In the latest installment of their play-by-clip game, Gar’s character rescues the Thing in the River and Robin, remembering that Gar considers gambling a useless ability, sends him to a notorious casino.


GUMSHOE is the groundbreaking investigative roleplaying system by Robin D. Laws that shifts the focus of play away from finding clues (or worse, not finding them), and toward interpreting clues, solving mysteries and moving the action forward. GUMSHOE powers many Pelgrane Press games, including The Yellow King Roleplaying Game, Trail of Cthulhu, Night’s Black Agents, Esoterrorists, Ashen Stars, and Mutant City Blues. Learn more about how to run GUMSHOE games, and download the GUMSHOE System Reference Document to make your own GUMSHOE products under the Creative Commons 3.0 Attribution Unported License.

One of the strange joys of a Yellow King campaign, with its quadripartite structure, is that you certain for months in advance what’s going to happen. That’s a rare gamemastering luxury; in other games, you can roughly guess where the campaign is going, but you can’t be sure. Maybe your Night’s Black Agents agents will be in the Carpathian mountains on the trail of Dracula in six month’s time, but knowing player characters, it’s equally likely they’ll be trying to organise a coup in a small South American country or something equally absurd. In The Yellow King, you know that your Parisian artists are going to become soldiers in a surreal European war, then traumatised freedom fighters trying to rebuild the country, then parallel-universe ordinary people about to come in contact with alien forces for the first time.

The bigger the gap between prophecy and payoff, the greater the chance that the chaotic nature of roleplaying games will ruin your planned set-piece. Key player characters might get killed, the campaign might do in another direction entirely, or the mood of the campaign might no longer fit the vision. In most games, the only solutions are to use heavy-handed railroading or make the visions so vague they apply in any situation. The Yellow King makes things much easier; you can tailor the starting situation of a new sequence so it leads naturally into the prophesy. That means you can drop hints – visions, prophecies, flash-forwards – into one sequence that pay off in another, and be sure of executing them successfully.

Visions Of That Rugose Thing Really Tied The Campaign Together, Man

Foreshadowing and prophecy works like call-backs and echoes; just as having a Wars character find a piece of artwork made by a Paris character links the two sequences, a flashforward from The Wars to This Is Normal Now connects those two parts of the campaign. The connections don’t have to be especially significant or meaningful in themselves – the point is to amp up the weirdness and claustrophobia, and make the players feel like the campaign sequences are all part of a single alien experience. Foreshadowing just for the sake of being strange and shadowy is a perfectly acceptable technique in this campaign.

Some Suggestions

  • In Paris, the artists come into possession of a painting called The Ambush that depicts a fantastical future battlefield, where giant walking war machines rain death upon footsoldiers. The painting shows a small squad about to be attacked by an unseen foe; the squad are all distracted by the stalker in front of them, so they don’t notice the foe behind them. When you create characters for The Wars, you specify that the player characters are close to the front lines; it’s easy then to find ways to get them onto the battlefield, in the same situation depicted in the painting.
  • Also in Paris, one of the characters comes into contact with Carcosa and is saved from madness by a mysterious explosion that destroys part of the alien city. Later, in Aftermath, the characters there plant a bomb atop a Carcosan gate; the explosion blasts through the portal to the far side.
  • During The Wars, the player characters run into a traveller who insists the war is over – it ended two years ago, in 1945. Europe’s at peace now, at least until the Soviets and the Americans start fighting. The traveller’s clearly from the timeline of This Is Normal Now. Later, when you move onto that sequence, the slacker player characters find the traveller’s diary, and read of a previous brush with strangeness.
  • Also during The Wars, the characters recover surveillance photographs from an enemy dragonfly. Mixed in with the photos of troop detachments and supply lines are a set of images of a strange futuristic city (the present-day setting of This Is Normal Now). The surveillance flights seem to focus on a coffee shop. Later, when you create characters for This Is Normal Now, you declare that the characters all favour a particular local coffee place,
  • In Aftermath, while going through surveillance reports recovered from the ruins of the Castaigne regime’s secret police, the characters find a bizarre transcript of a telephone call. One of the participants is clearly a Carcosan agent of some sort; the other participant’s speech is transcribed only as [INCOMPREHENSIBLE BUZZING]. Later, during This Is Normal Now, one of the player characters gets a phone call – you use the Carcosan agent transcript as your script, and let the player respond to the Carcosan’s rantings and ravings as they wish.
  • Alternatively, during Aftermath, the characters find a corpse in a disused suicide booth – but the victim wasn’t killed by the booth. During This Is Normal Now, one of the player characters’ friends vanishes, and their body is never found…

