Trail of Cthulhu

Trail Cover

Mythos Investigation and Horror in the 1930s

You have to keep the doors to the Outside from swinging open – no matter what the cost in life or sanity. You have to piece together clues from books bound in human skin, from eviscerated corpses covered in ichor, and from inscriptions carved on walls built before humanity evolved. You have to go wherever the answers are, and do what needs to be done to protect humanity. But do you dare to follow… the trail of Cthulhu?

Trail of Cthulhu is an award-winning roleplaying game of investigative horror, powered by the GUMSHOE system and produced under license from Chaosium. Acclaimed expert on the eldritch Kenneth Hite weds his encylopaedic knowledge of vivid historical detail to his mastery of H. P. Lovecraft’s classic horror tales to bring their cosmic malignity forward into the 1930s—a time when the creeping madness of the Great Old Ones intermingles with the sweeping cruelty of global totalitarianism.

Trail of Cthulhu is designed for investigative play: the challenge is in interpreting clues, not finding them. The game also offers:

  • Two modes of play: Pulp (for the “desperate action” feel of Robert E. Howard or Indiana Jones) and Purist (full of philosophical horror and cosmic dread)
  • A new take on Lovecraft’s creatures and cults that makes even the most familiar Mythos elements surprising and scary at the gaming table
  • Innovative rules for sanity and stability
  • A Drives mechanic that addresses the perennial horror RPG question, “Why don’t we just forget we saw anything, and go home where it’s safe?”
  • GM advice on how to run a horror adventure
  • Detailed notes on designing an enthralling, cohesive investigative adventure using the GUMSHOE system’s clue structure.

Buy the print edition

Buy the Starter Kit print bundle

Buy the PDF

Trail of Cthulhu won two ENnie awards for Best Rules and Best Writing, as well as receiving an honourable mention for Product of the Year. It’s now in its third print run, and currently available in five languages.

Support for Trail of Cthulhu includes award-winning adventures, supplements, and campaigns from designers such as Kenneth Hite, Robin D. Laws, Jason Morningstar, Will Hindmarch, Jeff Tidball, Adam Gauntlett, Graham Walmsley, Gareth Ryder-Hanrahan, and Bill White.

You are among the few who suspect the truth about the mad gods at the center of the universe, about the Great Old Ones who dream of clearing off the Earth, about the extra-terrestrials who use mankind in their experiments, about the ancient legends of undying evil that are all coming true. You have to make sure nobody else ever finds out — or the world will wake up screaming…

Review Highlights

See the complete reviews to date here.

.…I was concerned that my traditional style of low prep freeform gaming would have trouble with the GUMSHOE clue system included here… I quickly discovered that this was not an obstacle at all, … it was very easy to constantly push new clues through different Investigative Abilities. In fact, I found that the game worked spectacularly well with this style as the nature of these Abilities encouraged me to constantly engage each of the players thereby resulting in a mystery that was continuously moving forward to its PC driven conclusion. My play experiences have been far more satisfying than I would have expected, though my group has largely avoided physical conflict whenever possible.

CW Richeson on rpg.net

Overall, this is a masterful melding of the Gumshoe system with classic Cthulhu Mythos gaming, an inspired match. There’s so much goodness in this that I’ll be back again and again, not just to play but to mine for ideas whatever I am doing.

Megan Robertson on rpgnow.com

By now it should be evident that I really love Trail of Cthulhu. I think it manages to capture the feel and style of HPL’s stories, particularly when played in Purist mode, with rules built to complement the stories. GUMSHOE is a perfect fit for investigative type adventures, and well-suited for a plotted out set of scenes. It also is simple enough to be run in a more “off-the-cuff” improvisational style and doesn’t require a great deal of prep on the part of the Keeper.

Michael Harnish on RPG Geek

…the section on the Cthulhu Elder Gods/Outer Gods is superb and packed with so many incredibly insane ideas for running plots it is hard to talk about it without waving hands around incoherently. One small sentence about Elder Gods as meme loads was so compelling it was a hot topic in my house for three days. If you’re into CoC at all, this is worth getting to juice up campaigns and take them to 11.

Emily Dresner

The Gumshoe system is an investigation-oriented one, and this orientation is well suited to many Mythos scenarios. We enjoyed playing our characters and didn’t have too much trouble picking up the system. I’d recommend it.

Duncan Hunter on rpg.net

This book is gorgeous; my copy is a lovely 248 page hardcover. Jérome Huguenin does a masterful job with art and layout. That art is consistent throughout– something not to be underestimated as a key to make a game feel complete … Worth buying for any gamer interesting in horror or Lovecraft.

