam turbine, first turned to use in seagoing vessels in 1897, was able to produce far more power than a traditional reciprocating steam engine. By the 1930s, all large ships were being built with such engines, allowing unprecedented speeds. For ships built in the thirties, the most popular fuel for running the boilers was no longer coal, but fuel oil. This meant that modern ships could run with a much smaller crew than earlier vessels. A typical small passenger steamer would have no more than a dozen crewmen, including a few stewards and cooks for the care of passengers. Larger vessels of course could have hundreds of crewmen (The Queen Mary, launched in 1936, had over a thousand), and were almost like floating towns, the crew forming their own community below decks.

Steam ships were used to ferry passengers between all major sea ports, and most navigable rivers were also serviced by ship. Such ships came in all shapes and sizes, from tiny paddle steamers, which could carry no more than a dozen passengers, to more modern screw driven steamers, which could carry hundreds of passengers in total luxury. The variety, diversity, and ubiquity of steam ships through the decade makes a detailed description by area almost impossible. It can be assumed that for most regions throughout the 1930s, if the region was accessible by water, and had any kind of population, then a steam ship would go there.

Passengers on ships in the 1930s could come from any walk of life. Immigrants to the USA (less common in the 1930s than in previous decades) would pack into giant transatlantic steamers, while more wealthy passengers could enjoy hotel-like conditions in first-class cabins. Outside America, river networks were frequently the backbone of trade in developing nations, and such rivers were packed with ships carrying all kinds of passenger, from native labourers to wealthy foreign investors.


For the duration of the 1930s, passenger travel across the Atlantic was conducted almost exclusively by sea. Whether travelling in the greatest luxury, or sweltering in steerage class, anyone wanting to travel between America and Europe would almost certainly do so by sea.

Following WWI, several of the largest German “superliners” (large ships designed and used for transatlantic passenger shipping) were transferred to America and Britain as war reparations. Of these, the Mauretania – the holder of the Blue Riband for the fastest transatlantic crossing for a twenty-year stretch ending in 1929 – is surely the most well known. Under new management, these huge ships continued to serve the transatlantic route. Travel aboard such vessels was glamorous and popular for many passengers the journey, and the style in which that journey was conducted, was as important as the destination. For first class passengers, the experience can best be compared to a modern cruise ship: meals, entertainment, sightseeing and socialising were all taken care of by the ships’ staff.

By contrast, the conditions experienced by passengers in steerage (the hold of the ship) could be miserable. Before the United States closed its borders in the 1920s, immigrants to America would sleep packed together like cattle, eating a common meal that was described as frequently almost inedible.

New ships built in the thirties achieved even greater speeds. Two German ships, the Bremen (named after its home port) and the Europa were the first to challenge the Mauretania‘s dominance, but throughout the decade the Blue Riband continued to change hands. The ships competed not only for speed, but also for glamour. With the transatlantic route no longer dominated by immigration to the United States, ships built in the thirties were designed as much for elegance as for speed. Competition was fierce, as several of the largest companies (including White Star, of Titanic fame) were operating at a loss for the first half of the decade.

The Arctic

From the 1860s onwards, steam powered icebreaker ships were developed, which allowed unprecedented exploration of the Arctic. Icebreaker ships rely on speed and strength to run their bow up onto a sheet of ice, and then break down through it. Steam power proved ideal for such a task. It was not until the start of the 20th century, however, that such ships saw regular service. The Klondike gold rush caused a surge in Arctic exploration. Union Steam Ships, with their characteristic black and red funnels, regularly serviced the Canadian and Alaskan coasts, even running tourist cruises from warmer southern ports into the frozen north.

Tramp Steamers:

With few regulations, large profits to be made, and steam ships becoming ever more ubiquitous and affordable, the thirties saw a proliferation of small-scale operations. None were more small-scale than the tramp steamer. Operating as a one-ship company, tramp steamers worked to no fixed schedule, going wherever there was money to be made. In the colonies, a great deal of shipping was conducted by tramp steamer, rather than by regular lines. While most tramp steamers were freight ships, they would not have turned down paying passengers, and indeed anyone with sufficient finances could charter a steamer to almost anywhere in the world.

