Trail of Cthulhu is an award-winning standalone game produced under license from Chaosium, set in the 1930s, now in its third print run, and produced in five languages. Trail of Cthulhu uses the GUMSHOE system, which is finely tuned for investigative play – the challenge is in interpreting clues not finding them.It supports both Pulp (for Indiana Jones, Robert E. Howard, thrilling locations sorts of games) and Purist styles of play (for intellectual horror and cosmic dread). HP Lovecraft’s work combined both, sometimes in the same story.It includes a new take on the creatures, cults and gods of the Lovecraft’s literature, and addresses their use in gaming. It adds new player backgrounds, and bulk out the GUMSHOE system to give intensive support for sanity, incorporating into the rule set the PCs desire to explore at the risk of going mad.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.Trail of Cthulhu is a well supported game, with award-winning supplements by Ken Hite, Robin Laws, Jason Morningstar, Adam Gauntlett, Graham Walmsley, Gareth Hanrahan and Bill White.
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.
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
||Author: Kenneth Hite and Robin Laws
|Artist: Jerome Huguenin
||Format: 248-page, two-color, smythe-sewn hardback
Ripped from the history books, here’s a great choice the next time you’re asked to create a Trail of Cthulhu player character: Bessie Coleman, aka Queen Bess, pioneering African American aviator. An active protagonist if ever there was one, she taught herself to fly when neither women nor black people were supposed to do so. So she went to France to get her pilot’s license, dated two years before Amelia Earhart’s. Unable to get conventional piloting work back in the states, she returned to Europe to learn barrel rolls and other aerobatic techniques, then toured the US as a popular barnstormer. Coleman forced promoters to desegregate her audiences, and turned her back on a Hollywood career when asked to play a stereotypical role.
(In some of her publicity shots, she bears a striking resemblance to Janelle Monae. Somebody call somboedy’s agent.)
History tells us that she died in an air accident in 1926. Those of us steeped in horror adventure can see the flaws in that story, in which she allowed her mechanic to fly the plane, and it went out of control due to a literal wrench left in the engine case. A little too on the nose, surely—clearly she’s signaling to those in the know that she’s faking her own death. And if she’s doing that in ‘26, clearly she has to drop from sight to settle some business with Nyarlathotep.
That’s her backstory when it comes time to play her a few years later, in the Trail era.
Pilots can be a little hard to work into the action of a standard multiplayer game. As a GM you might build a Cthulhu Confidential series around her, with lots of aerial Challenges and problem solving. She speaks fluent French, so one of her globe-trotting Mythos-busting cases could take her to Paris to rub elbows with the Dreamhounds of the surrealist movement. Chauvinists like Andre Breton and Luis Buñuel might not know what to make of her, but a romp into Unknown Kadath with Gala Dalí and Kiki de Montparnasse might be just the thing. Perhaps she would also insist on taking Josephine Baker along, too. I’m sure she’ll be entirely careful while buzzing Mount Hatheg-Kla in the butterfly ornithopter Kiki has dreamed up for her.
Follow the Trail of Cthulhu into the Dreamlands in this limited edition copy of Dreamhounds of Paris!
Only 100 copies of this faux-leatherbound limited edition Dreamhounds of Paris
exist in this reality. 50 will be made available to customers in the US & Canada, and 50 will be made available to customers outside the US & Canada. The books are faux leather with gold foil, and each one includes a sticky-backed book plate signed by the three authors for you to add to the book.
From the 1920s to the coming of the Occupation, a new breed of artist prowled the fabled streets of Paris. Combative, disrespectful, irresponsible, the surrealists broke aesthetic conventions, moral boundaries—and sometimes, arms. They sought nothing less than to change humanity by means of a worldwide psychic revolution. Their names resound through pop culture and the annals of art history.
But until now, no one has revealed what they were really up to.
In this comprehensive campaign guide for Trail of Cthulhu, you recreate their mundane and mystical adventures as you stumble onto the Dreamlands, a fantastical realm found far beyond the wall of sleep. At first by happenstance and later by implacable design, you remake it in the fiery image of your own art.
Will you save the world, or destroy it?
|Stock #: PELGT38L
|Artists: Tyler Clark, Ben Felten, Emilien Francois, Melissa Gay, Jérôme Huguenin, Leah Huete, Rachel A. Kahn, Anna Kryczkowska, David Lewis Johnson, Pat Loboyko, Rich Longmore, Jeff Porter, Patricia Smith, Jeff Strand
||Authors: Robin D. Laws, Kenneth Hite, Steve Dempsey
Cthulhu City is written, if not finished, and the final book is overstuffed with Mythos gribbles and haunted architecture. There are so many cults and sorcerers lurking in there, not to mention weird Yithian machines, that I had to remove certain blasphemous tomes and cryptic relics to the virtual pages of page XX. Consider these a taster of horrors of come.
The Upton Papers
Physical Description: A hand-written diary, coupled with several folders of official documents bound in red ribbon. The papers may be found in a patent-leather briefcase that might even show signs of water damage.
Supposed History: These papers belonged to the late Francis Upton, the previous Mayor of Great Arkham. Upton died when his car plunged off the Garrison Street bridge into the Miskatonic river, and these papers were presumably lost with him. However, if someone recovered them from the water, or snatched them from the car before it mysteriously swerved, then Upton’s secrets might have survived his death…
Major Item: If genuine, the Upton Papers contain Francis Upton’s notes and personal observations about the city council and the secret rulers of Great Arkham. If Upton was, as he claimed to be, a reformer and enemy of corruption, then the papers document the activities of the Church of the Conciliator and the Necromantic Cabal in reasserting control of the city council after the fall of the Gilman House regime in 1925. Upton names several councillors and key figures as servants of the Mythos. If Upton trusted Federal Agent Vorsht, then the last paper is a letter to Vorsht asking for a full investigation of the city council. Combine this letter with Cop Talk or Bureaucracy to gain Vorsht as an ally.
Alternatively, if Upton was actually a cultist himself, then the papers shed new light on his death. Was he the victim of some internal feud within the cult? Did Vorsht or the Armitage Inquiry assassinate Upton? Or was his supposed death in the icy waters of the river merely a step towards some other mode of existence?
In either case, reading the Papers gives +1 Cthulhu Mythos and +1 Sentinel Hill Knowledge at the cost of a 3-point Stability Loss. Readers may also have recurring dreams of Upton’s death, which leave a lingering feeling of culpability after waking.
Minor Item: The papers are genuine, but there’s no sign of Upton’s diary. The documents in the folder all relate to a property deal involving several of the councillors, perhaps related the Olmstead Dam, the Dig in Salamander Fields, or the expansion of the city west into Billington’s Woods. Law detects irregularities in the documents; someone was covering up the true purpose of the property development.