Lowell Francis on rpggeek.com

With enough for everyone and a system flexible to have from a purely investigative adventure to a action fuelled Indiana Jones style game, if you like Lovecraft, you simply can’t go wrong with it

Paco G Jaen of G*M*S Magazine

Related Links

Stock #:PELGT01D Author: Kenneth Hite and Robin Laws
Artist: Jerome Huguenin Format: 248-page, two-color, smythe-sewn hardback

Buy

It’s been some time since the Poison Tree campaign was announced, even by the sometimes leisurely standards of Pelgrane. It’s currently on my desk undergoing development and additional writing. The core concept of the campaign is unchanged from those early articles – a series of connected adventures across the generations, from 1650 to the present day, tracing the ghastly fate of the cursed Whettall family. Right now, the final adventure roster is looking like:

Chapter 1: 1650

Chapter 2: 1715

Chapter 3: 1752

Chapter 4: 1775

Chapter 5: 1890

Chapter 6: 1914

Chapter 7: 1952

Chapter 8: 2023

(with plenty of scope for ambitious Keepers to drop other scenarios into the gaps – notably, there’s a period in the 1920s where one branch of the Whettall family become occult investigators operating out of Miskatonic university, so you can graft virtually any Trail adventure onto the campaign…)

I always enjoy the development phase of a book like this. It’s when you get to look at the text as a whole, and start to spot patterns and correspondences. You get to add in moments of foreshadowing (or excise accidental overlaps between adventures). You get to weave the chapters together, dropping hints and callbacks.

One of the tasks was updating the Poison Tree text to the modern GUMSHOE sensibilities. While Trail of Cthulhu’s rules haven’t changed, our understanding of best practises when it comes to structuring GUMSHOE scenarios and presenting information have improved, so I’ve added innumerable Leads-in/Leads-Out entries and Scene Flow diagrams. We’re also still wrestling with the question of how best to handle character generation for the campaign – there will definitely be a set of pregenerated investigators for each chapter, but how they’ll be presented and whether or not they’ll be the default option remains to be determined. Still, all questions should be resolved and rewrites completed well in time for a late-autumn harvest…

And after that, it’s onto an even longer-promised project…

“While America needs you, my son, you shall not die!”

— Bruce Carter I, to the Fighting Yank (Bruce Carter III), in Startling Comics #35 (Sep 1945)

A typically robust Alex Schomburg cover for the Fighting Yank

The Shield was the first, and Captain America was the greatest, but lots and lots of heroes donned the red-white-and-blue and punched Nazis in the 1940s. Many of them, having bravely seen off mad scientists, and robots, and gangsters, and the Axis powers, then vanished forever. Or somewhat vanished somewhat forever. Without the holy rites of copyright spoken over them, they rise again and again in reprint volumes and reboot attempts, some better than others. One of the best of the public-domain patriotic superheroes was also one of the longest-lived: the Fighting Yank bowed in Startling Comics #10 (Sep 1941), and headlined Startling, America’s Best Comics (sharing top billing with the Black Terror), and his own title, which ran from September 1942 until August 1949. Writer Richard E. Hughes (one of many pseudonyms of Leo Rosenblum) and artist Jon L. Blummer created the Fighting Yank for Ned Pines, publisher of Standard Comics, also known as Better Publications and eventually as Nedor Publications.

The Fighting Yank was actually a young socialite named Bruce Carter III, descended from a Revolutionary War courier named Bruce Carter (the first). Ambushed and killed by British spies while carrying dispatches for George Washington, his unfinished duty drove Bruce Carter I to rise as a ghost. That spirit showed Bruce III where to find his old cloak and tricorn hat, which had somehow become imbued with magic. When the young Carter donned the colonial garb, he gained super-strength. The cloak deflected bullets and other attacks, although like most Golden Age superheroes, the Fighting Yank could (and very often would) be knocked out by a bonk on the head. On his missions and adventures, Bruce’s ghostly ancestor spoke to him, giving him vital information about his foes’ whereabouts, and on occasion materializing to help the Yank out of a jam. Carter’s girlfriend Joan Farwell guessed his secret identity within minutes of meeting the Fighting Yank, and often helped out with investigations and by hitting Nazi agents with her car.

So in honor of the Fourth, and of things old becoming new again, here are two takes on America’s Bravest Defender and on the undying legacy of his undying legacy!

“His own face was in shadow, and he wore a wide-brimmed hat which somehow blended perfectly with the out-of-date cloak he affected; but I was subtly disquieted even before he addressed me.”

— H.P. Lovecraft, “He”

Indolent scion of wealth Bruce Carter III became obsessed with his ancestor’s portrait, studying it until he believed it spoke to him revealing the location of a magical artifact hidden away since colonial times. Sound familiar? I have previously addressed the overlap between Lovecraftian horror and the Golden Age of Comics in my Adventures Into Darkness, and feel free to peruse that tome for further leads. Or you could certainly treat the Fighting Yank as yet another pulp hero (Ned Pines happily overlapped his pulp magazine heroes with his comic heroes) of the sort I have played with previously in these pages.

