Friday, 5 August 2016

Cthulhu: Call, Trail or Realms?

Well that's a big question to be ending the week with. But I feel like I'm qualified to answer it. I've been playing Call of Cthulhu since my last year at school (1989). It was my 'go to' game to run during the 1990s. In the early 2000s I started running Savage Worlds, and in 2009 Reality Blurs published a Savage Worlds Cthulhu hack called Realms of Cthulhu. Finally, at around the same time, Kenneth Hite's Trail of Cthulhu was published by Pelgrane Press, building on Robin Laws' Gumshoe system (originally used for Esoterrorists).

So, which should you be considering when starting down the road of Cthulhu gaming?

Call of Cthulhu has now entered its 7th iteration since it was published by Chaosium in 1981. It is still widely played and there has been an enormous amount of material published for it over the years. It still stands as a firm favourite with many veteran gamers, but this is more nostalgia these days than anything else. I'm not sure it is keeping up with some of the newer, slicker rules packages out there. I've only just started reading the new edition, so don't feel completely qualified to comment on how it compares with older variations. However, first impressions are that it does not represent a major change.

Realms of Cthulhu is really more of a 'pulp' take on the game. It uses the Savage Worlds engine, and you would still need to own a copy of the SW rules. Realms is essentially a supplement. SW is a fast-paced, high action game. I've been using it to run a campaign of Deadlands Noir, but to be honest, I'm not completely happy using SW for investigative games. You can tweak Savage Worlds to play a somewhat grittier game, but CoC characters feel a lot more vulnerable to me - they break more easily - than their Savage Worlds counterparts. If you want to run a campaign like Masks of Nyarlathotep, I'd suggest Realms, as it works better for those dangerous expeditions into the savage unknown.

Realms has some useful conversion rules if you would like to convert published CoC material into Savage Worlds. Its scenario generator is also excellent if you want to build an original adventure: I've been using it in conjunction with Tour of Darkness to write my 90 Days in the Valley Vietnam War campaign. Note also that you can use Savage Worlds with the Achtung Cthulhu books from Modiphius for WW2 survival horror or pulp action games.

I have not yet run Trail of Cthulhu, but I have GM'd its cousins, Esoterrorists and Night's Black Agents, and have to say that I like them loads. Gumshoe is a very good system if you want to run an investigative game. Now that it has an open license, writers are taking it into all sorts of intriguing directions, but ultimately Laws wrote this to be an investigative / conspiracy game, and it works superbly in this respect. I used it for a survival horror game inspired by the video games Resident Evil and Dino Crisis called Project Blue Tempest, and it has worked very well.

Trail also streamlines combat, and doesn't suffer from the plot road blocks that failed investigative rolls can cause in CoC. Its use of Drives also means that it feels a lot more like traditional Lovecraft stories, in that characters are driven into danger by a personal need chosen by the player. You role play someone who is not just a random victim, but has a reason to be plunging himself into the weird situations the Mythos can throw up.

Gumshoe is also very easy to mix and match: for example, I'm mulling a cyberpunk campaign using my proprietary Secession setting which would mash up elements of Ashen Stars and Mutant City Blues, but that's another story, although the recent coverage of gene therapy technology ahead of the Rio Olympics has me intrigued (cf the use of viro-ware in Ashen Stars).

I'm not going to come down on one side or the other here, and apologise if you were expecting this. It really depends on what sort of game you enjoy. But I hope this sheds a little more light on these games and helps you make a choice if you don't own any of them!


  1. You forgot Delta Green! Which combines what its authors see as the best of CoC's BuRP d100 rules with good bits from Trail of Cthulhu. Will read this properly on holiday. It looks awesome baby!!

  2. I had forgotten about Realms of Cthulhu, which is funny as I've also been wondering if Savage Worlds would have been a better choice for Dracula Dossier than d100.

    If I ever do get around to running Eternal Lies, I think I may do it with Savage Worlds as it has a similar pulpy feel to Masks of Nyarlathotep.

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  4. Double the hit points ala the BURP Gold book!

  5. But if you want to change system I am fine with that! We can simply recreate our pcs with the SW rules. :)

    1. I think I'd prefer to carry on with what we're using, but I'll put it to the group and see what the consensus is.