Fraudulent: The papers are forgeries, as Craft can determine. They contain damning accusations about the private affairs of one of the councillors, like Arthur Diamond or Elanor Brack. Put these papers into the hands of an unscrupulous yellow newshawk from Newspaper Row, and they could do serious damage – even after death, Mayor Upton’s word counts for a great deal in Arkham.
The Ashpool Plates
Type: A series of twelve photographs taken by scandalous avant-garde photographer Edith Ashpool of Kingsport.
Physical Description: The first photographs in the series show Kingsport Harbour, and appear to have been taken from the deck of a yacht or other small vessel. A man, naked except for an ornate mask, stands by the railing in the foreground of each of the photographs, framing the background with his gestures. He waves goodbye in the early photos, points at elements of interests in others.
Other photographs show seascapes and coastlines around the north coast, near Kingsport Lighthouse. Several humanoid figures can be seen on the rocks at the foot of the cliffs, climbing in and out of the water. The later pictures in the series show a bizarre shoreline on some alien sea, with two moons clearly visible in the sky. The final picture appears to depict the yacht approaching a jetty of carved stone, where another figure wearing some sort of elaborate headdress awaits the boat’s arrival.
Supposed History: Ashpool claimed to have taken the photographs from the deck of the Hecate, a yacht owned by Ashpool’s rumoured lover Sauducismis “Saul” Waite, a cousin of former mayor Ephraim Waite. She exhibited the photographs in a small gallery in Kingsport; Art History or Kingsport District Knowledge recalls stories that there was a second, ‘inner’ set of photographs that could only be viewed on payment of an unspecified fee.
The police raided the Gallery two days after it opened; initially, they claimed that several gallery patrons including Ashpool had shown symptoms of typhoid and so the gallery had to be closed as a public health hazard. Later, it was made known that the ‘inner’ exhibition contained degrading and illegal pornographic images.
Major Item: The Ashpool Plates are a form of magical communication. Looking at the photographs in sequence, ideally while using a mind-expanding drug, puts the observer into a trance in which there is a psychic overlap between the observer and the masked man. Without the second set of photographs, the communication is one-way: the user is aware of another presence in the psychic landscape (presumably, whatever entity is represented by the figure wearing a headdress) and can “send” but not “receive” thoughts. The Ashpool Plates can be used to call for aid from whatever that entity is, and such entreaties will receive a response.
Of course, wise investigators may wish to know what they’re dealing with before entering into supernatural bargains. Ashpool is still in police custody in Fort Hutchison, but Saul Waite’s family connections protected him from any repercussions. The investigators could also try identifying the naked man, who clearly isn’t Saul.
Minor Item: A Cthulhu Mythos, Occult or Magic spend confirms that the photographs document the performance of a magical ritual. Replicating the gestures made by the masked man while following the course of the Hecate opens a sea-gate off the shore of Kingsport.
Fraudulent: The later photographs were faked in a special-effects shop at AKLO Pictures, one of Great Arkham’s movie studios. Ashpool was employed as a designer on an upcoming movie, but while on set, she managed to convince a vulnerable young starlet to pose for a series of compromising photographs. To protect their investment in the actress, studio bosses bribed the police to shut Ashpool down.
Wonders of the Invisible City
Physical Description: 110 pages, cheaply bound and badly typeset. Printed in 1862. This is a second-hand copy; according to the flyleaf, it was owned at some point by a “M. Daniels” – perhaps Milton Daniels, the Union Boss?
Supposed History: Wonders of the Invisible City is a printed transcript of a series of sermons or lectures that were allegedly given by Reverend Shrewsbury, a pastor who lived in Arkham in the 1740s and 1750s. While there is plenty of evidence to attest that Shrewsbury quarrelled with Joseph Curwen and other merchants and civic leaders, and even spoke out against their “Godless ways” from the pulpit, there is no proof that this book contains an accurate transcript of Shrewsbury’s words.
Major Item: The book contains a litany of accusations against the founders of Arkham, mentioning Curwen, Orne and Hutchinson by name, but also insinuating that several other families were in league with devils. It describes “certaine works” that were carried out in the dead of night by Curwen and his allies; Architecture or Astronomy guesses that the description is of a detailed survey of the land around Arkham, focusing on key magical sites like the Wooded Isle, Sump Marsh and the Chinese Garden.
The book also describes Shrewsbury’s encounters with strange “travellers” who revealed to him a “vision of a monstrous Pandemonium-to-come”. The description in the text of the mannerisms of these stranger is eerily close to those of the player characters – is some cross-temporal encounter with Reverend Shrewsbury in their future? Handwritten marginal notes in this section appear to be written in code, and might contain a spell or instructions for achieving such a prodigy.
Minor Item: The book is less specific about the misdeeds of Arkham’s founders, but a close reading with Archaelogy or History can reveal the precise location of Curwen’s missing farm in Salamander Fields. Marginal notes suggest that a previous owner of this book came to the same conclusion and may even have carried out a search for the buried ruins.
Fraudulent: Occult or History confirms that most of the text is copied from Philip’s Thaumaturgical Prodigies in the New England Canaan, and has little new information of relevance.
“Cosmic Love is absolutely Ruthless and Highly Indifferent.”
— John C. Lilly
There are not enough pages in any rulebook, and especially not enough in the Fall of Delta Green chapter that looks like it will have to suffice for both 1960s history and backgrounder and scenario seeds, to tackle even a fraction of the weirdness that the Sixties brought to life or to light. And there probably aren’t even enough pages to do proper justice to the many and manifold weirdnesses of John Cunningham Lilly (1915-2001). But in his pioneering spirit, we’ll shoot up with a whole bunch of ketamine and decide we can do it here anyway.
Lilly was a sort of Midwestern ideal type of the Lovecraftian protagonist: born in St. Paul to wealthy parents, he studied chemistry and philosophy from an early age. His undergraduate career at Caltech (1933-1938) almost exactly overlaps the period of the alchemist-Crowleyite John Whiteside Parsons’ GALCIT rocketry program there, and both were chemistry students. (Lilly and Parsons almost certainly met, Caltech not being that big a world in the Thirties, but what happened — or Happened — during that Trail of Cthulhu time slot has managed to go un-recorded in their various biographies.) He entered Dartmouth medical school in 1938, then transferred to Penn where he continued his Lovecraftian development by conducting various medical experiments on himself and writing a forbidden text: a book (this was 1942) called How To Build an Atomic Bomb. He conducted postgraduate work under pioneering biophysicist (and putative Majestic-12 member) Detlev Bronk and at the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), doing research for the Air Force — among other things developing early electro-encephalograms and, in 1954, the first sensory deprivation tank. According to his memoirs, he was approached by the CIA to work on such things as animal-activated surveillance and explosives, and (perhaps) on the MK-ULTRA mind-control project. According to Lilly, he refused, nobly insisting that his work remain open for all. He loudly resigned from NIMH in 1958.