But here’s an old-school Yankee who talks to ghosts, and probably ghouls, and maybe rat-things. He’s rich, and bored, and obsessed with his ancestor Edmund Carter, “who was nearly hung during the witch-trials.” Like his cousin Randolph, he comes from money and studies the occult, and sounds a lot like a certain antiquarian of Providence who likewise sometimes acted like he lived in the 18th century. In a Trail of Cthulhu campaign he might begin as a helpful (if creepy) figure, granting passage to certain locked churchyards at night, or offering the loan of his library. He just needs the Investigators to do a little favor for him once in a while, dig in a certain spot or read a certain poem under the new moon, or track down and kill a lich-hound that’s guarding a tomb where just possibly his ancestor Edmund Carter buried a certain “cloke or clout” used by the Arkham witch circle …

Bruce Carter III, Randolph’s Disreputable Cousin

Athletics 3 Firearms 4 Fleeing 6 Health 5 Scuffling 3 Weapons 3

Magic: 3; it costs him 1 point to Contact Ghost and speak with his ancestor, and 2 points to learn something unseen by him from his ancestor. In addition to any other spells he might have, Carter’s cloak transmits an unholy vitality to him from his dead ancestor, along with that sorcerer’s memories and skills. Carter can use the cloak’s pool of 36 points on any of his General abilities, including Health and Magic; the cloak recharges 4 points per hour of exposure to pitch darkness (such as the inside of a chest).

Alertness Modifier: -1 (dreamy and distracted) without the cloak; +3 with the cloak

Stealth Modifier: +0 without the cloak; +3 with the cloak

Hit Threshold: 3 (5 with the cloak)

Attacks: -2 (fist; +1 with the cloak), +1 (sword; +4 with the cloak), +1 (Colt 1902 Sporting .38 ACP semiautomatic target pistol)

Armor: The cloak protects Carter from all injuries except those aimed at his head (+2 to Hit Threshold)

 

“I told you, I’m finebetter than fine, in fact. It’s funny … I’d forgotten how much more confident a mask can make you feel.”

— Carol Carter, the new Fighting Yank, in Terra Obscura v1 #5 (Dec 2003) by Alan Moore and Peter Hogan

Bryce’s father, Bruce Carter IV, moved to Ohio from Granger, Massachusetts, in 1980 and never really talked about his family at all. This didn’t really bother his youngest daughter Bryce, who pursued a career as an architectural photographer (with a sideline in crime novel writing) until she got the ghost flu and started having dreams about an ancestor in Revolutionary War times. She went to Granger and looked around her grandfather’s old house, and found a cloak and hat — ideal for cosplay! — and thought she’d exorcised the ghost … until she got the ghost flu a second time (very unusual! One in a million, they said!) and developed powers. The therapists claimed she had “multiple personality disorder” (which even she knew was pseudoscientific claptrap) brought on by the ghost flu, and the geneticist from the University claimed she had some long-dormant recessive gene that triggered two sets of powers depending on her endocrine levels.

Bryce isn’t sure what to believe, because it sure seems like her ancestor Bruce Carter tells her things (or is it her subconscious putting together her prodigious research) and saves her life when she needs it. And since she’s moved to your Mutant City Blues campaign city, she needs it more and more. Cops can’t do it all for you, and she’s not sure she trusts them to use their powers fairly for everyone. And as her ancestor points out, it’s every American’s duty to fight injustice and help out their neighbor. (This writeup leaves Bryce’s politics aside from police reform vague, but in your campaign they should be whatever version most tends to annoy your PCs.) To the police, she’s a vigilante, and to corrupt cops, she’s frighteningly good at finding where the bodies are buried.

Bryce Carter, the Fighting Yank

Architecture, Bullshit Detector, Charm, Criminology, History, Intimidation, Photography, Popular Culture, Research

Athletics 8 Composure 6 Driving 5 Firearms 6 Health 8 Infiltration 6 Scuffling 12 Sense Trouble 10 Surveillance 5

*Flight 4 *Illusion 2 Kinetic Energy Dispersal 6 Strength 10 *Telekinesis 18

Powers marked with an asterisk (*) are associated with Bryce’s alternate personality, “Bruce Carter the First” and only emerge under great stress: to save her life or that of someone she knows. She only uses her Illusion power to (unconsciously?) project an image of Bruce Carter’s “ghost.”


Mutant City Blues 2nd Edition is an investigative science fiction roleplaying game originally written by Robin D. Laws, and developed and extended by Gareth-Ryder Hanrahan, where members of the elite Heightened Crime Investigation Unit solve crimes involving the city’s mutant community. Purchase Mutant City Blues in print and PDF at the Pelgrane Shop.

April 30th rolls ‘round again, season of doors and frightful manifestations. You may know it as Walpurgisnacht, the Witches’ Sabbath – at least according to poor Walter Gilman, the ill-fated protagonist of Dreams in the Witch House.