The Yellow King Roleplaying Game takes you on a brain-bending spiral through multiple selves and timelines, pitting characters against the reality-altering horror of The King in Yellow. When read, this suppressed play invites madness, and remolds our world into a colony of the alien planet Carcosa. Four core books, served up together in a beautiful slipcase, confront layers with an epic journey into horror in four alternate-reality settings: Belle Epoque Paris, The Wars, Aftermath, and This Is Normal Now. Purchase The Yellow King Roleplaying Game in print and PDF at the Pelgrane Shop.

A question from the mailbag – how do you assign values to the general ability scores of Gamesmaster Characters in GUMSHOE games? How much Scuffling should a cultist have? How do you rate a gorilla’s Health?

GUMSHOE’s area of focus isn’t finely balanced tactical combat (F20’s just down the hall, guys), so the honest answer is “eh… just eyeball it”. In play, I’ll usually make up the stats of most minor GMCs on the spot, or rely on generic templates. There are some factors to be taken into account, though.

Simple vs. Thriller

In most GUMSHOE games, the maths are simple. Spending 3 points guarantees success on a Difficulty 4 test. So, very roughly – 3 points = 1 successful test, 6 points = 2 successful tests and so forth. If you want the mobsters to keep up with the investigators in that Driving chase for at least two rounds, give the mobster wheelman a 6 in Driving. Any score over 10 or so is unlikely to be relevant; combat is usually decided in a few rounds, so it doesn’t matter hugely if your big bruiser GMC has a Scuffling of 10 or 18.

The one wrinkle is in games like Night’s Black Agents with thriller combat rules, where there are more uses for points. In games like that, tough bad guys do need extra points. (Fortunately, NBA has a nice roster of sample GMS to guide you, on p. 69-70).

Down vs Hurt

As a rule of thumb – cannon fodder background characters have a Health of 3-4 (2 if they’re really fragile; 5-6 if they’re noticeable tough). Named bad guys get Health scores of 8 or so (6 if they’re really fragile; anything goes for supernaturally tough foes).

In pulpier incarnations of GUMSHOE, minor bad guys are eliminated once they hit 0 Health, whereas player characters and other important individuals become Hurt, then Seriously Wounded before being Killed at -12 Health.

Common vs. Rare Abilities

Players usually invest the bulk of their points into the abilities that get used a lot (Athletics, Health, Stealth, some sort of combat skill), and might also invest in one or two abilities that match their character concept (lots of First Aid for a nurse, lots of Piloting and Mechanical Repair for a pilot). Other abilities might be neglected, or have just enough points for one good try. Two points in, say, Driving is enough to have a good chance of passing one Driving test – and most scenarios won’t have more Driving than that.

When building GMCs, look at the player characters. If you’re going to include a chase scene, and none of your PCs have invested many points in Driving, then you may not want to drop in an expert cultist wheelman with Driving 15. Tailor the challenges to the players. (At the same time, if a player’s deliberately invested lots of points in an obscure ability, then they want to be tested in that area. Taking, say, Riding 10 means the player really wants a cool horseback chase.)

Other Modifiers

In GUMSHOE, GMCs have Alertness and Stealth modifiers instead of Sense Trouble and Stealth pools (the players are the ones making the tests, so we apply modifiers from the bad guys). These range from +2 to -2 in most cases; average people are +0, training gives +1, and extremely specialised skills give a +2. Reserve modifiers of +3 or more to supernatural threats.

Stats like Hit Threshold, Armour and Weapons use the same rules as for player characters.

Spending Patterns

A related question to GMC design is “how many points should the bad guys spend on each roll?” Do you go for efficiency (“spend enough to guarantee a hit”), verisimilitude (“the alarm hasn’t been raised yet, so the guards probably think they’re taking pot-shots at squirrels, not shooting investigators – I’ll spend one point”) or other concerns (“Bob’s PC is at low Health already – I won’t spend to give him a chance of making it out alive”).