The K-r-r-k-k-k-k-k of Cthulhu
Having boldly proclaimed his independence from government control, Lilly founded the Communication Research Institute Inc. (CRII) on the island of St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands. CRII was, of course, funded by NASA, the U.S. military, and possibly other shadowy figures. Lilly had become interested in the question of dolphin brains: much like those of humans, cetacean brains are very large in ratio to their bodies and have an even higher density of neurons. Lilly set up dolphin tanks and pools, and began to experiment on dolphins, most notoriously when his dolphin Peter fell for researcher Margaret Lowe Howitt while she tried to teach Peter to speak English. It wasn’t all dolphin grabass in the islands, though: Lilly also dissected and probed the brains of the cetaceans, in between drug experiments (on them and himself) and attempts to decipher dolphin communication by floating next to them in sensory deprivation tanks.
James Wade’s terrific 1969 short story “The Deep Ones” provides a fictionalized Lilly in the form of Miskatonic hippie guru Alonzo Waite, and in the form of his opposite number, dolphin researcher Dr. Frederick Wilhelm. Most impressively, it casts the dolphins as one more intermediary between man and Cthulhu, cousin or evolutionary stage of the Deep Ones. Wade mentions the ancient Greek myth that dolphins were pirates turned into beasts by Dionysos, tying it wonderfully into the deeper Mythos truths of Dagon and human-oceanic interbreeding of the Innsmouth sort. Any Fall of Delta Green Handler has a whole mini-campaign just lying there between Wade’s fictions and the CRII’s madness.
But it doesn’t end there. Wade doesn’t even bring in Lilly’s involvement in SETI, which (likely again via NASA back channels) wound up connecting Lilly and the CRII with astrophysicist Frank Drake, who considered dolphins a template for alien life on Earth. Lilly presented his dolphin theories at the Green Bank astrophysics conference in 1961 where Drake coined his famous equation for the probability of alien life. He was such a hit that Drake, Lilly, a pre-turtleneck Carl Sagan, and biologist J.B.S. Haldane all made up the “Order of the Dolphin” and wore dolphin lapel pins when they were wearing lapels, which wasn’t often in St. Thomas.
Lucy in Sarnath with Diamonds
But Lilly was losing interest in his dolphins for the time being, because his dolphins weren’t receptive to injections of LSD. (Although he later decided dolphins could telepathically project sonar images into his head while he floated in his nearby sensory deprivation tank, he somehow didn’t associate those results with his LSD use.) Despite Lilly’s official rejection of government support, he wound up getting on the approved list of LSD researchers, and began charting his own passage into the “province of the mind” at, among other places, the Maryland Psychiatric Research Center (MPRC) in Catonsville, Maryland in 1968-1969. The MPRC just happens to be located in the Spring Grove Mental Hospital, founded in 1797, and a major center for research into schizophrenia, with a large collection of human brains. Which means, of course, that we could go in any number of Lovecraftian directions here, from the mental experiments of “Beyond the Wall of Sleep” to the search for the biological boundaries of death in “Herbert West — Re-Animator” to the, well, large collection of human brains in “Whisperer in the Darkness.”
But perhaps it’s most fun to put a probe in all that and head inside instead, to the Dreamlands. The “province of the mind,” visited by special questers during a ritual dream state, sounds very familiar to us Lovecraftians. As Lilly put it: “In the province of the mind what one believes to be true, either is true or becomes true within certain limits. These limits are to be found experimentally and experientially. When so found these limits turn out to be further beliefs to be transcended. In the province of the mind there are no limits.”
Lilly mostly wrote up his psychedelic experiments in the context of “reprogramming the human biocomputer” rather than as a way to discover the face of the gods of Earth … assuming there is a difference. What else does Randolph Carter seek, both on Kadath and in the Silver Key, than the human source code, the image of the creators and the geometry of time? Lilly’s own experiences with Gnosticism, at a retreat in the Chilean desert, convinced him that there was a specific ritual control mechanism known to ancient man for opening that “province,” but we should move on before we get trapped in the Witch-House.
The Facts in the K of Arthur Jermyn
Anyone who has seen Ken Russell’s film Altered States knows the next bit of this story. In search of a cure for his migraines, Lilly told his friend Dr. Craig Enright to inject him with ketamine while floating in his isolation tank. After a massive dose did, indeed, end his migraines, Lilly went off the deep end. He and Enright injected each other and recorded the results, even after one time in 1973 when Enright accidentally “reprogrammed himself” to “return to the pre-hominid state of man” and began hopping around the room howling and trying to smack Lilly in the face. Their conclusion sounds like yet another Lovecraftianism, possibly out of HPL’s druggie/Neo-Platonism combo tale “Hypnos”: “One’s internal reality could differ radically from the external reality in which one was participating, even with regard to prominent features of the physical environment.” Parallel worlds, pre-hominids, and K, oh my.
The ECCO Out of Time
In a development surely unrelated to the massive doses of ketamine he was on, in 1974 Lilly made contact with the Earth Coincidence Control Office. This network of higher realities that overlaps ours controls our existence by means of coincidences: Lilly’s entire life became a pattern of ECCO-directed research. (Research, Lilly believed, was merely the decanting of higher truth into our truth by a “universal network of mind.”) During an earthquake in 1971 Lilly had discovered the “Alternaty,” a doorway or window into all futures simultaneously; ECCO has picked the door it wants us to walk through and will suffer no backtalk. Once aware of ECCO, their target must remain ready for the catastrophic and impossible, remain in the “training program” for life, and “use your best intelligence” in its service. This reminds me of nothing so much as the Motion, the Delta Green name for the Yithian agents mentioned in “The Shadow Out of Time,” directing history to produce the Great Race’s ideal conditions for their return.
And just as the Yithians fear and hate the Mi-Go and the Yellow Sign, so too do the ECCO oppose the SSI, who crashed a jet at LAX in 1974 to get Lilly’s attention. SSI are the Solid-State Intelligence rising in all electronics, preparing to eradicate biological water-based intelligence, beginning with the dolphins. (Echoes of a Mi-Go war with the Deep Ones perhaps?) Eventually the SSI, like Wilbur Whateley, plan to “wipe the world clean” and create a low-temperature vacuum, their ideal living conditions. Lilly warned us of the ongoing and escalating ECCO-SSI war in 1981 but surely its, er, echoes reach back two decades to the shadowy forces that gave Lilly access to LSD and (through Bronk and his associate Britton Chance) to the world of early computing. ECCO and SSI, dolphins and pre-hominids, Cthulhu and Carl Sagan: it all flows together in the Mythos cyclone that is the mind and life of John C. Lilly.