Now he was praying because the Witches’ Sabbath was drawing near. May-Eve was Walpurgis-Night, when hell’s blackest evil roamed the earth and all the slaves of Satan gathered for nameless rites and deeds. It was always a very bad time in Arkham, even though the fine folks up in Miskatonic Avenue and High and Saltonstall Streets pretended to know nothing about it. There would be bad doings—and a child or two would probably be missing. Joe knew about such things, for his grandmother in the old country had heard tales from her grandmother. It was wise to pray and count one’s beads at this season.

It’s certainly a potent date in Mythos terms, a time when the Old Ones are uncomfortably close at hand, a night for rituals and bonfires. In Germany, for example, it’s Hexennacht, and one’s supposed to dress as a witch and make noises to keep real witches and evil spirits away. Old Keziah Mason isn’t the only one abroad that night – Wilbur Whateley and his brother were conceived on the night of April 30th, and it’s also one of the two nights when the folk of Innsmouth were obliged to offer sacrifices to their Deep One allies, or so Zadok Allen tells us. Perhaps other entities can also use the doors of Walpurgnisnacht to move between the spheres – it’s in May that Professor Peaslee is taken by the Great Race of Yith, and he begins to have cogent dreams about his abduction in the same month a few years later.

A few other Lovecraftian dates:

  • February 2nd – The Feast of the Presentation, also known as Candlemas, “which the folk of Dunwich observe by another name”. It’s the date of Wilbur Whateley’s birth; also the Roman feast of Lupercalia, with its associations of fertility and beasts.
  • February 28th – The anniversary of the rise of R’lyeh in 1925. Presumably, as the orbit of the Earth around the sun brings our world back to roughly the same star-configuration, it might be possible for Great Cthulhu’s call to be heard more clearly on this auspicious date.
  • August 1st – Lammas Night, a festival celebrating the harvest. Also the night on which old Wizard Whateley passed away. Did he linger long enough to find some door into the outer sphere, where the whippoorwills couldn’t catch him?
  • October 31st – All Hallows’ Eve: Obviously, lots of spooky connections here. Notably in the Mythos, it’s the other date that the Innsmouth sacrifices are made. Wilbur Whateley makes cryptic expeditions into the hills on this date, too.
  • December 21st – Yuletide, “Yuletide, that men call Christmas though they know in their hearts it is older than Bethlehem and Babylon, older than Memphis and mankind,” as The Festival puts it.

 

Festivals in Your Games

Tying events to a particular anniversary can be a handy trick in a Trail of Cthulhu scenario. The classic is “the cult’s summoning ritual can only be performed on Lammas Night” or whatever seasonally appropriate date you prefer, giving the investigators a hard deadline – if they don’t thwart the cult before then, the world is doomed. Another option is to use a festival as the inciting event for the scenario – if the killings start on May 2nd, then maybe something crept through into our reality when the veil was thin on Walpurgnisnacht, and now it’s up to the investigators to track it down. You can also use a seasonal ‘window’ for a survival-horror game, where the challenge is simply escaping the monster until the date changes and the stars are no longer right. Maybe a bunch of investigators in the wilderness run into Ithaqua on the Yuletide, and need to survive until dawn on December 22nd. Astronomy or Occult Studies can clue investigators in to the celestial connotations of a date.

Finally, don’t neglect obscure festivals and feast-days as inspiration. The Wikipedia page for a particular day is a great tool for bisociation – for example, a quick scroll of the April 30th page gives us both Operation MINCEMEAT and St. Adjutor, the patron saint of boaters and the drowned. What else did the Seraph dump in the sea on Walpurgisnacht? In whose name did she make offerings?


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.

In the autumn of 1967, a highway patroller radios in a report of a multi-vehicle automobile collision just outside of Ipswich, Massachusetts, on the Great Arkham Highway.

There’s no such road.

Over the next few days – before DELTA GREEN closes down the area – there are more reports of strange incidents. A motorist is stopped by a pair of gas-masked officers who demand to check her vehicle for ‘contamination’, and spray her with an unknown chemical. A delivery truck crashes, spilling its cargo across the road – a cargo of devices that look like radios, but don’t function according to any known laws of physics. A customer at a roadside diner finds a copy of a tourist guide, left behind by some other traveller, describing good places to eat in the city of Great Arkham. A naturalist observes a flock of wild geese take flight across the grey sky, only to vanish in mid-air.

And across North America, a whole host of people – artists, poets, aesthetes, dreamers, sensitive souls – suddenly start making offhand references to the city of Great Arkham, as if it’s always been there, to be mentioned in the same breath as Boston or Chicago.

A portal to another reality has opened, only it’s not in some distant Antarctic plateau or deep in the trackless sands of the desert, it’s right in the middle of New England.

They’ve codenamed it YANKEE IREM.

