This is a retrospective and lessons-learned post. I’m just coming to the end of running a Trail Of Cthulhu scenario for my gaming group. It was my first Cthulhu game, my first investigative game, and my first time using the GUMSHOE system, so the learning curve was quite steep for me; fortunately, I had almost a year to prepare, as everyone in the four-person group rotates through the GM’s chair.
The game was set in 1933, and centred on an imaginary neighbourhood of New York City called Arkham. The fishing community on the southern tip of Manhattan was all Deep One hybrids. The employees of a rare book shop were Mythos-seeking Nazi operatives. And the corrupt mayor and the mobsters were members of a coven of Yog-Sothoth wizards a-la Charles Dexter Ward. I created all of the above in secret based on “creepy events and loose ends” in the PCs’ backstories as developed on char-gen night.
The game has gone well, over-all. The sessions have been fun, the prep has played well, the players are enjoying it I think. We’ve had six sessions plus the char-gen night, and it looks like we’ll have one more before the PCs’ arcs have largely run their courses (I was going to say “are solved,” but the protagonists don’t really solve anything in a Cthulhu game!).
Investigative games require the most work to prepare, especially if you are writing the scenario yourself. I didn’t know this, going in. I must have spent literally ten hours in preparation for every hour we have spent in play. My notes comprise hundreds of pages. Some of that was because I was learning to write and run an investigative game on the fly, but still: this kind of game requires a lot of prep. I can see why published adventures are so popular in this genre.
I didn’t really tie clue discovery to the PCs’ skills; I just revealed clues based on the actions of the PCs. In other words, I missed out on some system/fiction interaction.
First I went too slow, then too fast. In the initial sessions, the PCs did a lot of investigating and interacting, but little else. It was fun for me, watching them follow clues and uncover the mysteries that I had buried, but after a few sessions I realized that we’d barely touched the dice, and wondered if the players were really enjoying things as much as I was. So, in later sessions, I pushed the action forward by triggering events (e.g. the Salfmores summon the Xothian) that I had been planning on saving until the players had gotten more involved in underlying intrigues. This spiced up the action, but may have seemed arbitrary or confusing.
I didn’t make my NPCs sticky enough. I think this is one reason that the PCs didn’t get involved in the half-buried intrigues as quickly or as deeply as I’d hoped they would. Private Jones (Frank’s old army buddy, now a Shub-Niggurath acolyte and hanger-on of the Nazis), for example, should have been more insistent on dragging Frank into his schemes and obsessions. The Brookhaven Trust (the Yog-Sothoth wizards) should have taken direct action against Rodney sooner. Both Brookhaven and the Nazis should have taken more overt action to secure the treasures hidden in Jane’s gallery.
I had too many intrigues going on at once. I have read only recently (in Hite’s Night’s Black Agents) that players can become confused and frustrated as the number of intrigues rises beyond one. I had three. In retrospect, I didn’t really need the Brookhaven Trust arc at all. I think I just included it because I really wanted to play out the Charles Dexter Ward story. Or maybe I was thinking: three PCs, three backstories, therefore three secret factions. Anyway, just the Deep Ones and the Shub-Niggurath-worshipping Nazis would have been enough to engage with all three backstories.
I ended up writing out all the clues that the players had found, after each session, so that they would have a list to look at, next week. Otherwise, I think they would have forgotten half of them before they could have followed up. Extra work for me. Not sure if this was strictly necessary. I should have gotten them to do it. With fewer intrigues, there would have been fewer outstanding clues at any one time, as well.
The clues I gave Jane (regarding her personal arc) didn’t lead anywhere. She could do nothing to follow up on them; could only wait for me to drop the next one in her lap. I should have designed her clues to point towards investigative opportunities, not just to be pieces of a puzzle to be eventually pieced together.
Action scenes should be a mix of things to fight and things to flee from. The real conflict scenes are ones in which something horrifying is discovered, and the PCs must roll Stability or Sanity checks.
It’s great when a Horrible Truth targets a PC’s Drive, Pillar or Source, directly. When Rodney realized that his father is transforming into a Deep One (fish man), and that he himself has Deep-One blood too and will one day transform, and failed that Stability roll and went all to pieces, that was a fantastic scene! That was what Trail Of Cthulhu is all about. I can’t wait to reveal the other two Horrible Truths, and see how the other two PCs handle it.
That’s all that comes to mind right now. It has been a monumental game, with a huge R-map and a very complex 3-part intrigue. The horrible revelations have been lots of fun to play out: a Stability or Sanity check is always an event; they are the moments about which this game turns.
I would play Trail Of Cthulhu again; maybe with a published module next time.