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A column about roleplaying
by Robin D. Laws
Since Cthulhu Confidential’s arrival in foyers and post office boxes worldwide, a couple of folks have asked me how one might go about combining GUMSHOE One-2-One with Trail of Cthulhu’s standard multiplayer format.
The short answer is, uh, I didn’t design them to fit together like that.
The rest of this column will consist of a longer answer that boils down to, uh, here’s a few things you can try but they’re not playtested so get ready to kludge on the fly.
When designing One-2-One my goal was not to seamlessly port the player from solo to group play, but to make the solo play as fun and functional as possible in its own right. Making the two games interoperable would have introduced a layer of complexity that taxed One-2-One GMs and players to no immediate payoff. A big chunk of the audience for One-2-One turns out to be people introducing previously unfamiliar friends and loved ones to roleplaying, so that would have been a serious mistake.
Tuning the game for solo play meant reexamining basic elements we take for granted in multiplayer, like hit points that slowly tick away and can lead to a character’s death at any moment in the story. To serve the one-player format, I came up with Problem card mechanism, which is not only different from Health pools in standard GUMSHOE, but in a completely other ballpark.
So that leaves us with two games that share an overall feeling but on the granular level don’t plug together.
The easiest way to merge them is to move from one to the other without ever looking back.
If you’ve been running a Trail series for one player, you can work with them to adapt that PC to One-2-One. Conversely, once you recruit a new crop of players to start a Trail series, you could then turn that One-2-One PC into a ToC investigator.
The key word here is adapt, not convert.
Mathematical conversions from one system to another almost invariably wind up with weird imbalances and often a less playable character than you’d get by starting from square one.
Tell the player to keep in mind what she knows about her character from having played her, and especially what the investigator has actually done in the course of scenarios to date. Forget the numbers; remember the core concept.
For Trail, go through the standard steps of character creation, recreating the idea of the One-2-One PC in that system.
To adapt into Cthulhu Confidential, sit down with the player to follow the recommendations for new character creation on p. 294 of that book: around 14 investigative abilities and 18 dice in general abilities, with no more than 2 dice per ability.
Since the ability lists differ, you’re not trying to get everything to line up absolutely. Think of this as resembling the process by which a character from a comic or series of novels becomes the protagonist in a TV show: it’s the broad strokes that matter.
A One-2-One character will need Sources to fill her in when she runs into a clue her abilities don’t illuminate. If you’re moving the investigator from an actual multiplayer Trail game, that’s simple—just use the other players’ characters, who you’ll now be portraying as GMCs.
If you were playing Trail solo, work with your player to invent outside experts she can consult as needed.
When devising scenarios, remember to limit the number of times the investigator will need to call on Sources.
Having a character who moves between Trail and Confidential poses the biggest design conundrum.
If the character suffers the shattering of a Pillar of Sanity in Trail, you may wish to acknowledge that in Confidential with a Continuity Problem card. Whether it imposes a story or a mechanical effect or both depends on the situation. Other ongoing consequences of past Trail events might also become One-2-One Problem cards. Conversely, you could reward exceptional problem-solving in a Trail session with an Edge card that can be spent to good effect in the following Confidential episode.
Going the other way around, you might decide that Continuity Problems picked up in Confidential might come into play in Trail.
Narrative-based card effects, as with “Charlie Chaplin Owes You” (CC p. 139), are the easiest to pull off. Your player’s detective, self-taught physics genius Ethel Peaslee, gains the movie star’s confidence when the two of you play your version of “The Fathomless Sleep.” Then, in a Trail session, her player makes use of that card, getting the entire group into an exclusive garden party to brace an otherwise unapproachable witness.
Continuity Edges that exert a mechanical effect in One-2-One might grant a +1 bonus to some or all general tests. Continuity Problem cards could likewise impose a -1 penalty.
Like the design of the Problems and Edges themselves, this is all situational. You’re not doing much more creative work than you would normally do when constructing a One-2-One scenario.
Crossing the streams might see you building individual side quests into an epic Trail series. An investigator might come back from the Dreamlands, the Plateau of Leng, or the twisting boulevards of Los Angeles to share the results of an individual mission undertaken between this Trail scenario and the last one. After the group decides to steer clear of a disturbing mystery in Trail, a player can follow it up solo in Confidential.
Think twice before running One-2-One interludes only for certain members of your group. If one or two players are having a richer experience because they’re getting to also play Confidential with you, the remaining members of the Trail game may come to feel like second bananas. You might be able to remedy this by building in hooks that require the frequent soloists to cede spotlight time to the others in multiplayer mode. That gem Ethel found in D’yath-Leen might provide the key to finding J0e Morgan’s long-lost sister, say. Be doubly wary of an imbalance of perceived attention when you’re personally closer to the One-2-One player(s) than the ones who only take part in the Trail game.
This is all speculation, as I have yet to try to interweave the two games and don’t see that as a likely possibility for my own GUMSHOE play. If you do give it a whirl, let us know how it goes!