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

An Interview with writer Kenneth Hite

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

An article for Trail of Cthulhu players by Simon Carryer

The 1930s were known, for good reason, as the “Golden Age of Flight”. Technical advances in aviation technology fuelled by the Great War, combined with swiftly developing mass-production, and an increasingly global network of industry and trade, would take commercial air travel from a novelty and a luxury at the start of the decade, to a necessity by its conclusion. Throughout the world, air lanes were opening, and the most remote regions were gradually being connected to the rest of the world by air.

It was a different time, and air travel was still a very new technology. While today travelling by air is ubiquitous, in the 1930s, travel by rail or by sea was the norm. Railways and shipping had developed a standard of luxury and economy that was impossible for air travel to beat. Aircraft of the decade were not capable of the altitudes of modern craft. This exposed them to turbulence that the smaller, lighter craft were poorly suited to weather. Travel by air was often a bumpy ride. Importantly, these low altitude flights were also susceptible to variations in weather, while navigation was imprecise, particularly over uncharted or isolated areas. All this made flight times much less reliable than they are today. Some of this variation from course was deliberate. Reportedly, some pilots liked to make detours to spot wild animals or famous landmarks. Unscheduled stops for fuel or to service unreliable aircraft were also common. In tropical areas, flight paths varied seasonally as rains rendered some airfields unusable.

While flying was more expensive, less comfortable, and potentially more dangerous than travel by train or boat, there was one area in which air travel could compete with more conventional means of transport, and compete strongly: Speed. Air travel, especially in inhospitable or remote locations, was a great deal faster than any other means. Surveys from the time reveal that speed was the number one factor people considered when choosing to fly. The high cost, however, meant that for most of the decade, air travel was the preserve of the upper classes, those who had the money to travel by air as a novelty, or businessmen who operated national or international concerns. Passenger aircraft were fitted to suit this high-class clientele. Plush, upholstered seats, wet bars, smoking lounges and wooden panelling all gave the impression of luxury, despite engine noise and turbulence. Other innovations served to make air travel stand out from its competitors. Passengers could reserve seats by telephone with many airlines, and regular customers could purchase pre paid “scrip” – paper coupons which often allowed for discount rates. Stewards, who for most of the decade were required to be male, would help passengers with luggage, offer a sandwich mid-flight, and tend to the airsick.

Changes in the way we travel make it difficult to assess the relative danger of air travel in the 1930s, compared to other forms of transport. Twenty-five people, worldwide died in air crashes in the year 1932, yet it’s difficult to compare this figure to any comparative statistic from land or sea. Certainly air travel was perceived as dangerous, and insurance rates for air trips were four times the price of the same insurance travelling by rail.

Air Travel By Region

The degree to which air travel was available, and the regions which could be reached by air, varied enormously by year and by continent. What follows is a breakdown of some major areas and their history of aviation, with a focus on what kinds of flights would be available, and where.

North America

Flights across the North American continent became increasingly common and popular throughout the 30’s, thanks in no small part to the introduction of the Douglas DC-2, and from 1935, the ubiquitous DC-3. DC-3s enabled flights across America with comfort and speed heretofore unheard of. In 1934, an air trip between New York and Los Angeles would take almost 26 hours of flight, and require numerous stops and aircraft changes. By 1937, the introduction of the DC-3 had cut that time to just over 17 hours. With daytime and sleeper flights, upholstered seats, and the revolutionary introduction of female flight attendants (who were required to be registered nurses), air travel within the United States was, if not luxurious, at least comfortable.

China

As with previous decades, in the 1930s, Hong Kong was the gateway to China, and all international flights terminated at this British outpost. By 1937, trans-pacific flights from North America to China were becoming more regular, with a commercial run from San Francisco, through Honolulu, Midway, Wake Island and Guam, to Hong Kong. Imperial Airways also carried passengers and mail into Hong Kong as part of its mail route to Australia. Passengers on this line would stop in Penang before disembarking in Hong Kong.

The China National Aviation Corporation developed civil aviation in China throughout the decade, turning isolated cities serviced by antiquated, small aircraft, into a thoroughly modern air network by 1937. As with other countries, the flying boat was an invaluable part of air travel in China. Douglas “Dolphin” amphibious aircraft serviced the coast of China, while three Douglas DC 2 aircraft, capable of carrying 14 passengers each, ran regular routs to main centres in the interior. Older aircraft remained in operation throughout China for the duration of the decade.

