The Keeper of the Clues

Trail_300by Tony Williams

I first played RPGs in my middle teens during the time Michael Jackson’s Thriller was dominating the charts. The gateway drug, as it was for most of us I suspect, was D&D. I played with my schoolfriends and we had a great time but D&D, as it was presented in those days ( what is now called “old school” ), did lead us to perceiving the roll of the Dungeon Master as somewhat more adversarial than it would be thought of these days ( probably due to the early D&D rules being an offshoot of miniature wargaming ).

We fell into the paradigm of; burst into the dungeon room, smite the monster, disarm the trap, take the treasure and move on to the next room, repeat until you finished the dungeon and then take great delight in “levelling up.” The Dungeon Master was there to make sure you didn’t manage this. He wasn’t quite meant to kill you ( at least not until near the end ) otherwise the £5 you had spent on the TSR module would have been to waste.

A few years pass and I’m at university and have put away childish things to be cool, grown-up and do grown-up things like getting drunk and falling over. My new university friends surprised me by one day mentioning they wouldn’t mind playing an RPG. At the local Games Workshop, at that time still stocking a wide variety of games other than their own, through a combination of one of us having read Lovecraft and some guidance by the shopkeeper, we purchased a brown box that said Call of Cthulhu on the cover.

Because of my past experience I volunteered to be the Dungeon Master, sorry…“Keeper,” read the rulebook and we sat down one evening to play The Haunted House. We loved it, possibly encouraged by the fact that at an opportune moment another friend popped his head around my door to ask if we all wanted to go to the bar and in the state we had worked ourselves into we all jumped with fright ( true story, honest ).

At first my attitude to being Keeper was inevitably coloured by my experience at being a Dungeon Master. I thought my role was to interpret rules and skill tests quite literally and the important thing was that the investigators needed to earn the clues and their skill improvement rolls at the end of the scenario. As we continued playing with adventures from The Asylum and Terror from the Stars I ultimately realised that Call of Cthulhu just wasn’t about players slogging at clues and “levelling up,” it was about shepherding them through what were often quite lethal or sanity-shattering adventures. I learned that weaving the best story we could manage as a group was really the ultimate aim.

In practice this often led to fudging skill rolls for players in order for them to “find” the next section of the adventure. At first I was wary of what I perceived as “breaking the rules” as written in the rulebook but I realised if a whole subsection of the scenario exists with handouts, maps and interesting story twists, it was tantamount to stupidity to hide it behind a single “Spot Hidden” roll that all the players might fail. I therefore made my peace with letting players pass “Spot Hidden” tests, whatever the rulebook or the dice said, in order to get to the next juicy bit of the mystery.

Strange eons have passed, I am a lot older but fortunate enough to still be in regular contact with most of my university friends and we still play Call of Cthulhu periodically if not as much. Lately however I came across a game called Trail of Cthulhu that was rated very highly on sites such as RPGGeek. “How on earth can a newly-hatched, upstart of a game be rated as highly as Call of Cthulhu ?” I asked myself and ordered a copy to see if the fuss was warranted.

A revelation awaited as I poured through the rulebook when it arrived. Amazingly I only needed a single six-sided die to play and a whole myriad of Call of Cthulhu rules and charts boiled down to simple “test rolls.”  I became excited and keen to play. It was clear from the rulebook that story was key in Trail of Cthulhu and the pathway through the narrative was by use of the “core clue” mechanic.

As you, dear reader, probably already know the GUMSHOE rule system at the heart of Trail of Cthulhu and the Esoterrorists 2nd Edition game is designed to erase the problem of the failed “Spot Hidden” roll I described earlier. Adapting my Keeper style of play from Call of Cthulhu to a GUMSHOE style in Trail of Cthulhu did take some getting used to and it is this adaptation that is really the point of this article rather than my history with RPG games.

As I absorbed the Trail of Cthulhu rulebook most of it came easily to me; the skill point system, the test system and the health, stability and sanity system – all very simple and elegant. The only thing that I was left somewhat uncertain over was the clue system.

