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.

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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

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

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“Professor Webb had been engaged, forty-eight years before, in a tour of Greenland and Iceland in search of some Runic inscriptions which he failed to unearth …”

— H.P. Lovecraft, “The Call of Cthulhu”

Instead of “Runic inscriptions,” in 1860 Professor Webb finds Cthulhu in West Greenland, on a rocky ledge in the cold. But by the 1930s the trail of runes runs hot … as does the Trail of Cthulhu. The SS teaches its officers rune science, while its Ahnenerbe office (ToC, p. 160) gathers runic material from all over Europe and the North. Ahnenerbe directors Hermann Wirth and Wolfram Sievers investigate (and vandalize) runes and petroglyphs at Bohuslän in Sweden in August 1936 to kick off an expedition into the wilds of Scandinavia.

This runestone in Uppsala probably doesn’t depict a winding nest of tentacles

If the Investigators follow the trail of the runes to Sweden themselves, they quite likely encounter Sigurd Agrell (1881-1937). And if they don’t, they surely encounter a runologist who warns them that Sigurd Agrell is a dangerous crank with unsound theories. In the Thirties, he’s a rabbity-looking, bespectacled man with a domed forehead and a truly luxurious black beard. Agrell spent his twenties between Paris and Uppsala University, a member of the decadent Symbolist poetic group Les quatre diables. But he seemingly put such things behind him, getting his doctorate in Slavic philology at Lund University in 1909, translating Russian literature, and going on to become full professor of Slavic Languages at Lund in 1921.

Then something happened in 1925, possibly connected with an earthquake in the Pacific and a wave of dreams around the world. Agrell suddenly became obsessed with the runes, the script of various Germanic languages invented (according to orthodox history) around 200 B.C. Agrell uses the name “Sigurobald” (and possibly uses opium) while studying the runes, and teases out a new theory: that they descend from Greek letters, and (more importantly) that they encode Mithraic wisdom. In 1931, he publishes his third runological text: Mystery Religions of Late Antiquity and Nordic Rune Magic, in which he reveals his discovery: the order of the runes was deliberately hidden.

Agrell argues that the standard ‘Elder Futhark’ order of runes (named for the first six runes: F, U, Th, A, R, K) conceals the true first rune: Ur, the rune of the aurochs, signifying the First Cow Audhumbla who licked the giant Ymir out of ice and also the Primal Bull of the Mithraic Mysteries often represented by Taurus. Hence the true runic alphabet is the Uthark, and the F rune (Feh, representing wealth) is not the first but actually the twenty-fourth. This, for example, explains the mystifying Norse good-luck runic inscription ALU; under the new numbering, its values add to 24, the number of all the runes and (now) of wealth.

Runing With the Devil, or, Too Many Olauses

“I had read only the least fragment of that blasphemous rune before closing the book and bringing it away.”

— H.P. Lovecraft, “The Book”

Is Agrell merely a classic academic crank, a specialist hubristically tempted to theorize outside his expertise? Or is he the secret (unconscious? dreaming?) heir to Sweden’s long tradition of esoteric rune lore? Study of the runes begins with the Swedish historian, cartographer, and cryptozoologist Olaus Magnus (1490-1557) exiled to Poland (and eventually to Rome) in 1530 for his religion (and probably not for his investigations of mermaids – or Deep Ones) along with his brother Johannes Magnus (1488-1544) the erstwhile archbishop of (Agrell’s city) Uppsala. Olaus posthumously publishes his brother’s the History of the Goths and Swedes, which uses runic inscriptions that Johannes dated to 2000 B.C.

Uppsala-born Johannes Bureus (1568-1652) began studying the runes in 1594, compiling a runography in 1599. He became a tutor to the future King Gustavus Adolphus in 1602, and perhaps his teaching explains the wide use of runes as battlefield codes (and spells?) by the Swedish Army in the Thirty Years’ War. He dedicated his masterwork, the “Gothic Cabbala” Adalruna rediviva, to one of that war’s generals, Count Jacob de la Gardie (1583-1652), reputed to be an alchemist himself. (Jacob’s son, Count Magnus de la Gardie, became the namesake of M.R. James’ revenant, although Jacob better fits the model of a hideous necromancer.) Bureus believed the runes encoded noble truths of a supersensible realm, and carried on a runic rivalry with his Danish counterpart the anatomist Olaus Wormius (1588-1654), the translator of the Necronomicon into Latin in 1628 (Lovecraft’s 1228 date is clearly an error). Wormius’ runic compilation Runir seu appeared the year before (and perhaps caused?) Bureus’ death.

Bureus’ successors as court antiquarian and royal archaeologist avoided mention of the runes’ esoteric side. In 1675, the Swedish antiquarian and archivist Olaus Verelius published Manductio ad runographiam, which warned of runic black magic and necromancy. Verelius attempted to locate the site of the immense pagan temple to Thor, Odin, and Freyr in Uppsala (burnt in the 11th century); he also identified Sweden as Hyperborea. Olaus Rudbeck (1630-1702), a Swedish anatomist and runologist like Wormius, identified Sweden as both Hyperborea and Hades in his Atlantica (4 vols, 1679-1702), which also attempted to prove by runes that Atlantis was in Sweden. Rudbeck’s library burned up in a 1702 fire that devastated Uppsala and destroyed his house; he died before finishing his fifth volume.

A thin thread of esoteric runology survived Rudbeck’s fire: Erik Julius Björner (1696-1750) believed in primeval nature of runes, and the esoteric cabbalist Johan Göransson (1712-1769) also catalogued all known Swedish runic inscriptions in Bautil (1750). The Romantic nationalist impulse revived esoteric runology; the artistic Gothic League (1811-1844) rhapsodized about runes and their quasi-Masonic counterparts the Manhem League (1815-1823) created runic initiatory degrees (prefiguring Agrell’s Mithraic rune mysteries) and studied Old Norse sagas and fairy tales. Around that time (1812), one of the seven known manuscripts of Bureus’ Adulruna rediviva disappeared from the National Library of Sweden. In 1932, the Stockholm construction magnate (and Olympic gymnast) Carl-Ehrenfried Carlberg revives the Manhem League as a fascist occult physical-culture movement with runic ritual elements.

Rune Messiah, or, Going Cabbalistic

“The writing was in red, and varied from Arabic to Greek, Roman, and Hebrew letters. Malone could not read much of it, but what he did decipher was portentous and cabbalistic enough.”

— H.P. Lovecraft, “The Horror at Red Hook”

So we have at least two creepy Nazi rune societies, an opium-soaked crank, a missing magic book, a burned library, and a possible line of occult descent from the Renaissance to the Thirties. What more could you want? Well, if you’re anything like William Hamblin, author of the excellent old-school Call of Cthulhu adventure “The City Without a Name,” you want arbitrary cabbalistic calculations aplenty! It should go without saying that you’re free to shift up the orthography and the math to suit your own campaign or your own list of ominous numbers.

With that said:

Agrell’s Uthark system not only re-numbers the runes but also interprets them as stages in a cosmic ritual cycle. Agrell’s Uthark nicely limns not just Mithra and Odin but another, older god.

The fifth rune, Kaun (K) means “ulcer” or “boil” although it’s usually interpreted as “torch” – meaning inspiration?