 

The House on Castle Hill

In this Fall of Delta Green/Cthulhu City crossover campaign, the player characters are DELTA GREEN agents assigned to investigate and contain the situation. It’s one of the largest operations DELTA GREEN’s ever undertaken; the cover story is that it’s a military exercise designed to test civilian readiness for a Soviet atomic attack, hence the area around the breach has been evacuated (bar a few stubborn or isolated holdouts). An operational headquarters has been established at the stately home on Castle Hill outside Ipswich, under the command of Colonel Michael Kerovouri (FoDG, p. 163). As the campaign begins, teams have sealed off the major routes in and out of YANKEE IREM, and are getting ready to insert the first exploratory teams into the portals. The top priority: ensuring that whatever alien force has taken over a chunk of American soil about three miles in diameter doesn’t expand its foothold.

Inside YANKEE IREM is the city of Great Arkham, as described in Cthulhu City. There are only a handful of portals in and out of the city – some of the roads out of Great Arkham go to the version of the United States the characters came from, and others… go elsewhere. Once inserted into the city, the characters need to ensure they have lines of communication and retreat back to their entry point, or they may be trapped in this otherworld forever. The ‘ordinary’ people of Great Arkham take to the intrusion of mysterious federal agents into their city in the same way they take to the intrusion of other mysterious, sinister, oppressive forces – with dogged ignorance and resignation. However, on the other side of the portal, the characters must also deal with an influx of individuals ‘called’ by the city, reporters and upset citizens trying to get answers about the duration and extent of the ‘military exercise’ and the growing number of portals between Great Arkham and our reality. The alien city’s grasp on our universe is strengthening…

Some Horrible Revelations

  • Isaac Vorsht (Cthulhu City, 124) claims to be a DELTA GREEN Agent, who was investigating strange events in the ruins of Innsmouth before the city swallowed him. However, the program has no knowledge of him.
  • The Black Stone Towers (CC, 18) appear in advance of any expansion of the city into our reality. They appear overnight, as if they’ve always been there, and then over the course of the next few days, the YANKEE IREM zone expands around the cyclopean marker.
  • As YANKEE IREM infiltrates our reality, it begins to infect history, changing the past. References to the city start appearing in old history books and newspapers; people start recalling their own histories differently, incorporating the strange city into their recollections. Railway tracks and old roads sprout like tendrils, looking to connect the city with Boston and other towns in the area as it’s always been there.
  • The cloudy skies above Great Arkham are full of strange lights and glimpses of mysterious objects – and given the increasing scale of the threat, Colonel Kerovouri can hardly afford to turn down help from MAJESTIC.
  • Some of the citizens of Great Arkham are people from ‘our’ reality, residents of the coastal area consumed by the city who got rewritten in accordance with the ‘new’ history – but there are millions more living in the city. Do they have counterparts in our reality? Might there be alternate versions of the Agents living in Great Arkham? Or are the inhabitants of the strange city unique, another branch of humanity living in some alternate reality? Are they human, or body-snatching aliens wearing masks of flesh?
  • To stop the city’s expansion, the Agents must identify the Openers and Closers (CC p. 40) and ensuring Closing wins, cutting YANKEE IREM off from our reality once more.

 

 

The modern age began with Enlightenment, and Enlightenment exposed the darkness.

The time is the 18th century, and the place is Britain – a land just discovering new sciences and creating new technologies. But these new sciences discover mind-shattering truths; the age of the Earth, the impermanence of living species, the sheer scale of the universe. And beyond these truths, of course, is the Mythos.

“The greater is the circle of light, the greater is the boundary of the darkness by which it is confined.”

– Joseph Priestley, Lunar Society member

But when the new sciences of the age unsettle the minds of the nation and unleash dark forces, the governing classes may not handle it well. They are wedded to old ways and old lies. Investigators seeking to deal with terrible new discoveries and ancient insanities need a different sort of sponsor.

Meet the Lunar Society, a dining club of natural philosophers, industrialists, and radical intellectuals, the embodiment of the Enlightenment. They have wealth, knowledge, and principles, so when they or their friends stumble across evils needing to be contained, who better to organise a response?

Boundary of the Darkness is an 18th century campaign frame for Trail of Cthulhu by Phil Masters, and includes:

  • An introduction to 18th century Britain, and the many revolutions, dark secrets, and conflicts of the age.
  • Biographical notes on Lunar Society members and other useful GMCs, including some of Britain’s greatest doctors, natural philosophers, and engineers.
  • Character creation notes, including new and revised Occupations and Abilities.
  • Period equipment and weapons.
  • An introduction to troupe play in Trail of Cthulhu.
  • Notes on how to use a wide variety of Mythos monsters in play, and also ideas for non-Mythos adventures in service to the Lunar Society.
  • An introductory scenario – “A Spirit Out of Time”, in which the PCs receive just a hint of what the Age of Discovery might uncover.

So buckle on a brace of pistols, and make ready to carry Enlightenment to the very boundary of the darkness!

Status: In development

“He had lately become a devotee of the William Mortensen school of photography. Mortensen, of course, is the leading exponent of fantasy in photography; his monstrosities and grotesques are widely known.”