I understood that there were core clues and non-core clues. Core clues were important for the players to progress through the scenario and non-core clues were for flavour or to add some understanding to the mystery that presented itself. If the players did not get non-core clues, however, it would not prevent them from finishing the adventure. My exact uncertainty was how was I meant to alert the players that there were clues to get in any given scene ? Was I even meant to alert them or should they drive the process themselves ?

The Trail of Cthulhu rulebook didn’t give a lot of guidance on this question apart from “make sure the players get the core clues.” It also mentioned the possible use of a “SCENE” card that the Keeper can turn over when all clues are exhausted to inform the players that it isn’t worth hanging around anymore at that point in time. However I still felt unsure and worried if I would be playing the game “correctly” when I first ran an adventure.

I’ve ran two Trail of Cthulhu adventures for my friends so far and the first The Dance in the Blood was a massive success despite me feeling that uncertainty about how I was handling the clue process. The second was a short d20 Call of Cthulhu conversion called Infest which in hindsight I realised I didn’t convert well and thus didn’t play out technically as well as The Dance in the Blood.

In an attempt to rid myself of my insecurity over how I was handling clues I set about reanalysing the Trail of Cthulhu rulebook and the current draft of the Esoterrorists 2nd Edition rules and noted down everything mentioned about clues.

As of the current draft of Esoterrorists 2nd Edition there are now the following types of GUMSHOE clue:

  • Core Clues – clues which steer the players from each key scene to the next. It is imperative that players obtain these clues.
  • Zero Spend Clues – non-core clues that are associated with a particular skill but cost the player no skill pool points to obtain. However the player must have a non-zero skill rating and choose to engage that skill in the scene to get the clue.
  • Point Spend Clues – non-core clues that require the player to hand over 1 or 2 skill pool points in a particular skill and require the player to say they are using that skill.
  • Inconspicuous Clues – a clue that requires no pool points to obtain but does require a non-zero skill level rating in a particular skill. However the investigator will be awarded the clue if they are just present at the scene without having to state they are using their skill. An example in the draft Esoterrorists 2nd Edition rulebook is a player passing through a hotel lobby noticing a spot of blood on the carpet because the blood spot is associated with the Evidence Collection skill which the player possesses.
  • Simple-Search Clues – clues that require no point spend and are not associated with any particular skill but which will be given to any player who states they are searching a particular scene or object that holds the clue. An example given is finding an envelope taped underneath a table in a room subjected to a search.

For some reason inconspicuous clues and simple search clues hadn’t registered with me when I first read the Trail of Cthulhu rulebook. Just making this list of clue types crystallised the correct order of questions I should be asking myself when creating my own clues for my own scenarios or converting a Call of Cthulhu scenario to the GUMSHOE mechanic:

Should this be a core clue ?

If it needn’t be, then how is it found ?

Is it a simple-search clue ?

If it isn’t, then is it an inconspicuous clue ?

If it isn’t, then it must be a zero or point spend clue – the pool point spend ( 0,1 or 2 ) depending on how juicy the information is.

Of the GUMSHOE clue types, core clues and zero/point spend clues still require that a player actively decide to use the associated skill within the given scene to obtain it. As a Keeper I am therefore still left with a quandary at this point; how blatant should I be in alerting players that there are still clues remaining in a scene that require them to initiate their skill use ? I have been pondering the different approaches I could take:

I could be very obvious at the start of a scene and place three indicators on the table ( e.g. marbles ) if there were three clues. However this would probably leave the players feeling the need to obtain all three clues and perhaps resorting to running through their skills like a shopping list until all were found – not a particularly satisfying style of play, but valid.

I could be more prescriptive and, for each unclaimed clue, lead the players through a buying process;

Me: “Is Lord Bumbury-Smythe willing to pay a point of Art History whilst examining the book ?”

Player: “Yes.”

Me: “He remembers the star pattern illustrated in the book has appeared in many medieval church frescos in Pembrokeshire.”

Choosing this style of play would mean the players are not flailing about with the “shopping list” approach but they are not really leading the clue finding process – the Keeper is.