Some games (like Ashen Stars) suggest spending patterns, so a lumbering alien beast might spend points slowly at first, then build up (0/1/2/4), whereas an ambush predator front-loads its attacks (4/3/0/0). Personally, I tend to have cannon fodder spend 2 points per attack, and play the named bad guys according to their personality.

Numbers (Generally) Don’t Matter Much

GUMSHOE’s primarily a player-facing game. Some variants, like QuickShock or One2One, don’t even use pools of points for bad guys, just flat modifiers. The important question is always “what’s the Difficulty for the player characters?”, not realism or careful game balance. Human and human-adjacent characters operate in a relatively narrow range, so you can’t go far wrong by sticking to 3-6 points in an ability for minor foes, 6-12 for major threats. (Monsters are a different matter – and beyond the scope of this article!)

Quick Templates

(For Fear Itself, Esoterrorists, or Trail of Cthulhu)

Mook

General Abilities: Athletics 2, Fighting 3, Health 2

Hit Threshold: 3

Alertness Modifier: +0

Stealth Modifier: +0

Weapon: Knife (-1)

Armour: None

Sentry or Criminal

General Abilities: Athletics 4, Fighting 4, Driving 4, Shooting 4, Health 4

Hit Threshold: 3

Alertness Modifier: +1

Stealth Modifier: -1

Weapon: Knife (-1) or Pistol (+0)

Armour: None

Big Bruiser

General Abilities: Athletics 6, Fighting 8, Health 8

Hit Threshold: 3

Alertness Modifier: +0

Stealth Modifier: -1

Weapon: Big Club (+0)

Armour: None

Cult Assassin

General Abilities: Athletics 8, Fighting 10, Shooting 6,

Hit Threshold: 4

Alertness Modifier: +1

Stealth Modifier: +1

Weapon: Sacrificial Knife (-1) or Big Handgun (+1)

Armour: Cult Robes (2 points)

When Ruth Tillman picked ghouls, she scooped Gareth Ryder-Hanrahan for his choice of Favorite Monster. Surely that won’t happen a second time.


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.

Big Bloody Spoilers for both The Zalozhniy Quartet and The Persephone Extraction in this article. Don’t read if you’re a Night’s Black Agents player. Here, have some deliberate disinformation so you don’t accidentally read anything important.

 

  • DRACULA’S BEHIND EVERYTHING

 

  • EDOM STANDS FOR ENGLISH DEFENDERS OF MAGIC

 

  • YOU ARE UNDER THE INFLUENCE OF THE VAMPIRES

 

  • IT’S ALL THE OCEAN GAME.

 

  • STAY ALERT TRUST NO-ONE KEEP YOUR LASER SIGHT HANDY

 

  • PELGRANE’S GOING TO LICENSE COUNT DUCKULA FOR A GUMSHOE KIDS/NBA CROSSOVER ANY DAY NOW

Continue reading »

In the latest installment of their play by clip game, Gar’s character makes a shocking discovery upon making his rendezvous with the Thing in the River, and Robin breaks down the fine art of the auto-success.


GUMSHOE is the groundbreaking investigative roleplaying system by Robin D. Laws that shifts the focus of play away from finding clues (or worse, not finding them), and toward interpreting clues, solving mysteries and moving the action forward. GUMSHOE powers many Pelgrane Press games, including The Yellow King Roleplaying Game, Trail of Cthulhu, Night’s Black Agents, Esoterrorists, Ashen Stars, and Mutant City Blues. Learn more about how to run GUMSHOE games, and download the GUMSHOE System Reference Document to make your own GUMSHOE products under the Creative Commons 3.0 Attribution Unported License.

Beat the scores of our top single or team contestants as our Virtual Pub Quiz unleashes fiendish questions from Robin D. Laws, Kenneth Hite, Rob Heinsoo, Gareth Ryder-Hanrahan, Cat Tobin, and Wade Rockett.

Is that dolphin charismatic or sinister? Grab a glass, virtual or actual, and find out.

A 1933 teletype machineVirtually every group of player characters in The Wars possesses a boîtenoire, a wireless teletype machine that enables swift communication between the unit and headquarters – and, perhaps, other channels.