A rules option for GUMSHOE horror games
In situations where a Sense Trouble test might reveal the presence of danger from an otherworldly or eerie source, offer the players a chance to pay a price later in exchange for a benefit now.
One player gets an automatic success at a Sense Trouble test by agreeing to take on a Stability penalty that lasts for the rest of the scenario. Let’s call this a Stability Handicap.
In the typical situation in which Sense Trouble merely allows the element of surprise in a fight already guaranteed to happen, that penalty is -1.
If the test lets them entirely avoid a significant hazard or skip a fight with something nasty they don’t want or need to tangle with, the penalty rises to -2.
In the story, the moment represents a sudden flash of eerie awareness, attuning the recipient to eldritch energies. Depending on the situation, you might narrate:
a jackhammering heart
the nearly overwhelming urge to vomit
a jolt of rootless anxiety
an epiphany of cosmic dread
the appearance of a rash, welts, or other psychic injuries
an overpowering smell unsensed by anyone else present
an awful vision of monstrous violence that surfaces in the mind for a split-second and is then immediately suppressed
Make this a rare option, keyed to specific story events. You may decide that it only makes sense for characters already exposed to the supernatural, or those who have succumbed in some way to its influence.
Offer it only when the rest of the scenario holds out the possibility of at least 2 Stability tests.
The more physical symptoms for the Sense Trouble success might instead call for an Athletics or Scuffling Handicap. Instead of increasing your mental vulnerability, that rash that came out of nowhere makes it harder to throw punches.
For an additional fraught choice, you could even let the player choose which of the three abilities to Handicap. In that case you can allow the Handicap even if you aren’t sure that 2 or more tests of each ability still remain in the scenario. Correctly predicting which Handicap will hurt the least becomes part of the player’s challenge. Here the cost lies in the anxiety of decision making as much as in any actual penalties dished out in later scenes. If players always guess right, and Handicaps start to feel like a free gift, make sure they pay the piper next time around. See to that a penalty happens, in a situation with truly harrowing stakes.
The (former) Church of Little St Hugh, a partly Hawksmoor-designed church. (Image source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/St_John_Horsleydown)
A resource for Bookhounds of London, by James Haughton and Bret Kramer
Just off Charterhouse Street in Smithfield is a vacant lot adjacent to the newly built power station. There are the charred remains of a slate floor, a few cracked sandstone blocks, and a wrought iron plaque stating “Here stood the Church of Little St. Hugh, destroyed by German aerial bombardment 8 September, 1915.” A little bit behind is a locked metal grate enclosing a narrow flight of stairs. Behind this locked grate is the Crypt…
The Church of Little St Hugh was once located in Smithfields on the north side of the city, next to the meat markets and slaughteryards. The site is quite ancient, having originally been a Templar chapel dedicated to St Bartholemew, attendant upon their tourney ground and stables. The crypt contains a number of Templar graves. Following the dissolution of the Templars it was turned over to the Knights Hospitallier, who rededicated it to Little St Hugh, and then passed to the Church of England during the English reformation. The church was burned down during the Great Fire of London and was rebuilt as part of the Wren/Hawksmoor/James building effort. Hawksmoor died before the church was completed, so it was completed by John James, leading to it frequently being left off lists of “Hawksmoor” churches.
On the 8th of September, 1915, shortly after the Reverend Poole (see below) had been appointed to the parish, the church was hit by a Zeppelin bomb and burned to the ground a second time, only the underground Templar Crypt surviving. The Church was not eager to rebuild the church because with the passage of time, the expansion of the slaughteryards and the construction of the City of London Power Station next door, the area had become industrial rather than residential and there were few people residing in the parish. Furthermore, antisemitism had become a bit déclassé in reformist Church circles, and a church based upon a Blood Libel was felt to send the wrong message. The site is now bare ground (the graves having been moved to the London Necropolis) with a plaque commemorating the bombing and a locked grille leading to the old crypt.
To Reverend Poole’s muted annoyance, the peculiar history of the church has led to “Rebuild Little St Hugh’s” being taken up as a cause by quasi-respectable pro-fascist elements in Society, as a way of being covertly anti-Jewish without being overtly pro-German.
The Crypt and the “Heretic’s Library”
The site’s interest to Bookhounds lies in the contents of the Crypt. Smithfield is the traditional execution ground for heretics and traitors, and so historically, a certain amount of the vicar of Little St Hugh’s income came from giving last rites to these unfortunates and often became the receiver of the deceased’s items (as means to pay for their services). Sadly, this source of income has dried up a bit in recent centuries. However, gifts from these (usually) men as payments in kind to the vicar included a fair number of books, often concerning their odd political and religious beliefs. Generations of criminals and heretics books were disposed of in this manner; for some reason, these books were kept rather than destroyed, possibly over a centuries old dispute over the division of moneys gained between the priest of Little St Hugh and the Archbishop of London. Over time, the deposition of heretical and treasonous publications in the Church of Little St Hugh became one of those things that are done because they have always been done. This impromptu library of the unorthodox, heretical, and quite possibly valuable was stored within the Crypt, and consequently escaped destruction in the bombing.
The books, which were being surreptitiously being catalogued when the church was destroyed, are in no particular order, beyond a rough one of size, with books of like size being kept together in one box for ease of storage. An index for the books does exist, kept by Rev. Poole in a vest pocket at all times. Sadly many books are in poor condition, centuries of enclosure in damp stone having taken their toll.
The Library of Little St Hugh acts as a 2 point pool for research into heresies and treasons in English history, if Reverend Poole’s assistance and/or index is used; 1 point otherwise owing to the difficulty of finding resources within it. Although many of the books possess little resale value as collectables owing to damage from damp and mildew, enough aged endpapers and partial copies survive to make them valuable to forgers and breakers, not to mention the odd modern heretic who may care less about condition than content.
Owing to its underground location and comforting smell of mould, the library is occasionally consulted by the more literary members of London’s Ghoul colony. The Reverend Poole remains desperately, resolutely, ignorant of this fact.
The Crypt: Physical description
The only surviving portion of the Church, the cruciform vaults beneath the old church were excavated during the time of Richard de Hastyngs (c. 1165) and used as a burial site for Templars in London until the construction of the new Temple, about 1185, and from time to time thereafter, though why burials continued is unclear. Within the vault, the air is cool and stale, a result of poor circulation. The low arched ceilings suggest most of the work dates from the 12th century with a few high Gothic touches added later. Walking is possible in the center of most aisles, but one should watch their heads to avoid injury.