I could take a back seat entirely – giving the players no indication whatsoever that clues are available, nor how many. I suspect this could lead to players missing many non-core clues in a scenario, or perhaps falling back to the “shopping list” approach. It would make the game quite heavy going but every clue obtained would certainly be well-earned and the players would have a feeling of ownership over any clues they obtained.

The scene card mentioned in the Trail of Cthulhu rulebook is another possibility but until I had turned it over to signal the end of a scene, players might feel frustrated that there were most probably more clues to get but they had not yet figured out which skills to use.

In writing this article I have formulated a hybrid mechanism that I have yet to try in play, but perhaps will be a good compromise. In general I think it is easier for players to initiate the process of obtaining a clue themselves when it is associated with the interpersonal skill set of GUMSHOE than it is with the other skill sets. With players it is often a priority to interview witnesses, flatter NPCs, try to intimidate them, etc. and this will quite quickly bring any interpersonal clue to the surface. However it is usually less obvious to a player which exact technical or academic skill might yield a clue when examining evidence or a crime scene.

In my next game of Trail of Cthulhu I will try withholding all interpersonal clues until the players themselves invoke the correct skill but I will take the prescriptive approach described earlier with clues assigned to technical or academic skills if the players have difficulty getting them. In this way the players will have a sense of achievement and ownership when obtaining interpersonal clues rather than just relying on my largesse to hand them out. They may also get the odd technical or academic clue by themselves but, failing that, I’ll make a decision to either prompt them or leave the clue unfound. Unless, of course, it is a core clue.

I must make a point about core clues to anyone reading this who has not yet played a GUMSHOE game but is about to do so. Core clues are “special” in GUMSHOE – they are clues that the players absolutely need in order to work out how to progress through the adventure. An analogue does not officially exist in the Call of Cthulhu rulebook but, as every Call of Cthulhu Keeper will attest, they definitely do exist in every scenario – they are just not presented as such. A wise Call of Cthulhu Keeper will have absorbed the information presented in a scenario before play and made note of those clues that are “core” and those that are not. During the game the Keeper will then do their damnedest to get those clues into the players’ hands which can possibly necessitate use of the “Spot Hidden” fudge described earlier or some other Call of Cthulhu fudge.

The same applies to core clues in a GUMSHOE game. Although it isn’t strictly fudging, this is where a GUMSHOE core clue become somewhat malleable. In a GUMSHOE scenario a core clue will be assigned to one or more skill abilities as possible ways to hand out the clue. However these are only suggestions. In GUMSHOE, Keepers are encouraged to give out a core clue if they, or their players, come up with any sensible use of any skill that feels suitable within the scene. If all else fails, the Keeper may have to suggest to the players a certain skill use would be worthwhile in this scene. The Call of Cthulhu Keeper, in the equivalent quandary, would probably start asking his players for “Luck” or “Idea” rolls at this point and hope that he didn’t have to fudge those as well.

In summary then, the following table shows the ways skill point spends, skill requirements, and who initiates the clue-finding process, all relate to the different GUMSHOE clue types:


Specific Skill Required Point Spend Required Active Player Skill Use

Core Clue




Zero Spend Clue




Point Spend Clue




Inconspicuous Clue




Simple Search Clue




1 Core clues should be made available via any ability skill use the investigators have access to that the Keeper deems appropriate to the scene.
2 Keepers may wish to prompt players that clues which require active skill use are available in a scene. How to prompt is left open to interpretation by the Keeper.
3 A player only has to state their investigator is “searching” the object or area which will yield the Simple Search Clue rather than actually invoking a particular ability skill.

Where a player is required to actively use a skill to obtain a clue I have offered some ideas for different styles of “prompting” the Keeper can adopt to alert investigators to clue availability. The style of prompting will have various effects on the game – on how swiftly a game progresses, how much “ownership” a player will feel about any clues they obtain and how difficult the game will feel to the players. This is very much a balancing act and there is no absolute or “correct” way to go about this. It will depend on your players just as much as how you feel about the process. Perhaps you have other ideas on how to subtly flag clues up to GUMSHOE players. If so, then do share them in the Pelgrane Forum.

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