Originally posted March 2008

I finally made some decent progress reading through Trail of Cthulu, Ken Hite’s new Cthulu RPG based on the Gumshoe System. While it has interesting ideas, I feel like it’s right on the verge of having a core mechanic, but, instead, is a hard-to-remember hodge-podge of similar but unconnected systems.

Currently, the system has several main traits:

Investigative abilities are bought with their own pool of creation points. There’s a lot of them, and you generally only have a few levels in them. The pool used to buy them goes up if there are only a few PCs, because the group is meant to have most of them covered. You spend them to get clues related to that ability without ever rolling anything. As long as you have points left, you can automatically find clues related to that ability. This is the most-touted mechanic of the system, so has to remain in (the ability to get clues automatically so a missed clue doesn’t stall the story).

General abilities are bought with another, bigger pool of creation points. There’s a lot of them, and the example characters have less than 10 levels in any of them, but the only limit on them is that your highest general ability can’t be more than double your second highest ability; the example explaining this points out you could have a general ability in the 30s if you wanted to make an idiot savant. In practice, general ability tests are randomized: you roll 1d6 against a median difficulty of 4 (higher for harder tasks, lower for easier). Before the roll, you can choose to temporarily reduce your ability to make success more likely, though you may not know the difficulty. For example, shooting a target is normally difficulty 3, so you might temporarily reduce your firearms skill by 2 to guarantee success shooting a particular target (1d6+2), or just roll 1d6 and hope to beat a 3. Once you’re out of pool points, you’re basically no different from a novice until a refresh.

Health and stability are purchased as general abilities, but work as both abilities and damage tracks. For health, you lose points when hit, there are penalty milestones at 0 and -6, and you die at -12. For stability, you lose points when something scary or horrifying happens, unless you can make a normal stability test against an average difficulty 4 (e.g., you stand to lose 4 points, so you should probably spend 3 points to guarantee hitting DC 4 with your 1d6 roll; if you only spend 1 point and manage to miss the DC, you’d actually lose 5 points total since the pool is both success currency and damage track). Stability also has milestones at 0 and -6, and you’re incurably insane at -12.

Sanity is bought as a general ability and you better not forget to buy it since you take arbitrary losses with no real way to prevent them. Unlike stability, sanity reflects the lie you’ve told yourself about the world to be able to live as a human, and low sanity is the result of comprehending the Mythos. Sanity is distinct from stability so you can portray both a normal crazy person (low stability) or an in-control Mythos survivor (high stability, low sanity). You lose sanity from seeing horrors, casting spells, or using your Cthulu Mythos skill when investigating to make uncanny leaps of insight, and you’re not supposed to use it quickly (stability loss is for normal scares).

Credit rating is bought as an investigative ability, but you get a minimum free amount from your career (but are also capped at a certain rating). You use it both to indicate your social class, determine your available funds, and spend it to investigate through hob-nobbing.

Re-tooling the system

To compile all of the above into a single mechanic, my current thoughts are:

  1. Expenditures for rolled skills are after the roll, not before the roll. If the DC was 4, and you roll a 2, you can then decide whether it’s worth it to spend 2 points out of your skill to make it a success. (Rationale: The investigative abilities are already set up to guarantee PC success if they’re willing to spend the resources, and I don’t think the drama of randomness is enough to go the opposite way with rolled abilities. Also, there’s not really any benefit to rolling extra-high past the DC, so you can really waste your pool if you commit a lot of points to a roll and then roll high. Also, this means that stability checks can simply be a tradeoff: blow stability pool to succeed at a high DC stress challenge or lose an arbitrary amount of sanity.)
  2. All traits have the same negative milestones of 0, -7, and -13. For damage-style tracks (stability, health, and sanity) these are the points where you start taking global penalties of a certain severity or lose the character (at -13). For most abilities, hitting a milestone imposes penalties: -2 to all rolls of that ability at 0, all rolls start being stressful and lowering stability at -7, and inability to use the skill at -13. (Rationale: This makes the traits more coherent and allows for higher difficulties on many tasks, as you can spend yourself negative if you’re willing to take the consequences.)
  3. All traits have positive milestones at 7 and 13 (with a maximum trait rating of 13 in any ability). For rolled traits, these milestones give you an extra d6 for all uses of that skill, even when you spend down the trait (so even when you’ve spent yourself negative, you still have a decent chance of success compared to those that are much less skilled). Investigative traits reduce clue costs by 1 to a minimum of 1 at the first milestone, and by 1 to a minimum of 0 at the second. (Rationale: This sets a standardized limit on skills, creates a nice reflection of the negative milestones, and gives higher-skilled individuals a consistent advantage on things they chose to specialize in even when they’ve been using their skills a lot.)
  4. Many skills are combined, such that there is a reason to buy them up higher than 1-3 points, particularly for investigative skills. A 13 point skill should bleed off in the course of an adventure at a similar clip to a bunch of related 1-3 point skills in the current game. Most characters will only have about a dozen skills. (Rationale: There are so many skills that there’s no space on the character sheet to actually track skill spends in the current incarnation, much less when I’ve added negative milestones to every skill).
  5. Stability, Sanity, Health, and Credit rating are bought separately from skills. Each career gives out minimum amounts of each, and each career totals the same amount of minimum points between them, then characters get a certain number of points to customize these (possibly up to a maximum in each trait based on the career). This breakdown would probably work as 10 and 10, so each character has 20 points spread between the four traits. (Rationale: Each of these traits is profoundly different from the other abilities, and valuable enough that they’re roughly balanced against each other. Also, characters can widely diverge by spending too many or not enough points to raise them as general skills. This way, career has a solid effect to differentiate characters without completely removing differentiation within the career.)

Edit January 2010: The Alexandrian came to many of the same solutions as I did about the system.