See Page XX: From Call to Trail (Part 2)

In part one, we talked in general terms about preparing players used to Call Of Cthulhu for their first session of Trail Of Cthulhu. In particular, you want to show that the GUMSHOE system’s core investigative mechanic isn’t as radically alien or mechanical as some readers of the rules assume.

Here’s the demo that illustrates the point. Use it before your first session, prior to character creation. This is a solo demo. Pick the player who you think will be most resistant to learning new rules in general, or to stepping out on his beloved CoC rules in particular.

Paraphrase the following quickie scene so that it comes out in your standard GMing voice.

You are Dr. Tyler Freeborn, assistant professor of anthropology at Miskatonic University. You enter a hotel room, expecting to meet with a colleague, Professor Hamilton Simonsen. Instead you find the man’s nearly beheaded corpse crumpled next to a desk chair. Lying next to him, in the middle of his pooling blood, is a tribal fetish of some kind.

Improvise whatever details you require in response to player questions. When paraphrasing, preserve the way that the text above heavily leads the player toward the fetish. Eventually the player should put the anthropologist-fetish connection together and ask if he can identify it.

First, run the scene-let under Call rules. Have the player roll his 75% Anthropology skill. Run the skill use just as you would in any CoC session: the player might explicitly mention his ability, or might just ask the question, requiring you to confirm that he’s using Anthropology.

If he rolls successfully, tell him that it’s a curse fetish created by the notoriously degenerate Jharo-Jharo tribe of the lower Amazonian basin. The foremost expert on the Jharo-Jharo is Wallace Welkley, former adjunct professor at Columbia University. Notoriously, Welkley was denied tenure after a paper by Professor Simonsen accused him of fabricating his interviews with the Jharo-Jharo.

If the roll fails, tell the player that he thinks he ought to remember the style of the fetish, but can’t. Maybe a trip to the library will remedy that. Then cut to a scene in the library, where he makes his 80% Library Use roll. If he succeeds with that, give him the above info. If not, cut the demo short, saying that eventually the Keeper would find yet another way to get the information to him.

(With a 75% skill level, and a higher Library Use as a backup, chances are that the player will succeed in the first version of the scene, as well as the second. The point here is not to show off GUMSHOE’s main feature, that you never fail to get an important clue. Here you’re illustrating that, except for this feature, the process of gathering information is essentially the same as it is in CoC. You’re heading off the mistaken assumption that the guaranteed availability of clues somehow allows players to short-circuit the normal give-and-take of interacting with the scene and calling on appropriate abilities.)

Then replay the scene under Trail rules. Show how it plays out exactly as it did for Call, except that there’s no roll, and the information is supplied right away. As before, the player might explicitly call on an ability, or ask the question, requiring you to confirm that the ability is being used.

At this point, the player might raise the railroading question—if he can’t fail to get a clue, doesn’t that mean that he’s simply being led around from scene to scene, without being able to make meaningful choices?

In response to this, you might show how the ability to fail simply masks what is essentially the same structure under both rules sets. Eventually Freeborn will connect the fetish to Wallace Welkley. The only difference is that he always gets it right the first time in Trail, whereas the Call Keeper has to keep generating plausible alternate ways to convey the information in the face of initial failure. In both games, what happens when Freeborn meets Welkley remains up for grabs.

Let’s say that Welkley is the innocent victim of an occult conspiracy and doesn’t know who to trust. How the player chooses to treat him when they first meet determines whether Welkley cooperates, or flees and is killed by the real villains. If he’s hostile or sneaky, one story branch occurs. If he keeps his cool and reassures Welkley, he brings him onside—but must then protect him from later threats. This choice point doesn’t change the identity of the real villains, in either Call or Trail. In either system, the endpoint might be predetermined or improvised. In neither case does the choice point change how the story plays out on the way to the unmasking of the real villain. Trail no more or less railroady than Call. What it lacks is the confusion and backtracking arising from repeat attempts to uncover the same piece of information. This might feel like choice, but is anything but.

Having illustrated this key sticking point with your mini-demo, you might then go on to lay out the other ways in which Trail diverges from Call. Show how the Sanity/Stability dichotomy allows for insane cultists who are nonetheless stable enough to effect their sinister plans. Mention the Drive system , and how it works to ensure that players create the sorts of characters who are impelled to take the actions required to make a Lovecraftian horror story work.

Additional demos might reinforce other aspects of the rules the players find challenging.

If a player tends toward the risk-averse, hyper-rationalist decision making that kills horror plotting, run him through a dangerous situation first as a Call character, without drives, and then as a Trail PC, who of course must move forward and engage with the story. A mini-scene hinging on the classic “do I go down in the basement where I think there’s a shoggoth” question should suit the purpose admirably.

Although the general abilities are quite simple, the focus on investigative abilities might give a skewed idea of the system. Remedy this with a third mini-scene in which Freeborn must use his Athletics to jump a fence. (To keep other players engaged, you might swap off who gets to play Freeborn in each scene-let.)

If investigative spends seem puzzling, return to the interaction scene between Freeborn and Welkley, assuming that Freeborn has decided to seem reassuring. Show the differences in response that Freeborn might gain with different Reassurance spends—1 point might calm Welkley for a scene’s worth of dialogue, after which point he succumbs to paranoia and flees. 2 points keeps him calm and available for a day, while 3 points gets him to stick around and follow instructions for the case’s entire duration.

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