Trail of Cthulhu and Clue Finding

I've been rereading Trail of Cthulhu lately.  I think I want to use it as the system for the 1930's pulp/Weird War 2 game I can't get out of my head.  As I've been rereading it, I've been reminded that I owe this game a debt for making me realize something that now seems obvious but, at the time, blew me away.

Trail of Cthulhu (ToC) is based on the Gumshoe system.  I honestly don't know much about the system outside of ToC, but it's built for investigative/mystery solving sorts of games and revolves around a simple premise: PC's are meant to find clues in these games, so they auotmatically find them.  No role needed.

That was the revelatory part, embarrasingly enough.  But it blew me away because it struck at the heart of a significant issue I had with D&D since 3.0 came out.  With such a robust skill system in place, D&D 3.0 and it's spawn (3.5, Pathfinder, and on into 4.0) invites us to make skills an integral part of the game, especially to give skill focused characters like the thief, er rogue,  some spotlight time.  That, in turn, poses a problem for adventure design.  On one hand, if skills, skill checks, and those who rely on them as class lynchpins are to be meaningful, there needs to be some game heft beind them -- there needs to be consequences for failure and rewards for success.  Yet, often the reward for success is "continue with the adventure" or "find something really important."  Which brings me to the other side of the problem.  If there are to be stakes at all, there needs to be a chance for failure.  If failure occurrs, then the reward for success doesn't happen.  If that reward doesn't happen, often the adventure grinds to a halt.  At the very least, significant frustration results.

I saw this all the time, as the party needed a skill check to open a door/remove a trap/sneak around some bad guys and would botch the roll.  This would not be such a bad thing in certain cases.  Maybe they would just have to fight the monster instead of sneaking by it, or maybe they would just hack down the door instead of picking the lock. But in other cases, especially when they needed a bit of info to make the adventure continue (or at least be more meaningful and/or more fun), this really sucked.

Hence, the genuis of ToC.  It's a game built for solving mysteries and confronting the nastiness that made the mystery in the first place.  Clues are needed to solve mysteries.  Hence, these clues get found.  Otherwise, there's no adventure.  Players know this and, ideally, buy into the idea.  The accept the fact that the why and how of getting the clues is just as important as the brute fact of getting them.

Like I said, this seems obvious now.  But it took a new system to point out to me an issue with most of the other games I was playing and running.


  1. Absolutely with you there. When I read that- I went "Oh, yeah." I looked back at all of the twisting and turning I'd done in games when players missed a key clue and found themselves stuck- inevitably as a GM you had to fix things. ToC/GS acknowledged that in a way I hadn't thought about before.


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