— Robert Bloch, “The Sorcerer’s Jewel” (1939)

William H. Mortensen, the “leading exponent of fantasy in photography,” was born in Park City, Utah in 1897 to Danish immigrants. In high school he caught the drawing bug from his art teacher, James Taylor Harwood, who attended the Académie Julian (1888-1890) and the Beaux-Arts (1890-1892) in Paris, his time at those schools overlapping as it happens with Robert W. Chambers.

Drafted into and released from the Army in 1918, Mortensen stayed in New York to study at the Art Students League in New York City under George Bridgman (another Chambers overlap, at the Beaux-Arts from 1883-1889). He left art school on an impulsive trip to Greece in 1920, returned broke, and after a year teaching art himself in Salt Lake City moved to Hollywood in 1921 as a chaperon for his 14-year-old fellow Utahan Fay Wray.

Incubus, by William Mortensen (1925). Model unknown, but probably not a dimensional shambler

While keeping Fay out of trouble and getting her into pictures, he worked with the directors King Vidor and Ferdinand Pinney Earle as a matte painter, and then on costume design with Cecil B. DeMille on his Ten Commandments (1923) then (as his photography business expanded) as a still photographer on King of Kings (1927). He designed masks for and learned makeup from Lon Chaney, Sr., with whom he worked on Mr. Wu (1927) and West of Zanzibar (1928).

Following a scandal exacerbated by Fay Wray’s mother, a brief dalliance with Jean Harlow, and the not-unrelated destruction of his marriage he leaves Hollywood for Laguna Beach in 1931. There he opens the Mortensen School of Photography, marries one of his longtime models Myrdith Monaghan in 1933, and breeds Persian Blue cats. Even at that remove, he retains his cachet with Hollywood: his 1941 photograph of aspiring actress Martha Vickers gets her a contract at RKO without a screen test. His Hollywood photographs regularly appear in Vanity Fair and Colliers, he writes a column for LA Weekly, he mounts exhibitions as far away as London.

In the 1930s, Mortensen reigns as the king of the “Pictorialist” school of photography, pioneering techniques of photo-manipulation with lenses and razors to create bizarre and impossible images, and defending his principles in books like Monsters & Madonnas (1934) and The Command to Look (1937). His success with the grotesque and unreal sparks the hatred of Ansel Adams and the “Purist” photographers of the f.64 movement. Adams despises Mortensen and everything he stands for: wishing him dead in print, calling him “the Devil” and “the Anti-Christ.”

Perhaps Adams fixates on those terms thanks to Mortensen’s series of photographs depicting witches, demons, and monsters. Mortensen begins what he calls his “Pictorial History of Witchcraft and Demonology” around 1926, continuing it through at least 1935. He consults with his friend the occultist Manly P. Hall on the topic, freely borrowing from Hall’s library of 20,000 mystical tomes. At some point in the late 1930s he suddenly stops creating grotesques, switching almost entirely to nudes and rural workers (sometimes clad in Renaissance garb) as his subjects. At least a third of the approximately 150 images he created for his witchcraft and demonology series have disappeared.

The Shadows From the Shutter

“That is why the beings cannot be photographed on the ordinary camera films and plates of our known universe, even though our eyes can see them. With proper knowledge, however, any good chemist could make a photographic emulsion which would record their images.”

— H.P. Lovecraft, “The Whisperer in Darkness”

Adams’ enmity, and changing public tastes, eventually drove Mortensen into obscurity and penury. On August 12, 1965, William Mortensen dies of a nosocomial infection in the La Jolla hospital while undergoing treatment for leukemia. Myrdith sends a file of his negatives, prints, and scrapbooks to small time Hollywood publisher O. Howard Lucy (b. 1900?); he publishes botched editions of Monsters & Madonnas and The Command to Look in 1967.

And at some point, DELTA GREEN hears rumors about “The Last Mortensens,” a series of pictures briefly offered to collectors in the late 1950s. Supposedly the culmination of his “History of Witchcraft and Demonology,” taken in 1937 or thereabouts, they depict his most grotesque images yet: thoroughly alien shapes and beings in stark silver-gelatin prints. Perhaps a dead occultist (stumbled over or produced in the course of a previous investigation) has one print, and his eager letters point to more out there.

The Agents head for California, to interview Myrdith: she claims she only got half the material back from Lucy. Lucy says he gave it to his photographer partner Jacques de Langre (b. 1925), a lecturer on alternative healing and enthusiast for the magical powers of salt. De Langre claims he returned everything to Myrdith’s “intermediary,” who may never have existed. Manly P. Hall (b. 1901), an increasingly grumpy and neglected guru in Los Feliz, happily discusses Mortensen’s theories and learning but likely has no lead on a missing folio.