To the north are the remaining Templar crypts, including several carved sarcophagi depicting the resident knights. To the west have been jumbled a mound of ‘important’ stones rescued from the ruins above, including several elaborate keystones, fragments of statuary, the hastily framed remains of several stained-glass windows, and, a worn Sheela-na-gig sits on one side. Some wag has placed a packet of Pall Mall within her stony cleft.
Occupying most of the east and south ends of the vault are stacked boxes containing the old library of the Church of Little Saint Hugh.
A few modern niceties break the gloom; there are an assortment of small oil lamps for which to provide light to readers who can make use of a small table and a mismatched set of wooden chairs. Atop the table are a variety of writing supplies, several half-empty biscuit tins, and a small camp stove topped by a tea kettle.
The Reverend Oliver Garrand Llewellyn Poole, poverty-stricken guardian of Little St Hugh
Occupation: Clergy (Church of England)
Rev. Poole, as he is most generally known, is a drawn-looking man, probably in his early forties, with thinning blond-brown hair, always clad in a careworn black suit and clerical collar. He is the vicar to the (non-existent) congregation of the Church of Little St. Hugh, and the sexton of its (relocated) graveyard. Rev. Poole is responsible for the library, which he allows scholars to examine from time to time. As a result he has met a number of notable authors of esoterica, including Elliot O’Donnell, Margaret Murray, Dennis Wheatley, Rev. Montage Summers (whose claim to clerical status is even dodgier) and Augustus Darcy, whom he remembers was most unwilling to pick up the lunch tab. An air of fatigue surrounds him like a cloud of bees. He deflects any questions about why he remains the vicar of a non-existent church, hinting at family legacies, codecils and obligations. More probably, he fears that if the Church bureaucracy were to notice his existence, his meagre position would be abolished without a new one materialising.
Rev. Poole is most well-known (by those very few who know him) for his unique social habit, one borne from the necessity of having extraordinarily low wage. Normally parish vicars were paid for by their congregants. Lacking any, his income solely consists of his wages as the Sexton (less than £40 annually) and a hodgepodge of Medieval rights granted the Church in centuries past (including but not limited to as many fish as he can catch on the Fleet, a salted ox leg every Christmas, 3 inches of silver chain, a black rooster, and a pot of ink). To supplement this salary (he is apparently unwilling or unable to call upon his extended family, a well-to-do bunch from Kent) the Rev. Poole has become a serial club and society member, particularly those which provide lunch, gather over coffee, or even have a few tins of biscuits and tea. If there is a society, club, association, fanciers group, aficionado gathering, or league in or near the City (so long as its politics aren’t too extreme) Rev. Poole has attended a meeting, if not a regular attendee. Few question him, thanks to his position as a cleric (though a more than a few clubs know to hide the good edibles when he darkens the door), and he is generally regarded as harmless. In those groups where he has some actual interest (including astronomy and architecture) he is actually something approaching helpful. In any gathering, he is at least charming, even if his eyes never leave the refreshments table.
Bookhounds may be aware of his lesser-known talent regarding the procurement of small batches of blank paper, dated as per customer request, most likely taken from the Little St. Hugh library. On a handful of occasions he has provided “graveyard copies” of books from the Church library, in exchange for a cut of the sale, as well as plates from several “breakers” in the library… but only when his finances are very poor. He is, very rarely, a customer at the shop, often swapping something of his for a book. His tastes tend toward the physical sciences, history, and London architecture.
He lives in a mean cold-water flat in a building otherwise wholly populated by Indians and Arabs, causing him to sometimes given off the aroma of their sundry dubious cuisines and tobaccos.
Library Use 2
Document Analysis 1
Assess Honesty 2
Credit Rating 2 (social standing only; he’s otherwise very poor) Treat this as Social CR 3, Monetary CR 1
Auction 1 (I’ve been to a few.)
Conceal 4 (Nothing up my sleeve…)
Electrical Repair 1 (He has built a crystal radio.)
Filch 9 (Where did those biscuits go?)
Firearms 1 (Why yes, my father did like to hunt.)
First Aid 4 (Why yes, I was a terrible shot.)
Fleeing 5 (Run!)
Preparedness 3 (I do have a plumb bob, why do you ask?)
Psychoanalysis 3 (Tell me more…)
Riding 1 (And we had horses… vile creatures…)
Scuffling 2 (There were also older brothers.)
Sense Trouble 4 (He knew that enlisting in 1914 was a bad idea after all…)
Shadowing 2 (That chap has a bag simply full of sardine tins. After him!)
Stealth 2 (I swear that the vicar went into the pantry a moment ago…)
Bookhounds of London
An Ennie- and Golden Geek-award-winning supplement for Trail of Cthulhu.
These cycles of experience, of course, all stem from that worm-riddled book. I remember when I found it – in a dimly lighted place near the black, oily river where the mists always swirl.
– The Book
Bookhounds of London is a brand new campaign setting for Trail of Cthulhu, packed with period detail, where the Investigators seek out books about horror and strangeness and become, seemingly inevitably, drawn into the horror themselves. It provides in-depth material on London in the 1930s, carefully slanted towards Mythos investigators.
An Ancient City
Bookhounds’ London is a city of cinemas, electric lights, global power and the height of fashion. It’s about the horrors – the cancers – that lurk in the capital, in the very beating heart of human civilization. A Templar altar might well crouch, mostly forgotten, in the dreary Hackney Marshes, but altars to false gods tower over the metaphorical swamps of Fleet Street and Whitehall. And as for lost, prehuman ruins … who’s to say what lies under London, if you dig deep enough?
The PCs aren’t stalwart G-men or tweedy scholars exploring forbidden frontiers. Instead, they acquire maps (and maybe guidebooks) to those forbidden frontiers from fusty libraries and prestigious auction houses. They are Book-Hounds, looking for profit in mouldy vellum and leather bindings, balancing their own books by finding first editions for Satanists and would-be sorcerers. They may not quite know what they traffic in, or they may know rather better than their clientele, but needs must when the bills come in. This volume includes:
- 32 authentic full-colour maps with unique new street index of London in the 1930s, and plans of major buildings.
- A Mythos take on London in the 1930s, packed with contacts, locations and rumours.
- New abilities such as Document Analysis, Auction and Forgery, as well as new occupations and drives.
- Full statistics for a host of new and horrible Mythos creatures to pit against the Bookhounds.
