Editor’s note: I spotted this engaging actual play post on rpg.net and asked the author to write a piece on it. If you want to have a go, conversion notes are available on the Trail of Cthulhu resources page.
Running ‘Masks of Nyarlathotep’ in Trail of Cthulhu
by Russell Andrews
I hadn’t intended to pick up Trail of Cthulhu originally, but I had been a big fan of Pelgrane Press’ Dying Earth RPG, and on the basis of a good review on RPG.net and the quality of the printed book, I picked up a copy. I have been playing Call of Cthulhu, off and on, for 20 years or more. Physically I was impressed with the book and the evocative artwork. Reading the foreword told me the basic game ethos – that Trail was designed to solve certain problems with Call of Cthulhu.
Call of Cthulhu is a game that attempts to simulate the physical reality of investigating the mythos. There are rules for doing things, fighting, and rules for spotting clues, and rules for going insane or not. All physical things – the idea is to simulate the actions. But there is precious little narrative or psychological aspect to the characters – they don’t have quirks, strengths or weaknesses – all these are added in play. In addition, Trail of Cthulhu has rules for players finding clues – they just find them. I’ve been guilty of this – there is a vital clue the players must find. But they fail the Spot Hidden roll, and so therefore as a Keeper you must fudge somehow to ensure the players find the clues so there is a plot. And finally in Trail, there is motivation – each players has a Drive which pushes him or her to investigate the mythos.
How does this translate into the experience of Masks of Nyarlathotep?
Running Call of Cthulhu for Masks, the game was extremely deadly, but ultimately the players were very weak, limited actors in a vast world. Often they would miss or skim over large sections of the story simply because they didn’t find the clues leading to them. Combats could be deadly, and often challenges (such as assaulting Gavigan’s Misr House) were extremely difficult – not simply in terms of hazard to life and limb, but in the players being able to physically come up with and execute a clever plan. Both the missing of clues and the difficulty of action were described by my players as ‘pixel-bitching’ – there was often one way of doing things that would work, that is described in the campaign, and if that method is not attempted or thought of, then the attempt fails. What was on the character sheet often did not support doing odd things through coincidence or people that they know. The characters also operated in a social vacuum – they had no relatives, friends or lovers since these were not on the sheet and to create them would simply invite their death and associated sanity loss.
In character generation, the characters in Trail came to life more readily. While a good roleplayer can breathe life into any bunch of stats, I found by comparison the drives made the Trail characters more real. In addition, these made the connections to Jackson Elias more believable – we tried to tie the drives in to Jackson as much as possible, so that he was always a presence in the game, at least for the first generation of characters. In Call of Cthulhu Jackson Elias tends to fade into the background and be forgotten almost immediately.
There is a lot going on in Masks of Nyarlathotep – almost immediately the players are confronted by clues and leads. But one thing I had always felt was that there is so much going on underneath the surface, that it is a shame that the players never see it. One early example is Erica Carlyle. She is a fount of clues and mythos tomes. But in Call of Cthulhu it is very hard to get access to her, and requires a lot of time and effort. In Trail there are mechanics (Credit Rating) that a player can use to gain access to her almost immediately. So I found that the players were more easily, and realistically, able to understand what was going on a lot better. Backstory that isn’t known is, to my mind wasted, so I was pleased that it was so much easier to find out what is going on and gain access to people.
This leads to what I feel is the crucial difference and it is related to finding out more, and ‘pixel-bitching’. Ultimately players are more empowered in Trail of Cthulhu. A player can creatively think of ways to overcome problems and use his points pool to use them. In Call of Cthulhu there is usually a single skill that can be used to solve a problem. Part of this is attributable to the fact that the campaign is written for Call of Cthulhu, and therefore detailed instructions on what will succeed and fail are in CoC terms – and therefore a ToC GM can feel less constrained. But also the broad skill base, and the ability for players to spend points to succeed made them feel more like they were in control of their own destinies. In fact, to return to the title of this essay, even in classic mode, Trail of Cthulhu Masks played like an Indiana Jones style pulp adventure. There were old school buddies popping up around the world, connections were made with the powerful and the sleazy, outrageous plans were put into action, ludicrous disguises were somehow pulled off. In Call of Cthulhu the characters are much weaker. And this is a strength of Call of Cthulhu in comparison to Trail. The frailty of the characters engendered more fear and caution. In Trail, because there was player empowerment, and also because a player with skill points to spare knows he has some luck in reserve, risks were taken. sometimes these played out, sometimes not, but there was overall less suspense.
This effect was also exaggerated by combat. As it stands, combat is not very deadly in Trail and I felt that a lot of the fights particularly the climactic ones at the end of each chapter, played out a lot more pulp-ish than they do in Call of Cthulhu. In CoC, violence is a horrible threat, and in any fight, particularly with mythos creatures, there is a very immediate threat of death. This made Masks play like a pulp adventure even when the scene as written was very grim and sordid. For example, in the snake house in London, my Call of Cthulhu characters snuck in and out, with a desperate knife fight to escape. In Trail, they threw themselves out glass windows to escape, and raked the house with gunfire. The rules simply seem to encourage that sort of daredevil activity.
Combat – deadly but not deadly
Trail is my preferred game for Masks. It is such a well crafted story that it is better for the players to find out what is going on. The rules of Trail encourage great, appropriate roleplaying. One of our characters murdered poor Roger Carlyle, in order to go into denial and not lose sanity. That was a fantastic scene, and one that flowed out of the rules. It simply wouldn’t have happened in Call of Cthulhu because there was no rules mechanic to encourage it. The characters are more real and memorable, because they have relationships and motivations, and they are more able to solve some of the stickier problems creatively. But the game, already quite pulpy in tone, becomes even more so with Trail of Cthulhu – again as a result of the rules. Call of Cthulhu gives a more measured, paranoid and threatening campaign, but also one with more frustration and confusion. Which might be more in line with Lovecraft. No matter what the rule set, though, an amazing campaign.
Editor: An updated reprint of Masks of Nyarlathotep will be out August 2010. See the Chaosium site for details.