The second rune, Thurs (Th) means “giant,” and I note that combining ‘Thurs’ with the next rune As (meaning “god”) yields a partial anagram for [h]asthur.

We’ve covered the first rune, Ur (U), but Agrell also interprets it to mean “water” as in “primordial ice” or “primal chaos.”

The twentieth rune Logr (L) means “waterfall, lake” but Agrell also associates it with the sea gods Aegir and Ran.

The eighth rune Hagal (H) means “hail,” but also, to Agrell, “crystal” – as in a divinatory crystal? Or a Trapezohedron, perhaps?

K + Th + U + L + H + U = 5+2+1+20+8+1 = 37

I don’t have anything particularly special to say about 37, except that multiplied by 18 (aeons? runes of the Hyperborean Futhark?) it becomes 666.

In Johannes Bureus’ Adulrunic cabbala, Great Cthulhu signifies thusly:

Kyn (10) + Tors (5) + Vr (3) + Lagher (700) + Haghall (30) + Vr (3) = 751

Hebrew Gematria

Let’s back up a bit, to the godfather of all cabbalism, the Hebrew mystical practice known as gematria. Gematria goes back at least to the Assyrians, which implies the Hebrews learned it during their Babylonian Exile in the 6th century B.C. – about the same time the similar Greek number system and occult practice (isopsephia) takes off.

Spelling ‘Cthulhu’ in Hebrew is even more fraught than in Runic, given the absence of vowels and many choices for transliteration. Two common variants both start with Cheth (but you could use Kaph or Qoph) and include Waw twice:

Ch (8) + T (9) + W (6) + L (30) + W (6) = 59

Ch (8) + Th (400) + W (6) + L (30) + H (5) + W (6) = 467

However you might want Scriptural backing for your spelling, in which case you can look to Isaiah 38:11: “I shall look upon man no more among the inhabitants of Chadel.” Chadel means “rest” or “cessation,” and is usually interpreted here to mean either “the land of the dead” or “this world” as a pun on Cheled (“the earth”). But if we look at the Ch-D-L root, or at Cthulhu as “resting,” we get:

Ch (8) + D (4) + L (30) = 42

Or put the vowels in (Aleph and Yod, since a diacritical in that text of Isaiah sometimes means there’s a ‘hidden’ Yod): + A (1) and Y (10) = 53

53 also turns out to be Hamblin’s value for ‘Cthulhu’ in “The City Without a Name,” as he transliterated the dread name ChDWLH:

Ch (8) + D (4) + W (6) + L (30) + H (5) = 53

Hamblin also mentions other gematriac methods in the adventure. “Small number” gematria reduces values to single digits; the value of Lamedh (30) becomes 3, for example, and ChDWLH yields 26. “Squares” gematria involves taking the square of each letter’s value, then adding them; ChDWLH squares to 1,041. “Series” gematria adds up all the previous letter values for each letter; A is 1, B is 2+1, D is 4+3+2+1, etc. In series, ChDWLH becomes 187. “Filled value” gematria uses the gematriac value of each letter as its final value; Heh (H-H) becomes 5+5, and ChDWLH fills to 958. You can arbitrarily add the number of letters in a name to any of these methods; plus five letters yields 963.

Arabic Gematria

The Koranic testimony to Cthulhu appears in 25:29: “For mankind, Satan is Khadhulan [the forsaker].” The Arabic version of gematria is called Abjad (after its first four letters), although cabbalists use a different “serial” version in Morocco. Breaking down ‘Khadhulan’ to its root, with Abjad values first and Moroccan serial values after the slash, you get:

Kh (600/7) + Dh (700/9) + L (30/500) = 1,330/516

Expanding ‘Khadhulhu’ with analogous but arbitrary vowels and aspirants borrowed from the Hebrew transliteration:

Kh (600/7) + Dh (700/9) + W (6/900) + L (30/500) + H (5/800) + W (6/900) = 1,347/3,116

Greek Isopsephia

The Greek Nekronomikon surely fooled around with this stuff. Greek numbers formed before their alphabet finalized; the now nonexistent letter digamma (pronounced like W in Homeric Greek) marks the place of 6. I’ve used upsilon (‘U) for the final phoneme in the Dread Name, because it was aspirated in older Greek (as in the first letter of Hyperborea). I’ve used Ch for Chi not the actual X, to avoid confusion with Xi.

Ch (600) + Th (9) + W (digamma, 6) + L (30) + ‘U (400) = 1,045

Latin Aequicalculus

Latin scholars, beginning in the 10th century, began applying Greek values to Latin letters for their own gematriac calculations. At first, they skipped the value for 6, because there was no Latin version of digamma, which is why H is 9 not 8. For the rest of these, I’m adopting Professor Angell’s transcription of the Dread Name, on the grounds that he was an expert linguist.

C (3) + T (300) + H (9) + V (400) + L (30) + H (9) + V (400) = 1,151

In 1499, the cryptographer Trithemius (1462-1516) developed a ‘simplex’ version based on a 22-letter Latin alphabet (omitting K and W and blending I/J and U/V).

C (3) + T (18) + H (8) + V (19) + L (10) + H (8) + V (19) = 85

Agrippa’s early 16th-century ‘Cabala Ordinis’ added K, but a variant German version did not. Cthulhu appears with the German variant value after the slash:

C (3) + T (100/90) + H (8) + V (200/100) + L (20/10) + H (8) + V (200/100) = 539/319

The German mathematician Michael Stifel (1487-1567) applied Hebrew gematriac methods and simplex letter values to Latin. The results for CTHVLHV appear below.

Triangular (series gematria) = 6 + 190 + 36 + 210 + 66 + 36 + 210 = 754

Quadrangular (squares gematria) = 9 + 361 + 64 + 400 + 121 + 64 + 400 = 1,419

Pentagonal (Quadrangular times two, minus Triangular) = 12 + 532 + 92 + 590 + 176 + 92 + 590 = 2,084

Masonic Gematria

The Protestant pastor of Quedlingburg, Johann Henning (1645-1695) created a Masonic code that basically adapted Trithemius’ simplex to the German alphabet.

C (3) + T (19) + H (8) + U (20) + L (11) + H (8) + U (20) = 89

The Golden Dawn created their own version of “English Qabala” gematria, basing it on Hebrew values:

C (3) + T (300) + H (8) + U (400) + L (30) + H (8) + U (400) = 1,149

For far more than you want or need to know about this stuff, with far less sourcing than you want or need, I recommend the two-volume polyglot numerological text The Key of it All, by David Allen Hulse.


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

 

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


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

by Adam Gauntlett

A scenario seed for Trail of Cthulhu, in which the Investigators must find out who’s been breaking into the Empire State Building.

History

The Empire State in New York is conceived in the booming, prosperous 1920s, but it breaks ground on October 1st, 1929, when the building previously on that site, the glamorous Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, is demolished. On October 4th, the stock market implodes. By the time the Empire State is complete, 45 days before its anticipated due date, the Great Depression is well under way. It becomes an icon when King Kong climbs it in 1933, but it is an icon without tenants. For the first few decades of its existence the observation deck at the top floor makes more money from fascinated tourists than the rest of the building put together. Despite this, the building’s lights are kept on all the time, to create the illusion of occupancy. Defeated Democratic Presidential candidate Al Smith, an investor and president of Empire State, Inc, occupies the top floors. Altogether there are perhaps 20 tenants for the whole building, including Smith in a skyscraper meant for 20,000. Hence its nickname: the Empty State Building.

