Sunday, December 11, 2011

What I don't like about Trail of Cthulhu

Since I just ran a game of Call of Cthulhu, including some rules and concepts from Trail of Cthulhu, I have spent some time pondering the qualities of the latter.

Why did I not just run a ToC game?

Basically, my main beef with ToC is that I don't really feel very comfortable about rolling one die. It might seem like a small thing, but I want more randomness in my games.

If you, like in ToC, rolls 1d6, may add in "spends" from your pools (all skills are pools of points) trying to beat difficulty of, say, 3-4, it goes without saying that most times randomness wont be a factor. Naturally, this is a design feature. Robin Laws who designed the game clearly states that his idea is to make the system drive a kind of narrative that behaves in a specified way.

Personally I like the quality of "new school" games, like the forge style games and others, to have rules that reinforce and drive toward a style of play the designer envision his or her game to be about. Many times, almost as many times that I have claimed Alignment leads to brain damage, I have elevated the rule of gold equals xp to sublime levels of design mastery, due to the effects it can have in enforcing a style of play. This is something I think is the great re-discovery stemming from Ron Edwards "system matters".

What kind of style is it then that ToC reinforce with its pools you can spend for basically guaranteed success? Well, it is a game where you can be sure, as a player, that the actions of your character will succeed. If you have a decent pool of at least 2, trying to beat 4 (a rough mean of a 2-8 scale) is an average chance of success of more than 80%. I think that makes it kind of pointless to have a randomizer with those odds. Before we delve too deep into math and probabilities, the main point of my argument is that on such a small scale a spend of one point, to say nothing of more than one, makes successes almost certain.

So, why is that bad? Isn't it good for the players to have say in when they get to shine? Well, no. Not when the object of the game is horror.

Horror demands giving up certainty and hope. Vagueness and isolation, and the strong possibility of failure and its following painful result is what drives the sense of horror. I think ToC is a fine game for CSI, but not for horror.

Some say the rules don't work that way in actual play, and they might be right. I have only played ToC once, but it did not falsify my principal objections to the rules. Feel free to disagree!


  1. I've played a bit of both games and agree with this perspective - the Gumshoe point spend system for combat and conflict resolution leaves me a little cold as well - the statement that "automatic success undermines horror" is appropriate.

    What TOC gets right are the drives, pillars, stability and sanity scores, and the its approach to getting clues answered. Plus, the writing for the TOC adventures is top-notch.

    My platonic ideal might be C0C, with TOC adventures converted to BRP, and porting stability, drives, and pillars of sanity into COC.

  2. I'm on the fence about Stability, but as you might have seen if you have read my latest posts, those rules you mentioned are exactly the ones I ported over to CoC!

    That you find the writing of the ToC adventures to be top notch is interesting. I own Dying of St Margaret’s, but haven't actually read it very closely since first buying it, since a friend offered to run it for me.

    The other scenario I have been thinking of is The Big Hoodoo. The rest I must confess have not made me that interested. I wonder if it's something about the subject matter or it's presentation?

    I do own Stunning Eldritch Tales, but those scenarios failed to impress me. One of the adventures, the one inspired by HPL's From Beyond, is similar to a scenario published in The Unspeakable Oath, and that one interested me much more. Bland is the feeling I have about that book, compared to e.g. Out of the Vault by Pagan Publishing.

  3. Isn't the point of COC that when you meet the horror it is so perverse, alien and potent that there is nothing you can do about it? Who cares if you can have an 80% rate of finding worshipers of Dagon. They are worshipers of Dagon. You're out of your mind. Is there a different experience that I don't know of?

  4. I think ToC is a fine game for CSI, but not for horror.

    For a lot of people, Lovecraftian games are all about investigation, with horror serving primarily as color. I've never seen it that way myself, but I know enough people who do that I suspect there's a market for games like ToC. That market just doesn't include me.

  5. Eric,

    True, but in horror the atmosphere and mood is everything and I think that's hindered by the feeling that you will succeed at that roll if you just spend some points. Both characters and players should be in doubt, in my view.

  6. James,

    You are right, indeed.

    I once played in a con game where every detail had been painstakingly researched for period authenticity, but the story was cliched and banal. It is almost as if CoC is a 1920 re-enactment game, not a game about lovecraftian horrors!

    I think it needs to be put in the spotlight once in a while what it is supposed to be. Like you said, I guess there is a market for some of that...

  7. Gearing up to start a Call of Cthulhu campaign very soon. It's been years since I've gotten to use what I would call the very "elegant" and easy basic role-playing system. It just works so good for the genre. Can't wait!

  8. The way I understand the rationalization behind ToC's system, is that it's all about depletable resources. This applies to "skills" as well as stability and health. The horror element is supposed to emerge from the fact that your resources will, during the course of a scenario, eventually run out. At least that's how I perceive the explanation in the rulebook. I'm not sure how well I think it works, though.

  9. In a more general sense, yes I guess it is supposed to be a game of resource management. I think it is lacking in support for anything but investigation, rules wise. I think James is right about what it is all about.


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