Review: Pelgrane Press – Trail of Cthulhu (GUMSHOE)

Trail of Cthulhu
Trail of Cthulhu is a complete modern investigative horror roleplaying game (powered by the GUMSHOE system) based in the Cthulhu Mythos written by Kenneth Hite and Robin D. Laws and published by Pelgrane Press.
By Aaron T. Huss

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Call of Cthulhu is an RPG that focuses on the investigation of the Cthulhu Mythos horrors using a large number of skills that need to be rolled at or below to discover what you’re looking for. But what happens if your dice aren’t playing by the same rules and betray you during that game session? Well, you end up with no shortage of dead investigators and a game that feels more like survival horror than investigative horror. So how do you resolve that? By switching to Trail of Cthulhu! How is it different? Trail of Cthulhu focuses very heavily on the investigation by separating the list of skills into investigative and non-investigative (General). If you possess an investigative skill, you automatically succeed at the task you are performing. There’s no need to roll the dice and leave your investigation to chance, you simply succeed and find the clue. The result is a game that stays true to the investigative horror theme by not allowing the investigators to miss those important clues. While Call of Cthulhu has excellent moments of horror and supernatural unknown, Trail of Cthulhu feels more like an HP Lovecraft story with its ability to keep the story moving forward without getting bogged down in the minutiae of the actual investigation.

When dice rolls are necessary, Trail of Cthulhu uses a roll-over d6 plus a number of points spent from the character’s skill rating versus a difficulty number defined by the level of difficulty for the action being performed or versus an opposed roll if another is opposing the action. Each character is defined by a number of points assigned to their various skills, allowing them to improve their odds of success when rolling a d6. In other words, your points are not used to simply define your roll, they are there to improve your roll and thus improve your chances of success. If you spend one point, then it’s d6+1, two points is d6+2, etc. However, when it comes to investigation, you auto-succeed as long as you have the right skill and are looking in the right place. Points can be spent to make your success that much cooler! And that’s it, basic dice rolls and only when necessary.


The Investigator covers all aspects of character creation including choosing the investigator’s occupation and drives plus an explanation of investigative and general abilities in the GUMSHOE system. An investigator’s occupation is what they do professionally while their drive defines why they are investigating.

Clues, Tests and Contests is an explanation of the GUMSHOE system in terms of gathering clues, performing tests and contests (dice rolling), and a look at stability, sanity, madness, and recovery.

The Cthulhu Mythos is all about what the investigator’s will be coming up against. This chapter covers a wide array of Cthulhu Mythos aspects including the Gods and Titans (although without stats as they are too big to ever think of defeating), tomes and magic, creatures, alienc races, beasts and monsters, and cults and cultists.

The Thirties details the Trail of Cthulhu setting, the 1930s. Here you find bits and pieces about what the 1930s was like and a list of equipment available during that time.

Putting it All Together is a mash-up of ideas on how Trail of Cthulhu “looks and feels” on the tabletop.

Campaign Frames presents three campaign frames for use within Trail of Cthulhu. These are brief details and given more as an overview than the actual guts to run the campaign.

The Kingsbury Horror is a fully-designed scenario for Trail of Cthulhu. This presents a good starting point for the investigators and introduces the mechanics of Trail of Cthulhu.

Appendices presents you with a number of valuable references including information for converting Call of Cthulhu publications to Trail of Cthulhu, a list of Cthulhu Mythos fiction, and a collection of reference sheets for Trail of Cthulhu.


The concept of moving from the horror side of the Cthulhu Mythos to the investigation side can prove difficult within other role-playing games. With Trail of Cthulhu, this move is done almost flawlessly with the incorporation of the GUMSHOE system and the focus on investigation and role-playing over dice rolling. With the inclusion of the conversion notes from Call of Cthulhu, you can run some of your favorite scenarios and campaigns in a way that gives the investigators the tools they need to solve the “unknown.”


Publication Quality: 9 out of 10
Trail of Cthulhu has a very interesting 3-column layout that looks almost like a newspaper when viewed as a 2-page spread. However, the format in which the book is created works well with the 3-column layout and I found the book to be very easy to read with no shortage of extra explanations and examples. Additionally, Trail of Cthulhu is set in the 1930s and based in the Cthulhu Mythos, both reflected beautifully in the art. The artwork looks like scenes from the 1930s mixed with artwork representing the eeriness of the Cthulhu Mythos. The cover art really captures it all.

Mechanics: 10 out of 10
I am a lover of Call of Cthulhu and this is the first time I had ever thought about the effects of not grabbing that important clue and the ramifications of such on your scenario and more importantly, a campaign. After reading through Trail of Cthulhu, the “aha” moment comes when you think of how your trained investigator should be able to perform such a menial task in regards to his or her training. If they’re a private investigator or detective, why wouldn’t they find that clue in the office? It should be a given and role-played out without relying on unforgiving dice. Essentially, Trail of Cthulhu puts the investigation back into investigative horror without any questions. But when it comes to dice resolution, the simple mechanics of adding points from your pool to the dice to improve success keeps the rest of the story moving along in a speedy fashion.

Desire to Play: 9 out of 10
There’s no shortage of Cthulhu games out there and Trail of Cthulhu doesn’t claim to present you with a new twist on the Cthulhu Mythos. What it does do, however, is present you with a game that keeps the investigation going and prevents missing the important clues. If you want a truly investigative game, then Trail of Cthulhu does what you’re looking for. If you want survival horror, you could do that here as well, but then you’d be missing on a big part of the GUMSHOE system. This is true investigation.

Overall: 9 out of 10
Trail of Cthulhu takes a great approach to the Cthulhu Mythos by focusing more on its investigative and experiencing the “unknown” aspects of traditional HP Lovecraft fiction. While others focus more on the horror, Trail of Cthulhu gets back to the core of what a character is there to do, just don’t try to tangle with the horrors as you may die quickly.

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