The Waldorf-Astoria, New York’s iconic hotel, opens in 1893. It’s a heavy, weighty, Germanic design, stuffed full of antiques, marble facades, and dignity. At its height it has 1,300 rooms and is the first hotel in New York to feature electric lights and private bathrooms. Though laughed at for its pomposity, dignitaries and the wealthy flock to it, to eat one of Oscar of the Waldorf’s celebrated meals, or dance in the Waldorf’s iconic ballroom. New York’s fashionable women compete to outdo each other on what becomes known as Peacock Alley, the main corridor of the hotel that ran the full length of the building, all along 33rd Street.

Introduction

The investigators are hired by Empire State, Inc, to look into a problem. Rumor has it that people are breaking into the Building at night and wandering around the ground floor corridors. Though nobody’s prepared to confirm this, it’s said that one of the people who have seen this is Al Smith himself – but Al isn’t talking. The Trust that manages the Building would very much like to have this handled discreetly. Can the investigators find out who’s breaking in, and how?

All anyone knows about the intruders is that they are always seen by someone inside the building. So far, they’ve never been spotted by someone on the outside looking in, which is odd, as the intruders are never seen on any floor except the ground floor, where they ought to be visible from 33rd Street. Nobody can agree on what the intruders look like, except that they’re very graceful.

“They’re always dancing,” says building superintendent, Max Baum. (Forties, pugnacious, family man, former Democrat ward heeler who worked on Al’s campaign).

Opening Scenes: The Stake-Out

If the investigators check, it soon becomes clear that there’s no easy way into the Empire State. All the ground floor entrances are locked, and once locked they don’t open again till eight a.m., when the cleaning staff arrive. Max has the master keys. Only Al Smith has his own key so he can come and go as he likes. The other tenants have keys to their offices, but not the building itself. The building closes to the public at 5 pm and the main entrance is monitored by door security until 8 pm; after that, should a tenant still be working in the building, once they leave they can’t get back in. None of the locks have been tampered with.

Some tourists do get locked in the building after the day is done, “goofing around after a trip to the observation deck,” Baum says. With such a large, empty building it can be difficult to monitor every corridor. Baum thinks the mysterious figures are tourists who deliberately stay after hours, probably for a bet.

The only slightly supernatural connection the Empire State has is that it once hosted a séance to contact the ghost of Thomas Edison, in 1932. It was a publicity stunt dreamed up to attract tenants. “A flop,” says Baum. “Just like all the other stunts.” Privately he wonders if these intruders are yet another stunt, dreamed up by Al Smith in a fit of desperation.

Staking-out the ground floor after hours finds little unusual. Occasionally the investigators hear footsteps or smell what might be fine cooking. Anyone with access to a radio (the doorman has a portable one, to keep him from going stir crazy) hears old broadcasts from 1926, the year NBC aired its inaugural radio show from the Waldorf-Astoria’s ballroom. Comedian Will Rogers hosts the show, which is mainly music and comedy routines. The doorman doesn’t realize what he’s listening to, but he’s a Will Rogers fan, so he always turns the radio up when Will is on. (Keeper: Rogers dies in a plane wreck in August 1935, so depending on when this scenario is set he may already be dead.)

Midpoint: Haunted City

At some point during the stake-out the investigators discover a jacket, hastily discarded near the elevators in the lobby. It has a long tear down one sleeve, as if someone was attacked and forced to drop it in the struggle. Among the items in its pockets (most of which are irrelevant but the Keeper can have a fun time describing) is an iPhone.

Of course, the investigators won’t have any idea what one of those is. It’s a funny flat brick with a cracked glass screen to them. However, it still has some juice and its owner didn’t believe in locking it, so it can be accessed. Without internet or towers most of its functions are unusable, though it has plenty of saved video content – cat gifs galore, funny cat videos, and production footage of Exploring the Apple by Sarah Dansky, whose latest episode, still in progress, is NYC’s Seven Most Haunted Buildings. Footage shows that Sarah wears the same jacket found in the lobby in some of the establishing shots.

‘There are so many spots here that have paranormal activity, and I’m going to be getting into many of them today,’ Sarah smiles. One of which is the Empire State. According to Sarah, mysterious figures were seen in the lobby and ground floor of the Empire State, linked, she says, to an incident that took place in the Waldorf in 1926. ‘However, the owners of the building called in notorious paranormal expert [investigator name] in [one year prior to the current investigation] who was able to solve the problem.’

Naturally notorious paranormal expert [investigator] has no idea what Dansky’s talking about. However, further footage shows Sarah in the basement of the Empire State, (where she’s not supposed to be), discovering a safe deposit box hidden behind a false wall, put there by the paranormal expert. She gleefully holds up the box to the camera, and says she’s going to take it to ‘a historian’ for further analysis, in the last video clip. On the lid of the box is carved the Yellow Sign.

So What Really Happened?

The Waldorf, in its early years, faced the same problems the Empire State now faces. No guests, no future: Astor’s Folly. John Jacob Astor IV, later to drown on the Titanic, solved the problem with a charity ball that attracted the wealthiest families of New York, thus establishing the hotel’s reputation. Or so everyone thinks.

In fact, Astor, a devotee of science fiction, utopian, and author of A Journey In Other Worlds, hatched a scheme. He would push the hotel’s bad luck forward in time. It was his moral right to do so, he felt; his success was worth the price of future failure for someone else. He pushed that bubble in time forward as far as he could by burying it beneath the Waldorf, in a kind of capsule. There was a very nasty incident in 1926, when the protections weakened and it looked as if there might be an outbreak during NBC’s 1926 broadcast, but by then Astor was long-dead.

What he’d done was seal entropy away, and Hastur shall not be denied. On that spot, throughout the timeline, the Thing that wears its Mask dances. It brings despair, tearing things apart at their foundations as Samson brought down the Temple. Its surface manifestation is financial ruin – the same fate that nearly brought down the Waldorf is bringing down the Empire State.

This means two things: first, time is weak here. The future and the past walk hand-in-hand at the Empire State. Oscar of the Waldorf still makes Thousand Island Dressing in the kitchen, Evelyn McHale continually tumbles to her death in 1947, and Lt Colonel Smith’s B-25 will always and forever smash into the north side of the 79th floor.

Second, time gets weaker whenever someone uncovers Astor’s time capsule, which is what Sarah Dansky did in (insert date here). When that happens, the capsule reappears at some point along the timeline, and whoever finds it has to bury it again or live with the consequences.

In this instance the capsule reappeared the year before the events of the scenario, which means the investigators have to discover a way to contact their past selves. Luckily for them there may be a way: the Empire State has its own post office and internal delivery system, and right now time is very weak indeed. If they can find a way to get a letter pre-dated to a year ago, and then send it from the Empire State, they’ll get the letter in time to do something constructive.

Or the players can come up with an ingenious scheme of their own. Whichever works.

What’s In The Capsule?