Even setting aside any supernatural elements, military communications are a rich source of horror. When encountering someone face-to-face – say, a commanding officer ordering you to advance into the teeth of enemy guns – you can quibble, plead, challenge, or otherwise appeal to one fellow human. A typed message offers no such leeway. All the players have is the brute text, unyielding, as cryptic or as unambiguous as the GM desires. Are the commanding officers coldly cruel, clueless, deranged or actively sadistic? Or have they been taken over by Carcosan horrors? The players can’t tell from the text…

The boîtenoire’s a great way to deliver handouts to the player characters; send them briefing documents or orders as boîte-noire messages. You can even do in-character session write-ups in the form of dispatches sent by the squad in the field.

Getting Technical

The operation of the boîtenoire is simple:  type your message, press send, and off it goes. One key question that the Wars is silent on, however, is the question of addressing – how do you tell the box where to send the message? Some options:

  • Closed Channel: Your boîtenoire only communicates with headquarters. There’s no addressing; it’s fixed when the box is constructed. Maybe headquarters has a master box that can communicate with multiple subsidiary units, or perhaps the devices are constructed in pairs, inextricably entangled with one another.
  • Frequency: A boîtenoire has a frequency selector; send a message, and any boxes set to that frequency receive the message. Does each unit have an assigned frequency? Do enemy boxes work on the same frequencies (requiring coded transmissions – which, of course, in the parlance of boîtenoire operators, are referred to as ‘masks’), or does physics now bow to different national flags? Picking up messages meant for another unit lets the GM hint at horrors elsewhere on the battlefield.
  • Code: Each box has a unique identifier; any message tagged with that code gets delivered to that box and that box alone. Messages cannot be intercepted – but anyone with your code can send you messages, and you have no way to reply or verify their identity unless they include their code in the message. What form does this code take – a string of digits? A passphrase? A cryptic sigil?
  • Addressed: For something more overtly weird and surreal, the boîtenoire works like a post office run by unseen angels. You literally address your message like a conventional letter (“Room 239, Hotel Splendide, Rue Jaune, Arles”), and if there’s a boîtenoire there, it gets the message; otherwise, it’s lost in the ether. While in the field, units must find semi-valid postal addresses to receive messages. (“Quick! What’s the address of that bombed-out hovel?”)
  • Desire: The box just… works. Enter a message, and it’ll be delivered to headquarters, or to the squad in the next valley, or to the spotter dragonfly circling overhead.

Getting Scary

For more overt supernatural weirdness:

  • Messages Out Of Time: In my campaign, the first boîte-noire showed up in Paris, as a gift to the characters from their unwanted new patron Cassilda. She communicated with them through the box – but they also got a bunch of meaningless messages about troop movements and artillery bombardments which made no sense to them at the time. Later, in the Wars, I intended to reuse those messages as transmissions to the second set of player characters. Messages from the future can hint at dire fates or give the players a chance to avert some catastrophe. (If you’re feeling really ambitious, you could even take the conceit of the Armitage Files and feed it through a boîtenoire.)
  • Messages From The Dead: From the classic “the guy in the other trench we’ve been talking to all session – he was killed in action a year ago” to using the machine to conduct seances, there’s a lovely creepiness to early telecommunications. Did Thomas Edison invent the boîtenoire through his research? Might the player characters pick up unsent letters from their Paris incarnations?
  • Messages From Beyond: Of course, any Carcosan technology falls under the dread rule of the Yellow King. How can the players trust what they receive from the box? What happens if the boîtenoire clatters, and the message begins: STRANGE IS THE NIGHT WHERE BLACK STARS RISE, AND STRANGE MOONS CIRCLE THROUGH THE SKIES…

The Yellow King Roleplaying Game takes you on a brain-bending spiral through multiple selves and timelines, pitting characters against the reality-altering horror of The King in Yellow. When read, this suppressed play invites madness, and remolds our world into a colony of the alien planet Carcosa. Four core books, served up together in a beautiful slipcase, confront layers with an epic journey into horror in four alternate-reality settings: Belle Epoque Paris, The Wars, Aftermath, and This Is Normal Now. Purchase The Yellow King Roleplaying Game in print and PDF at the Pelgrane Shop.

Our virtual panel series cleans ichor from its blades as very special guest Sandy Petersen joins Swords of the Serpentine designers Kevin Kulp and Emily Dresner, along with Kenneth Hite, Gareth Ryder-Hanrahan and moderator Robin D. Laws to provide tips and hooks for mixing swords and eldtrichery.

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.

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