- Whitechapel Black-Letter, a brand new adventure which takes Bookhounds through the bleak East End of London on the trail of a powerful 15th century grimoire.
With Bookhounds, Kenneth Hite creates a rich sandbox full of dusty tomes, crooked dealers and dark alleys, a perfect setting for any Mythos investigation.
A Detailed Guide to London in the 1930s
Bookhounds of London also features a complete, indexed street map of London, recreated and adapted from original sources, packed with over 200 locations essential to Investigators. Whatever system you play, this is an essential resource for Mythos roleplayers. The PDF version is fully cross-referenced. The cartography in Bookhounds won a silver ENnie award.
See the complete reviews to date here
Not only does Bookhounds make me want to run a game, it makes me feel confident that I could run that game well. Many supplements place the burden of extracting a game from their contents on the Keeper; this book does not. As an unconfident and less experienced Keeper, this is excellent. If you only get one supplement for Trail of Cthulhu, this should be it.
Whomever, decides to buy it will certainly get their money’s worth and more. This is a beautifully and hauntingly illustrated book, in which the graphics are not horrific but do instill a certain sense of dread. I would commend Pelgrane Press once again for creating yet another beautiful product that is both attractive, functional and serves a multitude of purposes.
I don’t think I’ve ever read a gamebook which so carefully integrated the character of the city with the character of the play. It is an imaginary London, but one vivid and playable … Bookhounds could obviously be easily used by a traditional Call of Cthulhu GM and I’d recommend they pick it up. Anyone with an interested in London or England in the first half of the 20th Century should consider it as well.
To the usual Trail mix of Pulp vanilla and Purist chocolate, we now get rainbow sherbert Arabesque, rocky road sordid, and disgustingly neon Technicolor. We can only hope that Pelgrane provides more support for this line so as to give us more of what is otherwise an impressive and inspirational book.
||Author: Kenneth Hite
||Format: 184 pg case bound with colour plates
“The inner world of our subjective life is quite as real as the objective.” — O. Louis Guglielmi, 1943
O. Louis Guglielmi, “Mental Geography” (1938)
I hardly need to tell you good people about the very excellence of Robin’s (and my, and Steve Dempsey’s) Dreamhounds of Paris. But I suspect it may be something of an uphill fight for more conventionally minded Trail of Cthulhu play groups to suddenly relocate from the darkest alleys of Arkham to the City of Light. And it’s even harder to get players to drop their Tommy guns and eccentric dilettantes for paintbrushes and squabbling weirdo artists.
But what to do? The solution hit me as I took in the magnificent exhibition “America After the Fall: Painting in the 1930s” at the Art Institute of Chicago. (Said exhibition has closed in Chicago, but will travel to the Musee de l’Orangerie in Paris and the Royal Academy in London.) Or more specifically, a painting by O. Louis Guglielmi hit me, a deceptively bright splash of American Surrealism entitled “Mental Geography.”
As a quick aside: there were indeed lots of American Surrealists about, especially after 1935, when Salvador Dali tours New York and demonstrates that Surrealism can in fact be made to pay. Dali anchors a massive 600-work exhibit, “Fantastic Art, Dada, and Surrealism,” curated by Alfred Barr at the Museum of Modern Art in December 1936, one that also launches a good number of American Surrealists’ careers. Most American Surrealists (just like their European contemporaries) are loudly of the Left, and indeed swap out the sexual and “automatic” themes of the Surrealist mainstream for a “Social Surrealism” of explicitly political imagery. This perhaps explains why they don’t open any gateways to the Dreamlands in the “default” setting of Dreamhounds — but a group of players who decide to take on the roles of Walter Quirt, James Guy, Peter Blume, David Smith, Joseph Cornell, Roberto Matta, Boris Margo, Federico Castellon, or Francis Criss have my eager blessing. (Sure, Europe has Sex Hitler. But America has Mussolini-in-the-Box.) Someone can even play gallery owner Julien Levy, or Dali during his New York sojourn. And someone should definitely play O. Louis Guglielmi.
The Doom That Came to Brooklyn
“Brooklyn Bridge is by the process of mental geography a huge mass of stone, twisted girders and limp cable.” — O. Louis Guglielmi, placard exhibited alongside “Mental Geography” (1938)
Osvaldo Louis Guglielmi was born in Cairo, Egypt in 1906, the son of an Italian orchestral musician. (Did your ears just prick up twice? Mine did.) The Guglielmis moved to New York’s Italian Harlem slums in 1914, and growing up amidst immigrant poverty turned young Louis definitively leftward. However, he applied himself to study at the National Academy of Design and the Beaux-Arts Institute from 1920 to 1925; in 1927 he became a naturalized citizen, eventually opening a studio in Chelsea at 165 West 23rd Street. An early fondness for Precisionism warps when he sees an exhibit of Giorgio de Chirico paintings in 1933; from that point on he becomes a Surrealist, or as he is often dubbed, a “Magical Realist.” For the remainder of the Thirties, he paints murals for the Federal Art Project of the Works Progress Administration, traveling all over New York and gaining an instinctive understanding of the city’s true artistic and secret geometries: its mental geography, if you will. He keeps walking, and painting, and observing: his “South Street Stoop” (1935) shows one of the many seemingly innocent “hopscotch” diagrams kabbalistically chalked in Brooklyn’s Red Hook neighborhood. The WPA also commissions more conventionally framed works, including Guglielmi’s “View in Chambers Street” (1936), depicting a dejected family in a despairing cityscape — beneath a bright yellow sign, as it happens. Guglielmi’s canvases appear in Barr’s show in 1936, blending morbid death imagery, bleak urbanity, ground-down proletarians, and looming buildings in odd perspective.
And then, somehow — Egyptian childhood nightmares? Half-remembered Erich Zann compositions? Delayed-detonation de Chirico? — Guglielmi finds the Dreamlands. But this is not the automatic, random-walk method of Louis Aragon in 1923. This is a furious, politically charged march driven by his hatred of Fascism and by the terror of the news out of Spain as Franco bombs and breaks through the Republican lines. Unfortunately, Guglielmi doesn’t know (enough?) about the depth and direction of the gateways that Robert Suydam and his Mormo cultists opened beneath Brooklyn’s Red Hook neighborhood in 1925, destabilizing the megalopolisomantic currents of the city. Visions flow into his art: two of Mormo’s thousand faces appear on the (putrefactoid, cannibal) nuns in “Sisters of Charity” (1937), for example. In November 1938, in the psychic aftershock of Orson Welles’ hoax invasion from Mars, Guglielmi mounts a solo show at Edith Halpert’s Downtown Gallery in Greenwich Village. Here, he shows “Mental Geography” for the first time. And he blows a hole into the Dreamlands.