Who can say? It might be Dansky’s iPhone, mysteriously repaired, now filled with The King In Yellow audiobooks, each read by a different horror author. It might be Astor’s unpublished science fiction novel, Entropy Denied. Evelyn McHale’s signed photograph, an Empire State snow globe, a mint-in-box Robin D. Laws (with Kung Fu grip!) figurine – whatever the Keeper likes. Of course, opening the capsule weakens the timeline almost to destruction …

Currently the capsule is held by Sarah Dansky, which means the investigators will have to get it back from her, and then get it to their past selves.

The King Dances

Meanwhile Hastur gnaws away, Níðhöggr to the Empire State’s Yggdrasil. This manifests as the Dancers, which are encountered whenever the timeline weakens. They are people past, present and future; Astor might be waltzing with Sarah Dansky, or McHale with Lt Colonel Smith. They have fallen to Hastur, as must every soul who comes too close. They are the Peacocks drifting through the marble halls of Astor’s temple to wealth. Always beautiful, always impeccably dressed, and each with their own masque not unlike something seen at Venice Carnival. Their dance is mesmerizing, but it can be fatal: anyone who gets too close risks seeing Hastur, which lurks behind their hypnotic, intricate parabola.

Mechanically, each encounter is a Stability check, with the Mythos Difficulty modifier. Potential checks include Supernatural Manifestation at a Distance, Supernatural Creature Up Close, and Speak With Someone You Know to be Dead. If this last happens, and the investigator fails the test, then that investigator’s next brush with the Dance will be a direct encounter with Hastur, with all the Sanity-blasting impact that implies. The Keeper may choose to have it be the invisible form, for less damage, if desired.

If the capsule isn’t reburied, the Dance will continue. Perhaps the Empire State will never pull out of its financial nosedive, or perhaps it will become a new temple to the Yellow King. Perhaps …

With modification, this Trail scenario could also be suited for Robin Laws’ Yellow King RPG.

Author’s note: I’m well aware the present-day Empire State is open from 8am to 2am. For this scenario, I’m assuming the opening hours were different in the 1930s, when the building was nearly empty.


Adam writes, and writes, and writes. Among his credits are Pelgrane’s Soldiers of Pen and Ink, Dulce et Decorum Est, The Many Deaths of Edward Bigsby, and Silver Ennie Award winner The Long Con. You can find him on Twitter at @ag_Karloff, and online at http://karloff-shelf.blogspot.com/.


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.

“Monk was asking Vida Carlaw, ‘Do you believe a mysterious jellylike creature did any killing?’ The girl hesitated, nipping at her lips. ‘You probably think I’m foolish, but, after all, no one really knows what is in the depths of the earth. Of course, scientists have a general idea, but there may be—things—down there that they don’t know anything about.'”

— Lester Dent, The Derrick Devil (Doc Savage Magazine, Feb 1937)

Cthulhu and his mythos emerged from the same news stands that produced the Shadow, Doc Savage, and lots of other larger-than-life characters who vastly outsold Cthulhu. Trail of Cthulhu honors that heroic origin by presenting rules and even gods in both Pulp and Purist categories, and Robin Laws especially honored it by presenting four straight-up pulp tribute adventures in Stunning Eldritch Tales. In the third adventure, “Death Laughs Last,” your heroes solved the mysterious death of milllionaire philanthropist Addison Bright, who fought crime in secret as … the Penitent!

Some detectives are stranger than others.

But what kind of pulp hero has only one adventure? (Most of them, sadly. Heroism was an unrewarding business, then as now.) The Penitent may be dead (for now) but if your Investigators acquired a taste for the lurid life, there’s more where he came from in the yellowed pages around them. Robert E. Howard alone provides plenty of inciting GMCs in need of two-fisted backup: River Street police detective Steve Harrison, boxer Kid Allison, sailor and boxer Steve Costigan, and that’s before you even get to Irish occultist John Kirowan or aging mercenary Kirby O’Donnell. Your heroes might cross cerebral swords with super detective Nick Carter, the young (ish) and (always) hungry Nero Wolfe, or any one of a hundred figures right out of Jess Nevins’ encyclopedias.

Compared to their descendants in the superhero comics, few actual pulp super villains survived more than one adventure. (Plenty of pre-pulp anti-heroes, such as Dr. Nikola, Dr. Quartz, Zenith the Albino, and Fu Manchu seemingly carried whole series by themselves, of course; classic pulps that attempted to recapture that spirit usually failed after a few numbers.) All their creators needed was a name and a gimmick — which is all a Keeper needs in a pinch, to be fair. So heroes are plentiful, and villains die fast — but which is which? Here’s a spinner rack full of pulp GMCs, packed like pulp-revival Ace Doubles, with both a hero side and a villain side. But even the heroes here have just a shmear of Purist flavor, meaning your Investigators might find themselves cast as the villains of this month’s exciting issue.

A-10

Decorated Great War ace turned barnstormer turned adventurer, “A-10” uses that code name when carrying out jobs for the FBI or the State Department with one of many state-of-the-art airplanes. Surveillance autogiros, speed-record interceptors, flying boats, even drone craft: A-10 can fly any of them better than any man alive.

Hero: Letitia Coolidge, self-taught electrical engineer, pulled an avionics control box out of a crashed disc-shaped craft in Vermont, put it in her second-hand Curtiss “Jenny,” and took off. She never gets used to having to plug wires from the stick into her brain, but the results are worth it … so far. Some of her “government orders” just come in on her airplane radio, a buzzing voice on a box …

Villain: Morland Harding flew too high over Brazil during an air show altitude contest, and made a deal with a Gaseous Wraith (Hideous Creatures, p. 108). All it wants is human sacrifices, and as long as he keeps killing people above 30,000 feet its vapors keep Harding literally at the top of his profession.

Fu Mien-chü

His name translates as “man who is a mask,” and his role in New York’s Chinatown is appropriately opaque. He has agents in every obscure temple, criminal gang, and house of ill fame in the district — and in every hospital, political campaign, and scientific laboratory. He holds at least two doctorates, in endocrinology and entomology, and speaks perfect un-accented baritone English.

Hero: This is the alias of the brilliant psychologist Dr. Fo-Lan, kidnapped by the Tcho-Tcho in 1902, who escaped them in 1906 by summoning the Elder Gods from Orion to destroy their city. Now, he investigates New York’s cult underground, warring against inhuman infiltrators and determining whether he needs to destroy yet another city to save the world …

Villain: “Fu” is either the Scorpion himself, Hsieh-Tzu (which is to say, L’mur-Kathulos of Atlantis), or one of his most trusted body doubles running the American branch of the Hsieh-Tzu Fan (Bookhounds of London, p. 63).

Jenna of the Jungle

Normally Jenna stays in her forest home in the Congo, but sometimes she visits New York in the company of her latest good-looking conquest. Both a wealthy English aristocrat and a jungle queen, she keeps a penthouse on Central Park West where she grows wild tropical plants and flowers, and where her pet panther Menes can sleep in the sun. Her prodigious strength keeps the mashers at bay when Menes isn’t around.

Hero: Born Geneva Jermyn, of the aristocratic Huntingdonshire Jermyns, she escaped the “Jermyn curse” of simian looks; although her arms and legs aren’t quite normally proportioned, and her nose is a little upturned, on her it looks amazing. When her cousin Arthur committed suicide and burned down the family mansion in 1920, she went to Africa to find out why. She came out a decade later, looking not a day older.