Operating on a shoe-string budget, and often dodging regulations and taxation, tramp steamers often existed in a grey area on the edge of civilisation, and the law. The crews of such vessels could hail from any country, and tramp steamers often hired crew who could not find work elsewhere. Tramp steamers were romanticised even in their own time as an adventurous lifestyle, and they were the setting of many a pulp novel. While the reality was frequently much more mundane, tramp steamers were still an exciting part of the decade.

Adventure Seeds

A Cult Afloat: The crews of tramp steamers were often drawn from the most remote and exotic ports, and lived their lives isolated from normal conventions or authorities. In such circumstances, the worship of strange ancient gods could take hold among a crew, who due to their itinerant lifestyle could commit all kinds of awful crimes without discovery. There are still many unexplored or forgotten places left in the world, accessible only by sea, and such places could be a haven for such cults. Worse, in the holds of giant passenger liners, crews might spend weeks or months at sea. Miles from land, the passengers would be at the mercy of whatever unspeakable ritual the cultists wished to perform.

The Ghost Ship: Stories of ships found drifting, seemingly abandoned, and yet perfectly seaworthy, have chilled sailors since the discovery of the Mary Celeste in 1872. Such a mystery could attract significant interest from investigators, and if the ship’s route could be determined, an expedition might be launched to discover the fate of the crew. If such a voyage lead into dangerous, uncharted, or infrequently travelled waters, a party of hearty souls would be required for the job.

Strange Visitors: The US and Great Britain were paying increasing attention to border customs and immigration during the thirties, but smuggling remained rife. Criminal organizations that had cut their teeth in the prohibition era remained in operation, smuggling more illicit goods. Eldritch substances in the wrong hands could find their way onto the streets, as a new kind of drug. Worse, with the US imposing ever stricter regulations on immigration, the thirties saw the birth of people-smuggling into the United States. An old-world cult, or some degenerate tribe from the colonies, could find entrance to the States through one of the many ports along its coastline.

Related Links

Trail of Cthulhu is an award-winning 1930s horror roleplaying game by Kenneth Hite, produced under license from Chaosium. Whether you’re playing in two-fisted Pulp mode or sanity-shredding Purist mode, its GUMSHOE system enables taut, thrilling investigative adventures where the challenge is in interpreting clues, not finding them. Purchase Trail of Cthulhu, and its many supplements and adventures, in print and PDF at the Pelgrane Shop.

The following article originally appeared on an earlier iteration of See Page XX in February 2008. 

Find James Semple’s stings for Trail of Cthulhu here, and you can also find the soundtracks James composed for Trail of Cthulhu and Night’s Black Agents.

A column on roleplaying by Robin D. Laws

Sting, Sting, Sting

A GUMSHOE issue we’ve talked about before is the challenge of smoothly ending investigative scenes, especially interactions with witnesses and experts. In the fictional source materials on which the game is based, authors and scriptwriters deftly and invisibly handle scene endings. A mystery novelist need merely end a scene on a pivotal line and then cut to the next one. Shows like Law & Order make a science out of finding interestingly varied reasons for witnesses to scoot offstage as soon as they deliver their core clues. Whether they have classes to attend, clients to see, or children to look after, minor characters on procedural shows are always halfway out the door. Scenes in the interrogation room are usually cut conveniently short by the appearance of the defendant?s lawyer, or the squad lieutenant, appearing to bring yet another piece of crucial intelligence.

Although you can sometimes give your NPCs reason to cut off interview scenes after the clues have been dispensed, continually coming up with these organic scene-enders can be taxing. So in the core GUMSHOE rules, as per The Esoterrorists, p. 55 (of the first edition), we offer this suggestion for an out-of-character signal that a scene has ended.

