Cthulhu Playtesting Article

Reflections on Running Trail of Cthulhu with Die-Hard Call of Cthulhu Players
by Belinda Kelly

I’ve always enjoyed Lovecraft’s stories, but always felt a bit of a mental disconnect when playing Call of Cthulhu.  (My experience was mostly through playing convention games.) I didn’t like how a single roll could often cause the adventure to grind to a halt.  I didn’t like how my trained character, who may have been a trained archaeologist or scientist repeatedly fail at tasks they were supposed to be good at, especially dealing with things they should have already known.  (I’m pretty bad at rolling decent numbers on percentile dice.)  I’ve also had problems in games when the investigators failed to find a core clue to proceed to the heart of a mystery, especially after failing a Spot Hidden check (and a subsequent string of Luck, Idea and Know rolls, all to get to the same point.)  I know all of these can be fixed with good GMing and scenario writing, but the sourness of repeated failed rolls lingered in my mind and biased me against the system.

So when I discovered Trail of Cthulhu, I became an instant convert.  It neatly fulfilled my needs for a Lovecraftian horror investigation game.  And when Simon Rogers of Pelgrane Press inquired about playtesters for a Trail of Cthulhu adventure, I was there.  I gathered a group of ad hoc players together, to playtest ‘Death from the Stars’, the adventure that would one day become ‘the Dying of St Margarets.)  And amongst my playtesters were two hardcore Call of Cthulhu players, Dave and Philippa.

I was very rigid with the system when running the playtest of ‘Death from the Stars’.  If a player did not say that they had ‘Skill X’, I wouldn’t give them ‘Clue Y’.  I viewed my role to be as inflexible and ultimate as the interface to a Myst-style point-and-click style computer game.  At the end of our playtest, while we all had definite comments about the adventure, Dave and Philippa had issues with the core system of Trail of Cthulhu itself.  Curiously, the things I enjoyed most about ‘Trail’ – the ability not to fail at clue gathering, to actually play a competent investigator – they disliked.

On his blog Dave noted that: “Now, I can understand that people don’t like to play characters who suck, but without risk of failure, there is no greatness…” Philippa also expressed her concerns with the system in her blog “It wasn’t a bad system, but it feel a lot like  spoon feeding, or that we were in a scripted play rather than an investigation module – there is automatic success on clue finding, as long as a character has the requisite skill. Which meant that as all the investigation skills were spread out between the characters, it seemed to become a revolving door at times – we would keep trying until the right person entered the room.  Not that I wanted to play like that, but there seemed to be little point attempting any other way.”

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I feel that part of this cognitive dissonance was how I handled the system for that first playtest.  The inherent rigidity I felt I had to apply lead to that ‘revolving door’ effect that Philippa referred to – where all of the PC group would take turns checking out the main scenes so that all the information would be ‘unlocked.’

Simon was given our feedback on the adventure.  And then a second playtest came up, this one for ‘Return to Red Hook’, an adventure for Trail which has not yet been published, at the time of writing.  I completed the second playtest with the same group of players at the first (with addition of one extra) – including Dave and Philippa again.

However, this time I handled the system a bit differently.  Rather than adopting an inflexible stance where Skill Y was needed to unlock Clue X, I was lot more flexible and ‘gentler’ when running the system.  During the discussion of the game at the end, I noticed the players had enjoyed the game a lot more and there hadn’t been as many complaints about the system.  In some respects, the system had faded into the background during the investigation.  (It also helped that the players enjoyed this adventure far more than ‘Death from the Stars’, which we noted had a few logic gaps and a rather inflexible, ‘save or die’ ending that stopped our group from enjoying it completely – at least in the playtest version.  I’m not familiar with the final version of that adventure.)

To go into more detail of how I ran ‘Return to Red Hook’ – I tried to keep a light touch with the systems at all times.  I had filled in the Investigators’  Matrix (from the back of the Trail of Cthulhu core rulebook) and carefully described the scenes and what the players saw.  This let the players be proactive about what skills they were using to examine a particular scene.  For example, I’d forgotten to give any of my pre-generated characters the Locksmith skill.  And of course, it came up that the investigators wanted to open up a locked mail box for the person they were investigating, at a set of apartments.  Philippa described using her social skills to influence the bellhop at the apartments, promising him a date if he opened her ‘cousin’s’ mailbox.  I determined that this counted as her character using her Bargain skill – and so the mailbox was opened.

As a result, the investigators were focused more on piecing the mystery together and felt more empowered by the game.

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Both Dave and Philippa commented on the apparent absurdness of the ‘Preparedness’ skill during both playtests, although of course that didn’t stop them using it.  In the first playtest, Philippa’s librarian character spent a whack-load of points to procure a wheelbarrow that she had prepared earlier, claiming: ‘I brought this along because I thought it might come in handy’.  And she continually used Preparedness in the second playtest to pull out all sorts of items from her handbag.

I also encouraged to players to spend points to ‘simulate a critical success’ which was used often throughout the adventure.  One that stands out to me is a scene in which the investigators were summoned back from Kadath to New York, by cultists.  When the investigators appeared in the middle of the cultists’ summoning ritual, the cultists were in shock for a few seconds – they hadn’t been expecting this!  Dave’s character, Sister Agnes, was a nurse motivated by Revenge.  And he spent his entire formidable store of Intimidation points in a single hit and convinced the cultists that he was an avatar of Nyarlathotep.  To me, this belies Dave’s earlier statement on his blog (made after the first playtest and before the second) where he said: “I bet you can’t find me a Trail of Cthulhu player who can honestly tell you how excited they were when they emerged from the sorcerer’s study having found the spell book, map of the Dreamlands, time and location of the next opening of the Gate of Deeper Slumber, and sample of Shoggoth ooze.” I reckon that something like that would have required a score of ‘01%’ under Call of Cthulhu rules, but he was able to spend his points during a significant scene to create a memorable moment during the adventure.

After this, I ran a few ad hoc games of Call of Cthulhu to get a proper feel for that system.  The greater variability of the system created more unpredictability in the scenario I ran, creating certain excitements when odd things happened due to critical failures or successes.  At the same time, there were dice rolling fests at bottlenecks in the adventure, due to people failing skills and then resorting to Luck/Know/Idea rolls to obtain the core clue.

In the end, I definitely prefer running Trail of Cthulhu, due to the feel of sheer competence it gives its investigators and how it makes players responsible for their critical successes by giving them control of when and where to spend their points.  I certainly don’t think that converted Dave and Philippa into being ravening fanatics of Trail of Cthulhu, but I certainly think that the ‘light touch’ endeared them to the system more and that they’d certain be interested in future playtests.

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