Crossing the Atlantic

Passenger service between North America and Europe by air was not commercially developed until the very end of the 1930s. Long distances, changeable weather, and competition from reliable and popular crossings by ship made trans-Atlantic flights a difficult proposition for airline companies. Britain did not grant landing rights to American air carriers until 1936. A number of European companies made experimental flights across the Atlantic, carrying exclusively mail, using both dirigibles and seaplanes, but these flights were never commonplace. Prior to 1939, the most common way to cross the Atlantic by air was by zeppelin, and there were hundreds of such crossings between 1930 and 1937. 1939 saw the beginnings of the first commercial trans-Atlantic passenger flights, with the Pan American “Yankee Clipper” flying passengers between New York and Marseilles, France, or Southampton, England. The journey took about 29 hours, and cost $375 ($5,188 in today’s terms) one way.

Africa and the Middle East

Imperial Airways’ routes to Africa were the backbone of the Great Empire Air Route. As with other continents, the flying boat was a mainstay of air travel, and the Mediterranean was the hub of flying boat activity for the region. Flights to both the Middle East and Africa, as well as to India, would all pass through the Mediterranean, where the majority of passengers would transfer to flying boats. Egypt and the Sudan were linked by air with Central Africa from 1931. The Nile was another major centre for flying boats. By 1932, Imperial Airways flew as far south as Cape Town, and it was possible for passengers to travel from London to South Africa exclusively by air. There was little time saved by flying, rather than sailing, from London to South Africa, and the flight was likely to be more expensive, more dangerous, and less comfortable than sailing. However, within Africa, land transport was often slow and unreliable, and air travel was a popular alternative. A trip that might take three months by automobile, struggling through untracked desert or thick jungle, could take as little as three days by air, given suitable weather.

In addition to the main Empire routes, several smaller airlines offered limited services within Africa and the Middle East. Private operators, often with small two or four-seater planes, serviced the most remote regions. Two-seater flying boats were flying passengers and mail into the interior of the Congo as early as 1919. These antiquated aircraft remained in operation throughout the 1930s. Several European airlines offered seaplane service for mail between South America and West Africa, though these contracts never extended to regular passenger service.

The Pacific

Commercial air travel to Hawaii began in 1935 with a flying boat run between California and Honolulu (the flight took about 19 hours, and cost $278 ($4,046 today) one-way). This was part of a larger Pan Am flying boat route to China, travelling from San Francisco, through Honolulu, Midway, Wake Island, Guam, and finally terminating in Hong Kong. In 1936 these passenger flights were extended all the way across the Pacific, a round trip from San Francisco to Manila. The nine passengers on each of these flights paid an astronomical $1,400 (nearly twenty thousand dollars in modern day terms) for the privilege.

For these Pacific commercial fights the Sikorski S-40 and S-42 “Clippers” were the most popular planes throughout the thirties, capable of carrying over thirty passengers in relative comfort. The “China Clipper” which flew the San Francisco to Hong Kong route, was a stylish symbol of America’s growing dominance of the air. The clippers could seat 32 passengers in four well-appointed cabins, and usually had a steward to attend to the passengers.

Imperial Airways flew passengers to Australia and New Zealand from 1934, crossing the Pacific in days, when the trip by sea could take weeks or even months. From Australia, Qantas Empire Airways flew mail routes into remote stations, and across the Tasman Sea to New Zealand. Britain refused to grant landing rights to American carriers into Australia, but the New Zealand government was more cooperative. In 1937 Pan Am flew their first passenger flights from San Francisco to New Zealand, via Honolulu and American Samoa.

South America

Pan American – Pan Am – Airways were synonymous with South American air travel, and to a lesser extent all international American commercial air travel, for the duration of the 1930s and beyond. Pan Am’s first international flight was a mail run from Florida to Havana, and the 1930s saw the company develop their South American passenger and mail services extensively. Miami was the North American base for these flights, which connected with many points around the Gulf of Mexico and further South. There was a regular flying boat service from Florida throughout South America, with regular stops in Panama and Buenos Aires. These flights were the first of Pan Am’s famous “Clipper” services, and popularised the flying boat as a passenger aircraft.

South America, with its mountainous landscape and many large rivers, was a perfect venue for flying boats and seaplanes. For most of the Thirties, much of South America was virtually inaccessible by land. The advent of cheaper, more reliable aircraft with the ability to land on water led to a boom of exploration in South America, with missionaries, archaeologists, and gold prospectors flocking to the region. Local airlines, often flying outdated aircraft, exploited this sudden rush of people and money to the region.