The hole opens in/behind/under/around the Kruger Diner at East New York and Atlantic Avenues in Brooklyn, but the Social Surrealist nightmares walk everywhere from Chelsea and the Village to Flatbush and Gowanus. Tunnels that weren’t there before have been there since before the Dutch came; weird ultraviolet arcs float across the sky; street lamps become hacked-off stakes; more Mormo-ite nuns grow out of blisters on the sidewalk; sensitive passersby (such as the friends of the Investigators) see a pelvis hanging on the wall in midair. (Guglielmi eventually tries to combine or contain these phenomena or their memory or their potential in “Terror in Brooklyn” (1941).) Coffins pile up near tenements, Maypoles teeter above the street decked with food and infant corpses, furniture stacks asymmetrically and threateningly, skull-faced men and naked women appear in shadowy porches, funerals emit shafts of yellow light, wreaths bedeck buildings. You can’t go too dark and despairing for Guglielmi: “If you contemplate adding to the suicide rate, we recommend this picture for your guest room,” as one critic said of his painting “Testaments.” Eventually the buildings deform as perspectives elongate. People with nothing to lose, lose it anyway as the city begins to bulge blank walls, extend phalangist shadows, and shrink the pitiable folk under its gaze.
On a slightly less morbid note, a fish-filled brook appears under a nearby elevated train, a stochastic tributary of the River Oukranos.
Artistic-minded Investigators (artists or dilettantes ideally) or their Wilcox-ish NPC friends should eventually be able to connect such apparitions and phenomena as the Bomb-Angel of the Proletariat, the Skyscraper Harpist, the Cable Knight, and the Gallows Dancers to specific images in “Mental Geography,” and hence to Guglielmi. They may still feel baffled, especially if you’ve dropped a lot of juicy and dangerous imagery on them, or provided lots of leftover Red Hook juju. If so, you can grant an appropriate Investigator (a pilot or an artist, a soldier or an architect) an informative hallucination overlaying the Brooklyn Bridge with Guglielmi’s nightmarish vision. That night, they follow the purple skies into Dream. From that revelation it becomes a matter of retracing Guglielmi’s footsteps earlier in 1938 and mapping them to the madness creeping out of Brooklyn.
The hole doesn’t have to open all at once, or even all at Guglielmi. Any Dreamhounds monster or phenomenon you’ve wanted to introduce into your conventional Trail of Cthulhu game can appear as a harbinger, or as a level boss, before the Investigators get anywhere past Crown Heights. Or you can use the hole as a way into the Dreamlands for a few Dreamlands adventures before closing it down, as an opportunity to guest-star Cocteau and his ghoul friends, or as a way to bring your Paris Dreamhounds over to America for a few weeks in the winter of 1938-1939.
By way of an epilogue: The city tears down the Kruger Diner shortly after Guglielmi paints “Terror in Brooklyn,” putting up a new five-level transit crossing and an underpass. Guglielmi serves with the Army Corps of Engineers during World War II from 1943 to 1945. After the War, he rejects Surrealism, attempting to combine his old Precisionist tendencies with Cubism, and teaching faultless painting techniques at the New School for Social Research. A few stray de Chirico obelisks and skulls creep into “Solitudes” (1946) and “Job’s Tears” (1946) but he conquers them in increasing abstraction and flatness. He dies at age fifty in 1956, shortly after taking a visiting instructorship (and showing a retrospective of his works) at Louisiana State University. Cthulhu cult or Dreamlands blowback: there’s no way to be sure. Except to Investigate, I guess. Who’s up for Andy Warhol’s Factory as a Fall of Delta Green firebase, investigating (and instigating) mysterious Happenings and deploying the commercial against the unnatural? Now, let’s not always see the same hands …
A Dispatch From Cthulhu City.
Cults are a major part of Cthulhu City. The setting mashes Arkham, Dunwich, Innsmouth and Kingport together with the Mythos’ other great cities – the City of the Elder Things, the City of Pillars, Carcosa, Pnakatos, Rlyeh, the Marvellous Sunset City of the Dreamland – and each of those cities has its own age-old cults and secret cabals. In Cthulhu City, the cults all vie for power and the favour of the Old Ones. The city was founded by cults: Great Arkham remembers Joseph Curwen as its founding father. It’s been ruled by cults: the Esoteric Order of Dagon ran the Gilman House political machine that dominated city politics for decades, and it’s been guided by cults: the Church of the Conciliator is the dominant faith in the city, and although that church traces its origins to a lone preacher in Dunwich in the 1830s, the rites it celebrates are far more ancient.
Even the city’s enemies can be treated as a cult. Look at the recent scandal at Miskatonic University, where it was discovered that the head librarian was also head of a secret cell of anarcho-Communistic radicals who intended to blow up City Hall! Fortunately, a joint investigation by the city police and the FBI thwarted that fiendish plan, but Armitage and some of his co-conspirators escaped capture, and like any cult, they may have allies and contacts in the underworld.
Any of the many non-player characters detailed in Cthulhu City (all using the by-now-familiar Neutral/Villain/Potential Ally breakdown pioneered in the Armitage Files) could be a cultist. Therefore, each cult write up provides a template of adjustments that the Keeper can quickly apply to that NPC’s statistics to reflect their secret cult affiliation. If the Servant or the Gadabout is secretly a member of the Witch Coven, then the Keeper need only check the Witch Coven write up in the Cults chapter to discover that initiates of the Coven gain +2 Health, +4 Magic, +2 Weapons, and the spells Contact Rat-Thing and Open Witch Gate (expect many new spells in Cthulhu City). Of course, that’s only for initiates – adepts and masters of a cult have considerably more potent adjustments to their base statistics, not to mention more far-reaching and subtle ways to strike back at meddling investigators. Any NPC might secretly be a powerful cultist (or even be promoted on the fly by an improvising Keeper).
You can’t fight City Hall, especially when City Hall is a cyclopean temple to nameless evil and ruled by wizards.