The Agents might also look up Mortensen’s old friend, model, and collaborator on his books, the former stage actor and director George Dunham, currently living in Corona del Mar. Or they might be attracted to the rumor that San Francisco magician and publicity hound Anton LaVey uses insights from The Command to Look to develop the “lesser magic” and psychological manipulation core to his new Church of Satan. (LaVey dedicates the 1969 edition of The Satanic Bible to, among others, “William Mortensen, who looked … and saw.”)

Another lead (via the dead occultist or a LaVey hanger-on) points to another interesting Mortensen collector: the psychic investigator Hereward Carrington (1880-1958). When the Agents go to his home in L.A., they discover that his widow Marie keeps Carrington’s immense collection of journals and photographs intact as an archive. Has it been robbed? Who can tell? What other secrets does it hold?

Perhaps it holds the patchy records of Carrington’s work with a band of Investigators in the late 1930s who selflessly rescued renowned photographer William Mortensen from the hideous Things he had unwittingly called up with the angles and alchemies of his lenses and emulsions. Shaken, he resolves to abandon grotesquerie and return to Myrdith. But, bitter and impoverished twenty years later, he made one last set of prints for a few rich and eminent collectors …

Fall of DELTA GREEN Handlers can riff on “From Beyond,” “The Trap,” and “The Whisperer in Darkness,” and on the images of monsters retained in glass in “The Unnamable,” for that prequel Trail of Cthulhu adventure. Did Mortensen learn these hypergeometric techniques in Greece, and Carcosan ratios from Chambers’ friends? Did he find unnatural clues in Manly Hall’s library, or in a Hollywood horrorist’s drunken rant? This works even better if you ask the players to describe the photos when their Agents find them in the 1960s (“oh, it’s a boiling sphere covered in eyes”). Then, in the 1930s, their Investigators have to face those unnamable models from their own imagination – and save Mortensen from them.


The Fall of DELTA GREEN adapts DELTA GREEN: THE ROLE-PLAYING GAME to the GUMSHOE investigative roleplaying system, opening the files on a lost decade of anti-Mythos operations: the 1960s. Players take on the role of DELTA GREEN operatives, assets, and friendlies. Hunt Deep Ones beneath the Atlantic, shut down dangerous artists in San Francisco, and delve into the heart of Vietnam’s darkness. Purchase The Fall of DELTA GREEN in print and PDF at the Pelgrane Shop.

The following article originally appeared in an earlier iteration of See Page XX in June 2008. You can find James’s soundtrack work for Trail of Cthulhu here, for Night’s Black Agents here, and for Esoterrorists here.

by James Semple

James Semple has written the Trail of Cthulhu Theme to go with his inter-scene stings. He’ll be producing an album of Trail music including themes background music and possibly sound effects for Trail and Esoterrorists.

Let us know what you think:


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. 


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.

Transatlantic

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.


Media composer James Semple has created some musical stings for use with Trail of Cthulhu. James has worked with Cthulhu before (in a manner of speaking), creating the intro to the excellent Yog Radio, and he composed a Trail of Cthulhu soundtrack and effect album. Several years after this post originally appeared, he also composed our Night’s Black Agents soundtrack. For Robin D. Laws’ article on using musical stings in GUMSHOE, check out “Sting, Sting, Sting.”

by James Semple

Strange Meetings

This is a tension/anticipation piece inspired by the music of classic horror films. I would use it when introducing a new element in a game: an important NPC, a new location, perhaps even arriving at a railway station or port and seeing your mode of transport for the first time.

Curiouser and Curiouser

Although slightly anxious, I feel that this music neither raises nor lowers the tension. It’s definitely transition music introducing a change of scene, especially with time passing (e.g. …and the next day).

The Big Reveal

This is more than a cliche, it’s practically mandatory! This is definitely the music to use when the bad thing happens: it could be the villain unmasked or it could simply be that the group hear terrible news.

…And So On

A very short sting. Definitely a default transition. It doesn’t really imply much other than a vaguely sinister mood.


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 you ask who built this mound, the only answer is the echo of your own question within the vault that has been hidden in darkness within this mound for no one knows how many centuries. The dead past has surely buried its dead within the mound.”

— artifact collector J.G. Braecklein, quoted in the Kansas City Star (Dec. 15, 1935)

In August of 1935, John Hobbs of the Pocola Mining Company broke into the sealed chamber beneath Craig Mound, near Spiro in eastern Oklahoma. He and his comrades discovered dozens, possibly hundreds of burials, accompanied by thousands of inscribed conch shells, effigies, arrowheads, ceremonial weapons, copper plates, and cloaks, along with bushel baskets of beads, pearls, and copper needles. Hobbs and his crew were on Craig Mound legally — they had leased it from the owner — but not in it legally, Oklahoma having just passed its first antiquities act in July to prevent exactly this kind of thing from happening. Hobbs and the Pocola Miners became simultaneously the discoverers of the greatest archaeological trove in North American history and the linchpins of the “pot-hunting” community. American archaeologists, then and now, call anyone who digs up Native artifacts without a doctorate “pot-hunters,” a term just a notch above “grave-robbers.” (Native Americans, then and now, often don’t see what difference a doctorate makes to the grave robbery.) But in the pit of the Depression, pot hunting put food in, well, your pot.