Villain: Did she visit the Anzique country on the way? Her boyfriends don’t last long, after all … Alternatively, perhaps she embraced the “White God” of Dzéwa, gaining her powers over plants and animals from its Xiclotli servitors (Shadows Over Filmland, p. 103).

Hugo “Doc” Woesten

There’s nothing he can’t do: scientist, surgeon, explorer, Doc Woesten embodies the perfect physical and mental development of the species. Using his “mental radio” at the top of the Empire State Building to receive uncanny distress signals from all over the world, Doc and his five assistants are always there when something weird and menacing threatens an heiress or endangers an archaeological dig. Only Doc’s assistants know what goes on in his secret psychic college beneath the New York State Psychopathic Institute in the Catskills.

Hero: Doc owes his abilities to alien possession: while experimenting with his mental radio during the 1927 nova XX Tauri, a “brother of light” incarnated into him. His operations on criminal brains further the “brother’s” search for minds possessed by Algol, Alphecca, or other “demon stars.”

Villain: Doc is a van Kauran on his mother’s side, from a long line of Mythos magicians in upstate New York. Henrietta raised him using twenty-one years of rituals and following every stricture in the Book of Eibon to create a “star child.” Doc travels the world “rescuing” artifacts (and eliminating rivals) to eventually bring about a new Hyperborean Age and make his mother proud of him.


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 the Pelgranes started talking about their favorite monsters, @brightneedle jumped in to put dibs on her subterranean, misunderstood besties.


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

Building on fond memories of other random generators, what might a random Trail of Cthulhu adventure generator look like? The tables below generate a highly random Trail mystery. As with all random generators, the goal is to prompt the Keeper’s creativity in connecting disparate elements – don’t expect coherence from random rolls alone!

Adventure Hook (d12)

Why do the investigators get involved? (You can also use this as a way to determine the theme or atmosphere of the adventure if you’re not using pregenerated characters.)

  1. Adventure
  2. Arrogance
  3. Antiquarianism
  4. Artistic Sensitivity
  5. Bad Luck
  6. Curiosity
  7. Duty
  8. In the Blood
  9. Revenge
  10. Scholarship
  11. Sudden Shock
  12. Thirst For Knowledge

(The drives Ennui and Follower aren’t used in the list above.)

Location (d20)

Where does the adventure take place? The somewhat eclectic list of suggestions below is based on the locations discussed in the Trail of Cthulhu rulebook.)

  1. United States – Rural
  2. United States – Small Town
  3. United States – Urban
  4. United States – Lovecraft Country
  5. Abyssinia/ Belgian Congo
  6. Antarctica
  7. Brazil
  8. Burma
  9. Egypt
  10. Germany
  11. Greenland
  12. Haiti
  13. Mongolia
  14. Peru
  15. Rumania
  16. Saudi Arabia
  17. Soviet Union
  18. Easter Island/South Pacific Mandate
  19. Spain
  20. Thibet

Apparent Situation (roll 1d20)

What are the investigators doing here?

  1. Commercial interest – it’s related to the business of an investigator, like a real estate deal
  2. Investigate disappearance – of a friend, relative or other acquaintance. Or a strange, if the investigator is a police officer, detective or other specialist.
  3. Investigate untimely death – as above.
  4. Investigate cryptic events – lights in the sky, strange footprints, sinister letters.
  5. Investigate criminal activity – bootlegging, extortion, theft
  6. Investigate alleged supernatural event – ghosts, seances, vampire attacks, curses.
  7. Investigate medical mystery – strange disease, sudden madness
  8. Investigate prodigy – fallen meteorite, brilliant scientific discovery
  9. Carry out personal errand – execute a will, return a book borrowed years before
  10. Carry out mundane task – something connected to the investigator’s occupation
  11. Carry out official duties – as above, but a little more formal and significant
  12. Survey site – examine a location in detail, for commercial or archaeological reasons
  13. Report on story of interest – even if the investigator isn’t a reporter, they might be asked to look into a local mystery
  14. Research local history – as a hobby, out of antiquarian interest.
  15. Visit distant cousins or aged relative – haven’t seen them in years, I wonder what they’re up to
  16. Visit old friend or correspondent – as per Henry Akeley in Whisperer in Darkness
  17. Vacation or (recuperation after traumatic experience) – just what you need after that last nightmarish encounter
  18. Vehicle breakdown or travel delay – you’re stuck here for a while
  19. Drawn here by strange dreams – because you’re a Lovecraftian protagonist
  20. Seeking mysterious object or book – that has recently come to light

Horrible Truth (roll 1d12)

What’s really going on?

  1. The Apparent Situation is the true situation
  2. There’s a CULT here, and their activities may be exposed by the Apparent Situation
  3. There once was a CULT here; it’s mostly moribund, but some horror connected to the cult lies buried here and may be exposed by the Apparent Situation
  4. There’s an active and ambitious CULT here; the Apparent Situation is connected to some malign intent of theirs.
  5. There’s a CREATURE here, disinterested in humanity unless provoked.
  6. There’s a CREATURE here, preying on humanity.
  7. There’s a CREATURE here, slumbering – but it may be awoken by the Apparent Situation.
  8. The Apparent Situation was triggered by a TOME OR ARTEFACT
  9. Someone’s using the Mythos for personal gain using a TOME OR ARTEFACT
  10. There’s a GOD OR TITAN slumbering here, and its presence disturbs the world
  11. There’s an ancient ruin or tomb connected to a GOD OR TITAN here, guarded by a (1-3: CULT, 4-6: CREATURE)
  12. There’s a clash between two entities (roll 1d6 for each: 1-3: CULT, 4-5 CREATURE, 6 GOD OR TITAN).

Cult

Roll on the the Cult Size, Cult Status, Cult Intent and Blasphemous Rites tables.

Cult Size (roll d6)

  1. A single sorcerer
  2. A small cabal (a single family, a few locals)
  3. A congregation (two dozen or so)
  4. Endemic in the area (lots of people in the area are involved)
  5. Far-flung (only a small cabal here, but the cult is spread across the world)
  6. Great conspiracy (cult is world-wide and exceedingly well connected)

Cult Status (roll 1d6)

  1. Dead – no cultists left, only their works
  2. In decline – only a few left
  3. Secret – cult is hidden and mostly inactive, only performing rites on rare occasions
  4. Active – cult continues its sinister practices
  5. Recruiting – cult seeks new members
  6. On the verge of triumph! – cult is about to take a major step towards its goal

Cult Intent (roll 1d6)

  1. Worship of CREATURE with offerings, sacrifice
  2. Worship of GOD OR TITAN
  3. Study of TOME OR ARTEFACT
  4. Acquisition of power
  5. Keepers of CREATURE
  6. Summon GOD OR TITAN, end reign of humanity.