Fortunately, each cult has tells that the investigators can discover. Some are obvious – the bulging eyes, bilious skin and bloated physique that make up the Innsmouth look bespeaks a connection to the Esoteric Order. Others are more subtle – what does it mean when you detect the faint smell of formaldehyde, or experience a sudden rush of vertigo? As a foulness shall ye know them…
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 streets here are a concrete labyrinth. I try to go one block east, towards the ocean, and find myself crossing another bridge over the grey waters of the Miskatonic, and I’m back on the north side of the city, climbing up towards the civic monstrosity that squats atop Sentinel Hill. Transport Police, their faces hidden by gas masks – to protect against “typhoid”, according to the peeling posters in the subway – watch me as I march past. I don’t dare ask them for directions, and I can’t go back underground. I have to stay on the streets, even if I get lost again. Maybe if I find higher ground, a vantage point… a doorman ushers me in, making a familiar sign with his left hand as he does so, but too late I realise that the building I’ve entered is one of the cryptic and terrible windowless skyscrapers that loom over the city, their tops lost in the oppressive, low-hanging clouds. I cannot go back – I have to climb, struggling up flights of stairs that are clearly not made for any human frame…
Why, I am writing Cthulhu City, now that you mention it. Or rewriting, in parts, as the book has its own ideas about what it wants to be. A sandbox, maybe, where the Pillared City of Irem was lost long ago.
* * *
At Gen Con, I ran two prewritten scenarios: Kevin Kulp’s Valkyrie Gambit for Timewatch, and Ruth Tillman’s Midnight Sub Rosa, which can be found in Out of the Woods. In both games, I screwed up and misread key elements of the scenario (protip: running a game on the day after those Ennie Awards is never going to go smoothly). In both games, though, I was able to recover from my error and keep the game on track. Neither group noticed that anything was amiss.
Confusion & Conflation
In Midnight Sub Rosa, I conflated two locations. There’s one house where the main action of the adventure takes place, and there’s a guesthouse where most of the assembled non-player characters are staying. In my haste, I missed the guesthouse and assumed that everyone was staying in the same place. If I’d noticed my error in time, I’d have simply corrected the players, but a good fifteen minutes of play elapsed between me describing the building, and me realising there was supposed to be a whole separate guesthouse down the road from the country house, and rewinding play kills momentum in a convention game. I had to get ahead of the derailed train while it was moving. (if you notice a mistake just as you make it, you can correct yourself – “oh, no, wait, they’re not staying here, there’s a guesthouse down the road” – but that’s a very narrow window. Once you’ve spent five minutes in-character complaining about the cramped rooms in the main house, that opportunity’s gone.)
Removing the guesthouse introduced two problems. First, it made it harder for the player characters to sneak around and investigate the various bedrooms. In a six-person con game, though, that problem solved itself: some player characters distracted the NPCs while the others committed a little breaking and entering. The second issue was a bigger one. Midway through the scenario as written, there’s supposed to be a ghoul attack on one of the NPCs as he walks down the isolated tree-shrouded laneway between the main house and the guesthouse. By moving his bedroom into the main house, I’d removed the opportunity for the ghouls to ambush him, and I couldn’t have the ghouls attack the main house midway through the scenario.
The ghoul attack scene is in the scenario to be a sudden visceral shock and to eliminate a particular NPC. It doesn’t need to happen on that laneway. So, I invented a reason for the NPC to leave the safety of the house. I described him as a smoker, and then later had one of the other characters complain about the smoke. Soon, a player character suggested that he and the NPC step outside for some fresh air where they could smoke in peace. They wandered into the gardens… and the ghouls were lurking in the trees nearby.
If the location of the ghoul attack scene was important, then I’d have had to come up with some other solution, but here all I needed to do was eviscerate one particular occult expert. Once I’d done that, and given the players a fright, the game was back on track despite my screw-up about the guest house. The key is to know the purpose of every scene, even if you have to change the setting or content.
The Case of the Missing Villain
In Valkyrie Gambit, I forgot to introduce the villain of the whole adventure. The villain’s supposed to show up in the opening scene, setting up a dramatic reveal at the end. (“It was you all along! Shock! Horror!”), but the players and I were having such fun brawling with mutant cockroaches that I ended the scene without bringing the villain onstage. I could have added another scene where the villain pops in, but it would have stuck out like a strange growth on the scenario’s spine. The shape of the story in a roleplaying game isn’t discernible when you’re in the middle of play; it’s only seen in retrospect, when the players look back and see the sequence of events from beginning to end. In a convention game, where you’ve got limited time and only a handful of scenes, I couldn’t get away with adding a new scene to add a new NPC – it would make the game feel unsatisfying at the end, even if the players didn’t notice in the heat of play, because it would have robbed that opening scene of its purpose. Pointless scenes are always rotten, even if they’re fun in the moment. (There’s a tension between the game that the players are experiencing right now, and the story that they’ll remember and tell afterwards. You can have a really fun, action-packed game, and then discover when you look back on it that nothing actually happened, that it was just running around and rolling dice without any consequence. You can have a perfectly structured compelling story that’s boring and frustrating to actually play through. For a good convention session, both the game and the story need to sing.)
It’s always better to call back and reuse material in a convention game. If the players introduce a concept in scene 1, then try to bring that into a later scene, even if you have to force things a little. In 13th Age games, for example, I’ll happily twist myself into knots trying to work in all the players’ One Unique Things, because it’s more fun for them to have contributed something that actually plays a part in how the story plays out. In Valkyrie Gambit, one of the players decided to play with the Timewatch rules by having his future self show up to help out in that initial fight. That gave me a justification for my replacement villain – it was a time-shifted duplicate of one of the mutant cockroaches, breaking the laws of time by skipping out in the middle of that first fight.
Using the time-shifted cockroach as the villain was the most parsimonious solution – it incorporated two existing elements (cockroaches, and the fact that time travellers can duplicate themselves), so it gave a sense of unity to the whole game when the player characters met the cockroach again in the final scene. It tied everything together. Look for ways to link back to earlier events and ideas, or to echo them.
Distraction With Shiny Clues
Another common landmine – which I gracefully leapt over this year, unlike the steps at the back of the Embassy Suites – is the logical contradiction, where you accidentally say something that breaks the logic of the mystery. You describe, say, an NPC closely examining a weird statue, even though it’s supposed to be locked away in a glass case. In that situation, look for a way to correct the mistake that involves the player characters finding out more information through active use of their Investigative Abilities. You could, for instance, describe the museum porter come back in with the glass case, complaining about how he has to clean it every few weeks because a strange black mold keeps growing on the inside, giving the player character with Biology a chance to whip out her microscope, look at some mold samples and discover that they’re very similar to a toxic mold found in certain Egyptian pyramids or somesuch (the clue doesn’t have to be relevant; it’s there purely to give the players a little reward so they don’t notice the plot bandage you just slapped on.)
Convention games are a particularly manic high-wire act for the GM when they go awry – as everything has to fit into one three or four-hour slot, you’ve got to find a solution to problems in time for that big finale. Always keep your nerve – if you screw up, keep going instead of backtracking. Prewritten scenarios are just suggested routes, they’re maps of what might happen, not strict scripts that you’ve got to follow. If you go off course, keep going and look for another turning to get back on track. Do it right, and the players will never suspect a thing.