India

India was an important leg of the Empire Air Route, which passed through the Mediterranean, North Africa, Egypt, and the Middle East, before reaching India, then continuing on to Hong Kong and Australia. For much of the decade, large portions of the route had to be completed by rail or ship, due to the complicated politics of European airspace. Italy in particular was notoriously intransigent in granting rights for commercial flights to pass through her airspace. It was not until 1936 that the trip to India could be completed entirely by air. The major airport in India during the thirties was Calcutta, but Karachi and Durban were also serviced by air.

Within India, the extensive train network created by the British made air travel largely unnecessary for the majority of travellers. Private operators of course, were active in all parts of the globe, and India was no exception.

Zeppelins

The 1930s saw the rise and fall of zeppelins as a popular form of public transport. Even at the height of their popularity, however, zeppelins were never a common sight, and travel by zeppelin was always seen as a luxury, rather than necessity. Zeppelins were appointed far more like a seagoing vessel than an aircraft. This extended even to the flight controls, which were handled just as onboard a ship, with a captain relaying orders to engine crew, while relying on several pilots and a navigator for steering and information. The Graf Zeppelin was by far the most commercially successful airship of its time, flying regular trans-Atlantic flights between Europe and America until 1936, as well as making visits to the Middle East, South America, and even the Arctic. Famously, zeppelins fell from popularity sharply with the Hindenburg crash of 1937. Deteriorating relationships between Nazi Germany and the United States of America ensured that zeppelins’ fortunes would not be revived.

Adventure Seeds

What follows are a few ideas for ways that one could incorporate the unique aspects of 1930s air travel into your game.

Lost

For long-distance flights across the Pacific and Atlantic, flying boats were used for their ability to land at several points along the way to refuel. To achieve this, the aircraft would rendezvous with a supply ship at an agreed location. These locations were often tiny, never-before-visited atolls and islands. Kingman Reef, a sandbar that barely rose more than a meter above sea level, in almost the exact centre of the Pacific, was one such rendezvous point, used in the inaugural passenger flight from North America to New Zealand. The reef was absent from even the most meticulous sea charts until the late 1920s. A flight crew, or the passengers of such a flight, would be alarmed to discover their supply ship abandoned, Signs that the crew of the ship had departed for the interior of the island would only deepen the mystery.

To the Antarctic by Zeppelin

Zeppelins, with their ability to remain afloat without power, were an ideal aircraft for crossing inhospitable and unexplored terrain. The Graf Zeppelin’s trip to the Arctic inspired many explorers and inventors to try similar feats. While no other successful trips to the Arctic or Antarctic by Zeppelin have been recorded, such a venture is by no means impossible. What antediluvian horrors lie undiscovered beneath the ice is best left to the imagination. The frequent mechanical troubles that plagued lighter-than-air flight would certainly complicate any attempt to scientifically study such cyclopean ruins as were found.

Flying to Inland Waters

The flying boat opened up to the foreign explorer the interiors of lands previously un-trod by all but native feet. From the late 1920s, the perfect mixture of improving technology giving rise to a plethora of flying boats and seaplanes, with an excess of trained pilots from the Great War, made such unexplored regions only a few hours’ flight away. South America, the Congo, the remotest regions of India, all became suddenly accessible. Any lake or large enough river was a sufficient landing point for the tiny two and four-seater craft. The remains of decaying civilisations, bastions of dark cults, the ruins of temples to forgotten gods, the last survivors of lost expeditions, turned barbarous and strange by their long absence from civilisation, all wait, hidden, beneath the jungle canopy and choking vines of such regions.

You Take the High Road…

Along many air routes, carriers gave preference to mail over passengers. Reliable and lucrative, mail required none of the comfort or attention of passengers, and could be counted on to provide a healthy return. This situation meant that often space could be found for mail where none could be found for passage. Booking clerks were instructed to avoid, if possible, selling space to passengers. For example, on the Imperial route from India, only five passengers were accepted each week. In 1937, only seven passengers a week were permitted to board the two weekly flights to and from Durban. For an archaeologist or anthropologist eager to gain credit for an extraordinary find, the temptation to send such an artefact home by air, while returning by sea or rail themselves, must have been enormous. What havoc such an item might have caused in the hands of unsuspecting baggage handlers, junior members of faculty, or some unsuspecting member of the public delivered the package in error does not bear speculation.

References

  • The Aviation Industry by Myron W. Watkins
  • US Centennial of Flight Historical Essays
  • Tales of Old Shanghai
  • Imperial Airways History
  • Passenger traffic in the 1930s on British imperial air routes

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.

“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…
Previous Entries Next Entries