Hobbs and team at Spiro (Leviathan, not pictured)

Their iffy legal status, and the huge supply of artifacts, drove the Pocola diggers to unload priceless items for a few dollars, supercharging the market for the next decade. Dealers from Arkansas just across the border such as Joe Balloun, Goodrich Pilquist, and H.T. Daniel arrived on the site just after Hobbs did, in late 1933, buying pots and arrowheads turned up in smaller mounds nearby for fast cash with no records kept. Other dealers arrived after the news broke in August 1935, carting away literal carloads of artifacts to Chicago, Ohio, New York, and anywhere else they could sell them.

Artifacts moved from the diggers to the dealers to the collectors. In the 1930s, collecting Native American artifacts was a huge hobby; almost every boy had a few arrowheads in a cigar box. The monthly magazine Hobbies: A Magazine For Collectors ran a column called “Around the Mounds” about American archaeology, and filled its classifieds with ads for “Indian relics.” On another level, the architect J.G. Braecklein and his friendly rival Harry Trowbridge assembled museum-sized collections in their Kansas City houses; Colonel Fain White King did likewise in his Kentucky mansion. All three became major bidders for Spiro relics. Glen Groves of Chicago headed the North American Indian Relic Collectors’ Association, and became a major middleman between the local dealers and the Smithsonian. Even actual archaeologists like Robert Bell and Sam Dellinger of the University of Arkansas lowered themselves to buy from the pot-hunters. The University of Oklahoma partnered up with oilmen, who siphoned off prize specimens for their own private museums in Tulsa and Bartlesville.

“They were very curious, these open-air ghost tales; and though they sounded flat and prosaic in the mouths of the white people, they had earmarks of linkage with some of the richest and obscurest phases of native mythology. All of them were woven around the vast, lonely, artificial-looking mounds in the western part of the state, and all of them involved apparitions of exceedingly strange aspect and equipment.”

— H.P. Lovecraft with Zealia Bishop, “The Mound”

Although Spiro is all the way across the state from Lovecraft’s Ghost Mound in Binger, the mighty underground empire of K’n-yan surely flung its tendrils at least as far as the Arkansas River. The Caddos and Wichitas of “The Mound” are, per current anthropological consensus (and Oklahoma state law), the heirs to the fourteenth-century Caddoan-speaking builders of the Spiro mound complex. Said consensus also identifies the Spiro builders as priest-kings of the Southeastern Ceremonial Complex (SECC), what an earlier generation of archaeologists dubbed the Southern Death Cult. That religion focused on a war between Overworld and Underworld, the latter personified by a Great Chaos Serpent that also eerily resembled a black panther. This conflation of Yig and Tsathoggua (or Tirawa, as the also-Caddoan Pawnee knew him) may explain the “black drink” ceremony of the SECC. Following the pearls, conch shells, and other aquatic artifacts of this inland empire logically points us toward the Tulu Indians, also called the Coligua, now known as the Tunica. Their language is not Caddoan but an isolate, and the Coligua-Tulu spent much of their history the irrational targets of their neighbors’ rage as they moved from the Spiro area down the Arkansas River valley and south to Louisiana.

When whoever the Spiro builders were finished Craig Mound around 1420, it had been almost exclusively used as a necropolis for a century or more. Abandoned shortly thereafter, it remained completely deserted. The Caddoans left it very much alone, and the transplanted Choctaws refused to go near it, settling their slaves in the mound country after Emancipation forced them to provide them land. As in Lovecraft’s tale, ghost sightings proliferated near the mounds. There was even a “curse of Spiro Mound” of a sort, as the Poteau lawyer who provided the Pocola Mining Company its paperwork, the young co-owner of the mound James Craig, and the Reverend R.W. Wall (one of the Pocola investors, and a respected Black minister) all died within three years of the chamber opening. Craig died of tuberculosis, and Wall drowned in a suspiciously shallow stream.

Was someone — or Something — closing off loose ends? Was there a dealer in Arkansas — or a dealer-collector team — who recognized the significance of the “black residue” in the conch shell cups, the eye-in-hand motifs on certain gorgets, the Signs of the Spider and Swastika incised into stone pipes? Are your Trail of Cthulhu Investigators scrabbling to uncover the missing “copper box holding surgical tools” that vanished from the dig tent, or to destroy utterly the “eight-foot giant in armor” that local rumor claimed to have seen in the hills? Are they perpetrating, or penetrating, the forgeries that abounded around the site? And was it they who, just as the Pocola Mining Company lease expired on November 27, 1935, set off an immense black powder charge within the burial chamber, collapsing a third of the mound and destroying everything remaining inside it? Or maybe destroying just one, very old Thing …


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