Before play, take an index card and write on it, in big block letters, the word SCENE. As soon as the players have gleaned the core clue and most or all of the secondary clues in a scene, and the action begins to drag, hold up the card. When the players see this, they know to move on.

Since then I’ve found a better technique which seems more organic still. (It requires the use of a laptop, which some groups find disruptive.) In place of the SCENE card, use brief music snippets. In soundtrack parlance, quick clusters of notes signaling a jolt or transition are known as stings. That’s the music you hear in a horror movie when something jumps out of the closet, but turns out to only be the house cat. Although they’re grouped together for jarring effect, the most famous movie stings of all are the piercing violin glissandos accompanying the shower murder sequence in Psycho.

Music works differently on the brain than a visual cue like a card with text on it. We’re used to having music appear under our entertainment to subliminally direct our emotional responses. Text jars us from one mental state to another, forcing us to more consciously decode the contents into meaning. The card is disruptive, breaking us from the imaginative state required for roleplaying, where music enhances that state. Oddly enough, the appearance of the music cue begins to seem like a reward for a job well done than a strange intrusion from another mode of cognition. It feels more like permission to move on than a jarring shove forward.

I started using the stings at a player’s suggestion, borrowing the most ubiquitous sting in television, Mike Post’s cha-chungggg scene transition sound from the various Law & Order shows, as a scene closer for internal playtests of Mutant City Blues.

When it came time to playtest Trail Of Cthulhu scenarios I opted for the three-note threnody that is the monster’s motif in Franz Waxman’s seminal score for The Bride Of Frankenstein . The use of a score from the 1930s period greatly enhanced the period atmosphere.

Now, courtesy of longtime gamer and media scorer James Semple, we have four custom stings for your GUMSHOE pleasure. They evoke the classic horror scores of Waxman and Max Steiner but, because the scary music grammar they laid down seventy years ago persists to this day, work just as well for Fear Itself or The Esoterrorists as for Trail Of Cthulhu.

Another musical enhancement worth considering is the introduction of a theme song. You’ll be expecting your players to sit through this every week, without the visual accompaniment that comes with a TV title sequence, so trim your chosen theme music to twenty to thirty seconds. The main purpose of a theme song is to produce a cognitive marker separating the preliminary chat phase of your session from the meat of the game. Again, this is a much more pleasant and subtle mood shifter than the old, ‘OK guys! Are we ready to start? OK, good!’

A theme song also provides thematic indicators to any campaign, GUMSHOE or otherwise. Want to emphasize sleek futuristic action? Pick a chunk of your favorite techno track. Is your emphasis more on psychological destabilization? A spiky work of classical modernism may prove suitably unnerving.

To help players think of their characters as part of a fictional reality, I also often kick off a first session by having them describe the pose they strike during an imaginary credit sequence.

Of course, this just scratches the surface of the uses to which cued-up audio can be put during a game session. When the heroes walk into a smoky bar, you can signal the kind of establishment they’ve entered by playing the music pounding from its PA system. Sound effects are all over the Internet, from amateur freebies to expensive cues created for professional productions. Once you get used to using your laptop’s audio program as a game aid, you’ll never have to describe a wolf howl again. Instead you can cue up real wolves to do the howling for you.

As technology becomes cheaper, multimedia game aids will become increasingly prevalent. When digital projectors hit impulse-purchase pricing levels, look out.

Related Links

Trail of Cthulhu is an award-winning 1930s horror roleplaying game by Kenneth Hite, produced under license from Chaosium. Whether you’re playing in two-fisted Pulp mode or sanity-shredding Purist mode, its GUMSHOE system enables taut, thrilling investigative adventures where the challenge is in interpreting clues, not finding them. Purchase Trail of Cthulhu, and its many supplements and adventures, in print and PDF at the Pelgrane Shop.

Previous Entries