 Blasphemous Rites Include (roll 1d10)

  1. Worship outdoors at ritual site
  2. Worship at hidden temple, cave or ruin
  3. Bizarre surgical experiments
  4. Congress with CREATURE
  5. Use of drugs or extracts
  6. Ritual initiation
  7. Travel through dreams or magical gateways
  8. Use of ritual magic
  9. Ritual sacrifice
  10. Transformation

Creature (roll 1d100)

1-2 Bat-Thing
3-4 Bhole
5-6 Black Winged Ones
7-8 Byakhee
9-10 Colour Out of Space
11-15 Dark Young of Shub-Niggurath
16-20 Deep One
21-22 Dimensional Shambler
23-24 Elder Thing
25-26 Flying Polyp
27-28 Elder Thing
29-30 Formless Spawn
31-32 Gaseous Wraiths
33-38 Ghoul
39-40 Gnoph-Keh
41-42 Great Race of Yith
43-44 Hound of Tindalos
45-46 Hunting Horror
47-48 K’n-Yani
49-50 Lemurian
51-52 Lloigor
53-54 Masqut
55-56 Medusa
57-60 Mi-go
61-62 Moon-beast
63-64 Nightgaunt
64-66 Raktajihva
67-68 Rat-Thing
69-70 Sand-Dweller
71-72 Serpent Folk
73-74 Servitor of the Outer Gods
75-76 Shan
77-78 Shantak
79-80 Shoggoth
81-82 Son of Yog-Sothoth
83-84 Space-Eater
85-86 Star Vampire
87-88 Ultraviolet Devourer
89-90 Tcho-Tcho
91-92 Vampirish Vapour
93-94 Wendigo
95-96 Worm-Cultist
97-98 Xothian
99-100 Y’m-bhi

Gods & Titans (roll 1d20)

  1. Azathoth
  2. Chaugnar Faugn
  3. Cthugha
  4. Cthulhu
  5. Dagon
  6. Daoloth
  7. Ghatanothoa
  8. Gol-Goroth
  9. Hastur
  10. Ithaqua
  11. Mordiggan
  12. Mormo
  13. Nodens
  14. Nyarlathotep
  15. Quachil Uttaus
  16. Shub-Niggurath
  17. Tsathoggua
  18. Y’golonac
  19. Yig
  20. Yog-Sothoth

Tomes & Artefacts (roll 1d20)

1. Necronomicon, original
2. Necronomicon, modern
3. Cultes des Goules
4. De Vermis Mysteriis
5. King in Yellow
6. Book of Eibon
7. Pnakotic Manuscripts
8-9 Idol of GOD or TITAN
10-11 Idol of CREATURE
12-13 Relic or Mummy of CREATURE
14. Remains of ancient sorcerer or priest
15. Ancient Stone
16. Dust or Elixir
17. Cryptic Machine
18. Weapon or Tool
19. Enchanted Place
20. Gateway or portal

Structuring the Adventure

As a starting point, assume 3-5 core clues must be discovered and 1-3 hazards must be overcome to complete the investigation.

Random Core Clues

Clue Type

1-2 Academic
3-4 Interpersonal
5-6 Technical

Academic

  1. Accounting
  2. Anthropology
  3. Archaeology
  4. Architecture
  5. Art History
  6. Biology
  7. Cthulhu Mythos
  8. Cryptography
  9. Geology
  10. History
  11. Languages
  12. Law
  13. Library Use
  14. Medicine
  15. Occult
  16. Physics
  17. Theology
  18. Roll again, but it’s an impossibility
  19. Roll again, but it’s a personal connection
  20. Roll again, but it’s a terrible revelation

An Impossibility: This rock is older than the universe! This painting is moving! This library is carnivorous!

A Personal Connection: Your Medicine can’t tell you anything about this condition – but you do know a retired physician, Doctor Black, who lives nearby. Maybe he can help.

A Terrible Revelation: Oops! I just correlated hitherto disassociated fragments of knowledge. Rookie mistake.

Interpersonal

  1. Assess Honesty
  2. Bargain
  3. Bureaucracy
  4. Cop Talk
  5. Credit Rating
  6. Flattery
  7. Interrogation
  8. Intimidation
  9. Oral History
  10. Reassurance
  11. Streetwise
  12. Roll again, but it attracts the attention of sinister forces

Sinister forces: It’s not wise to ask questions about certain topics.

Technical

  1. Art
  2. Astronomy
  3. Chemistry
  4. Craft
  5. Evidence Collection
  6. Forensics
  7. Locksmith
  8. Outdoorsman
  9. Pharmacy
  10. Photography
  11. Roll again, but it’s an impossibility
  12. Roll again, but it exposes the investigator to something toxic or hazardous

Exposure: You see a strange light as you look through the telescope; you pick the lock, but discover the door’s a twist in space and time…

Random Hazards

  1. Athletics – a chase scene, a physical obstacle
  2. Conceal – a hidden trap
  3. Disguise – you must infiltrate a group
  4. Driving – dangerous conditions or a car chase
  5. Electrical Repair/Mechanical Repair – a piece of equipment is vitally needed
  6. Explosives – it’s the only way to be sure
  7. Filch – you must steal something
  8. Firearms – a combat scene at range!
  9. First Aid – someone’s dying or badly injured
  10. Health – exposed to a toxin
  11. Piloting – we’re on a boat
  12. Riding – we’re on a horse
  13. Stability – keep it together, man!
  14. Scuffling – a combat scene, up close!
  15. Sense Trouble – there’s something out there.
  16. Shadowing – quick, after them!
  17. Stealth – you must infiltrate a place
  18. Weapons – a combat scene, with sharp bits
  19. Roll again twice
  20. It’s a combat scene, with a complication. Roll again for the second ability involved, other than a combat ability. For example, Riding implies a shoot-out on horseback; Stealth implies an assassination attempt.

Putting It All Together

Let’s roll up a random adventure and see what comes of it!

Our initial hook is SCHOLARSHIP, and our location is ANTARCTICA. Clearly, we’re on a scientific expedition – maybe the Starkweather-Moore expedition promised at the end of At The Mountains of Madness. It’s hardly worth rolling an Apparent Situation in this case. The Horrible Truth is that there’s a CREATURE preying on people – specifically, a BLACK WINGED ONE, the assassins of the Cthulhu cult.

Our key clues are: BUREAUCRACY, ART and OUTDOORSMAN, and our random hazards are FILCH and RIDING.

So… the expedition to the Antarctic includes a secret worshipper of Cthulhu. He summons up a Black Winged One to kill other members of the expedition, for he seeks to get to the glacier where Cthulhu slumbers. Bureaucracy reveals that someone infiltrated the expedition under an assumed name, Art (plus Filch) means the investigators steal the cultist’s sketchbook and see his crazed scribblings of a buried god, and Outdoorsman & Riding imply a desperate sleigh-dog chase scene across the frozen wastes!

Another random attempt yields:

ARROGANCE for our hook, SPAIN for our location, VACATION for our Apparent Situation. That sounds like a bunch of idealists charging off to volunteer in the Spanish civil war. The horrible truth is that there’s a clash between two Cults.

The first Cult is a lone sorcerer who’s on the verge of triumph – he seeks to acquire power, and his blasphemous rites include Ritual Initiation.

He’s opposed by a second cult that Endemic in the Area, highly Secret, and worships… hmm. The Tcho-Tcho. Their rites include congress with a creature – rather an involving a second race, let’s assume it’s congress with Tcho-Tcho. Presumably, there’s a connection between the Plateau of Leng and the Meseta Central.

Obviously, if it’s the Spanish civil war, then the two cults are on opposite sides. A Communist sorcerer? Fascist Tcho-tchos? Or the other way around?

Our core clues are INTIMIDATION (Interrogating a prisoner, maybe?), OCCULT and COP TALK; hazards are Piloting and Sense Trouble.

So – the investigators are volunteers on the Republican side. Interrogating a prisoner, they learn of a fascist plot to bomb mountain villages. (Time to do some research on aerial bombardment and air power during the Spanish civil war; Guernica can be a touchstone here). OCCULT discovers the villages are being targeted because of their connection to the Tcho-Tcho cult; the investigators need to use Piloting and a borrowed biplane to shoot one bomber down before it commits the mass sacrifice needed a portal to Leng and the triumph of the Nazi sorcerer behind the bombing plan. Cop Talk and Sense Trouble warn the investigators that their Tcho-Tcho-worshipping allies will turn on them after the fighting’s done, and they should head back to the safely of the lowlands if they hope to survive…


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 our latest virtual panel, Kenneth Hite, Robin D. Laws, and Gareth Ryder-Hanrahan are joined by special guest, Chaosium’s Lynne Hardy, to discuss the perennial connection between H. P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos. We cover the core elements of Cthulhu gaming, Call of Cthulhu’s impact on the hobby, striking a balance between hopelessness and flipping out, how gaming changed the mythos, our favorite bits of Yog-Sothothery, and more.


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

“The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown”, to quote Lovecraft. However, when it comes to translating his fiction into games, unknown monsters can be tricky to handle. In a roleplaying game, the players need to be able to make meaningful decisions, and for that, they need some information to give context to those decisions. The more they know, the less unknown there is. (One reason why classic monsters like vampires work well in rpgs – the players know the rules already, and you can present them as a part of a bigger mystery instead of making the investigation all about the monster. They no longer draw their power from fear of the unknown – it’s all about fear of what they might do with their known powers and hungers.)

Sometimes, getting more information about an unknown threat can be scarier. For example, if the characters are the crew of an isolated research base, and they find the mangled corpse of one of their co-workers outside on the ice, that’s scary – there’s a monster out there! However, if the characters then discover another corpse inside a locked room in the base, that’s even scarier – can the monster walk through walls? Is it a shapeshifter, now disguised as one of the crew? Is it in the air ducts?

The players need to discover the ‘rules’ of the unknown monster, and there’s an awkward dance here, especially if the monster can only be defeated by exploiting a particular trait, and especially in a one-shot or short adventure. You need to ensure the players find the information they need without making it obvious or contrived (nothing spoils atmosphere like having a really obvious LOOK, LOOK, HERE’S THE IMPORTANT BIT scene), while still keeping the monster mysterious. So, what are some elegant ways of getting information to the players, without making it seem like you’re setting up the pins with one hand and handing the players a bowling ball with the other?

(An aside – one key question to ask yourself is always, “what’s the characters’ goal?” If the characters can achieve their aims – break the family curse, escape the nightmarish town, discover the fate of their old friend – without having to defeat the monster outright, you can get away with revealing less about the monster. But if your campaign setup or scenario hook demands that the characters take an active role in investigating or thwarting the Mythos, they’re likely to press on to a final confrontation – and if you want to avoid that final confrontation from becoming a chase scene or a shootout, it’ll have to hinge on a meaningful decision by the players, which means giving information about the unknowable horror.)

  • GUMSHOE, of course, promises the players will always get the clues they need if they use their investigative abilities. Try to use multiple tangential clues to the nature of the monster, as opposed to one core revelation that spells out what must be done. Say, for example, the characters are up against a horror from the logos – a monster that manifests when its name is spoke aloud. Dropping lots of hints that connect to this – a corpse with its tongue torn out (Forensics), Occult references to the unspeakable one, a bunch of references to the Scottish play (Art History) – lets the players make that final intuitive leap.
  • In The Dunwich Horror, the Son of Yog-Sothoth can only be destroyed by a ritual. Lovecraft handles this by having the first Whately brother draw attention to the book containing the banishing ritual in an earlier scene. Have the players discover information about the monster while pursuing an apparently unrelated lead.
  • Pacing out the information also helps. The bigger the gap between the players discovering information about the monster, and actually encountering the monster, the better. If the players run into a Colour Out Of Space five minutes after encountering the local inventor with his shed full of high-voltage electrical equipment, then it’s obvious that the Keeper intends for them to use electromagnetic fields as a weapon against the otherwise invincible foe. However, if the players run into the inventor near the start of the adventure, and encounter the Colour much later, then it feels much more like the players cleverly calling back to an established bit of background colour. Lovecraft uses something like this technique in The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, where Doctor Willett discovers the dismissal formula long before he finally uses it to banish Joseph Curwen. (Of course, the scene where Dr. Willett randomly starts chanting spells out loud would be intolerable railroading in a tabletop game…)
  • Another approach is to undercut expectations. Say the players find out that there was a series of murders fifty years ago when a cult opened up the Box of the Shining Trapezohedron, and now there’s another set of identical murders. Clearly, someone’s taken the gem from the magic box, and the obvious solution to the scenario is to put the gem back in the box. Twist this by having the cult destroy the box before the players can return the gem. Now, the players have to come up with their own variation on that original solution by finding another way to bury the gem before the monster finds them…

While digging through old boxes, I came across a copy of long-vanished British gaming Roleplayer Independent magazine from the hoary ancient days of December 1992. It took me a few minutes to work out why I’d kept it – there’s a random Cthulhu scenario generator in there by Jim Johnston. (In fact, that article must have been my first encounter with the Cthulhu Mythos, as the first time I actually played a Cthulhu game was January 1994 – but I digress).
Random inspiration is great for Cthulhu scenarios. One of the charms of the Mythos is its sheer incongruity and omnipresence – look under the wrong stone, and you don’t just find a monster, you find an infinitely deep abyss. The Mythos is infinitely mutable, with the possibility of horror lurking in any aspect of reality.

For example, take the first table from that old random generator.

From RPI December ’92

Any of those could lead to a single monster – the lights in the night are a lone fire vampire, accidentally summoned by an archaeologist meddling with an ancient relic, and the worst the investigators might face is a little combustion. Or maybe the lights are Yog-Sothoth manifesting to spawn his hybrid son, and the stakes are nothing less than the destruction of all life on Earth.

Another possible prompt is to pick a random investigative ability, and build a scenario around a clue discovered with that ability. So, lights in the sky + Reassurance – why is some witness so terrified by the lights that reassuring her unlocks the mystery? Maybe the lights are ghosts – psychic projections from the brain-matter of the recently deceased, agitated by some cosmic force afflicting the graveyard (a Colour, maybe?).

Picking a random monster or mythos tome also works – the trick is finding something seemingly incongruous, and then challenging your brain to find connections. As an exercise, let’s take a random event from 1937. A quick jaunt on Wikipedia gives me:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/September_1937_Folsom_escape_attempt

A random pick of investigative ability gives me Architecture, and picking a random monster from Hideous Creatures gives me the Dark Young. So… the escape attempt involved a carved wooden pistol. Maybe the pistol wasn’t carved, but grown, and one of the prisoners was a secret worshipper of the Black Goat who erected a secret temple to her in some hidden corner of the prison (Architecture). The escape attempt fails, but the worried warden turns to the investigators to discover the origin of the unholy weapon.

Alternatively, taking the same historical event, but a different ability and monster – Law and the Moon-Beasts. Ok, clearly, the prisoners are escaping because the state of California has a secret bargain with the Moon-Beasts, and prisoner ‘executions’ at Folsom are a cover for the unholy teind of victims to the Moon-Beasts…

A third random prompt  – Flattery and the Ultraviolet Devourers out of From Beyond. Here, maybe an arrogant prisoner claims to know a better way out of the prison – he’s going to walk through the walls. Flattery gets him to reveal that his friend on the outside has a mysterious machine that can shift its targets out of conventional space-time and back again. One day soon, his cell’s going to light up all purple, and he’ll be gone. His friend’s testing it – what do you think drove those other prisoners crazy enough to attack the warden like that?


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.

They were a chance assembly of people who all happened to have some curious story current in their own family or neighbourhood which had puzzled them, and deserved (as they conceived) further investigation. Each had supposed that his own particular problem was a unique one, and was surprised when he found someone else with a similar or parallel story. It was the discovery that there were so many such tales abroad, far more than anyone had expected, which induced the original founders of the society to form themselves into a club for the investigation and testing of alleged manifestations of the supernatural.

— Sir Charles Oman, “The Old Oxford Phasmatological Society,” JSoc.Psych.Res. 33:622-23 (March-April, 1946)

In his ghost story “The Mezzotint,” M.R. James mentions “the Phasmatological Society” in passing. Often dismissed by Jamesian scholars as another of the master’s fertile inventions, this real ghost-investigating group was founded at Oxford University around 1874 (Oman recalls the date as October 29, 1879, but other sources differ). It continued operating at least until 1886, at some point establishing a chapter in London. The Society appeared in the London Truth as late as 1894; its members included the military historian Sir Charles Oman, Lord Haldane, the Bishop of Gloucester, and other eventually eminent personages.

The phasmatologist at work

They were less eminent as Oxford undergraduates, of course, though still quite well connected. The player characters might be such dilettante investigators, following up on the kind of tales James’ narrators recount as having safely occurred in earlier days or on queer stories that happen to their own peers or dons. The real Phasmatological Society took testimony from ghost witnesses and other paranormal experiencers, and then investigated the reports. Player character Society members might even investigate earlier James stories themselves, letting the GM invent sequels to the various horrors, or follow up on clues left by their great forefather the clergyman, philosopher, and ghost-breaker Joseph Glanvil (1636-1680). Like James’ protagonists, they encounter treasure hunts, cryptograms, mazes, and other puzzles with the clues hidden in church architecture or manor house bookshelves.

Jamesian adventures can take place entirely in the Victorian milieu of the original Phasmatological Society, of course, or in James’ own Edwardian era. A revived (or covertly continued) Society might investigate ghosts in the Trail of Cthulhu 1930s; its antiquarian membership makes ideal foils, marks, or clients for the Bookhounds of London. A swinging ’60s mod-occultist scene follows the guru and impresario “Chorazin” in London and San Francisco (FoDG, p. 304), and a modernized Society could emerge in Soho, Chelsea, or Berkeley to investigate the phasmatic wreckage in his wake. (Use the Activist or Scholar backgrounds; FoDG, p. 044.) The modern-day Phasmatological Society makes an ideal framing device for Fear Itself adventures or a cover group for an Ordo Veritatis “station-watch” squad hunting Esoterrorists.

A Pleasingly Random Ghost

Jamesian ghosts, while nicely tailored to their individual stories, don’t have any determinable order or logic to their abilities. In GUMSHOE mechanical terms, they have one to three Abilities: Aberrance (for all ghosts), Health, and and Scuffling (the last two for material, materialized, and possessing ghosts). All ghosts can spend Aberrance for minor effects such as cold spots, poltergeist activity, weird noises, and so forth; such effects cause damage or other mechanical effects, if any, equal to the spend.

Their ratings depend on their power, which is measured in dice. Most Jamesian entities have two dice in each Ability; minor ghosts have only one die in each Ability; major specters such as Count Magnus have three or even four dice in each. Each time the ghost appears, roll its dice in each Ability; the total is the pool it has available for that night. All Abilities fully refresh each sunset unless the ghost is exorcised or otherwise destroyed (usually by burning its remains).

Roll the ghost’s highest dice pool, take the highest two dice rolled, and divide the total result among its Alertness, Stealth, and Stability Loss bonuses. (Jamesian ghosts deal heavy Stability Loss penalties, as a rule.) For one-die ghosts, roll one die, add +1, and divide the result as above.

Roll one die on one Power table for each die in the ghost’s abilities. The number after the Power name is its Aberrance cost to use. A one-die entirely immaterial (Aberrance-only) ghost probably only rolls on the Oppressive Powers table, but the GM might pick a suitable power from one of the other tables if desired. Ghosts with any dice in Health or Scuffling can automatically materialize once in a scene for 2 points of Aberrance, even without the Materialize power. Those ghosts also roll one die and split the result between attack damage bonus (default is +0) and defense bonuses while material (expressed as minuses to damage). Materialized ghosts almost always have the Corpse quality (damage halved, shotguns do 2 pts, firearms do 1 pt).

Combat Powers

1  Disgusting Touch (2): foe must make a 6-point Stability (Difficulty 5) test to touch or when touched by the being during the scene

2  Disquieting Touch (1): attack using Scuffling, damage (+0) comes off Stability

3  Foetor (0): Forces a 5-point Health test (Difficulty 5) in close combat

4  Freezing Terror (1): attack using Aberrance, damage (d+0) comes off Stability

5  Grapple (2): forces test of its Aberrance or Scuffling vs. foe’s Athletics or Scuffling; if foe fails, foe cannot escape for a number of rounds equal to margin of success and their Hit Threshold drops to 2

6  Materialize (2): may materialize to make physical attacks (damage comes off Health) with Scuffling, spend 2 again to dematerialize into foul vapor immune to material attacks

Movement Powers

1  Abduction (2): may carry (or Apport, if it also has that power) an unconscious or Grappled victim to one pre-ordained place (usually its grave)

2  Apportation (1): may teleport to its own death site, gravesite, image, and/or name

3  Familiar (1): may appear as, or operate through, a rough beast such as a cat, owl, rat, spider, or similar creature

4  Follow Victim (1): automatically follows target; spend only required when victim changes conveyance or significant direction

5  Inhabit Matter (2): may possess and animate organic matter such as linen sheets, wood carvings, trees and vines, corpses, etc. with a Health pool either equal to the ghost’s Health or to 1d per point of Aberrance spent

6  Spider Climb (1): can climb up walls (if ghost is immaterial, applies to inhabited matter, familiars, or ghost in materialized form)

Oppressive Powers

1  Confusion (2): on a failed Stability test, target is dazed or struck forgetful

2  Create Darkness (1-3): increases Difficulty of visual tests (including Hit Thresholds) in the area by amount spent; spend of 3 further increases Difficulty of all Stability tests by +1

3  Desolate Cry (1): triggers 3-point Stability test in hearers

4  Oppression (1): lowers victim’s Stability pool by 1, cannot be refreshed by normal rest, usable once per week

5  Send Nightmare (1): triggers 4-point Stability test in one victim

6  Terrifying (2): +2 to Difficulty of Stability tests

 

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