Take Me Down To Cthulhu City
  • Take Me Down To Cthulhu City


    Probably one of the best horror settings to come out for a role-playing game in recent years would be the new Cthulhu City supplement for Trail of Cthulhu from Pelgrane Press. Written by Gareth Ryder-Hanrahan, one of the architects of the Trail of Cthulhu​ game line, the book might appeal to fans of movies like Dark City and The Matrix and who are looking for a less straight forward, more surreal take on the Cthulhu Mythos and using them in gaming. The idea of Cthulhu City is to celebrate the roots of Mythos horror, while at the same time updating them for modern audiences and trying to move away from the more problematic elements of the source material.


    I first saw this book at this past Gen Con, and looked through it a bit at the Pelgrane Press booth. The book looked interesting, and drew me in, but I had already hit the limit of what I could carry on to an airplane, so picking up the book would have to wait. I picked up a copy in PDF, and safely ensconced it on my tablet.

    The first thing that I noticed on reading through the book was how usable this book would be to GMs, regardless of the horror system that they use in their games. While you will find new mechanics for your Trail of Cthulhu games, a majority of the book is intended to be a guidebook to the setting of Cthulhu City and could as easily be used in a Fate Core game as it could be in Trail of Cthulhu. The setting is evocative and flavorful, and hints at a fully realized world in the style of great horror games like the Swedish classic Kult. The setting of Cthulhu City is one drive by belief and the power of the mind on the world, and would make "sense" in a campaign, for example, that draws heavily upon the mythos of the King In Yellow created by Robert W. Chambers.

    The basic concept of Cthulhu City is that the Old Ones of the Mythos have "won," and the world is now forever under their control. Humanity is believed to mostly be the inhabitants of Great Arkham. This is where the inspiration of the movie Dark City creeps into the text. The city of Great Arkham is, in itself, timeless. Much like the city in that movie, Great Arkham is assumed to be the entirety of the world to its inhabitants. The book offers a number of rationales to what Great Arkham is and how it came to exist. I like this approach to a setting because it not only allows room for the gaming group to play in it, but it also means that the questions posed by the setting can be answered via play, rather than being passed down upon the gaming group as some metaplot that needs to be followed.

    The setting of Great Arkham isn't exactly the city of Arkham that is portrayed in Mythos fiction or games. Instead it is more the aggregate of the various settings that Lovecraft, and other writers, have outlined over the decades. There are echoes of Innsmouth, Kingsport and Dunwhich to be found in Great Arkham. Because of the unreality of the Great Old Ones, their victory over humanity and reality has rewritten the world and its history. This means that the world "before" this victory never actually existed, and Great Arkham has always been as it is. Can the world be cured? Can Great Arkham be undone? Much like with the movie Dark City, these questions can be the central ones to a possible campaign.

    For me, this gets to the heart of a good horror campaign. A sustained horror campaign isn't an easy thing to run, and having an evocative setting can help with that. Cthulhu City presents a number of issues that can sustain a campaign over time, like the ones that I mention above. The book outlines a number of cults and faction that provide not only drama to a campaign, but also a political background to the city. The write ups for the various groups talks about how they were founded, and how they work within Great Arkham. You also see the goals of the various groups, and how the groups and their goals can interact with each other. Power is important in Great Arkham, and the powerful can greatly impact the form and function of the city, which means that every cult, every faction wants to be the one that can guide Great Arkham. These groups will often attempt to guide or influence investigators to increase their power, and impact the power of other groups. Rather than a direct conflict between the Witch Coven and The Necromatic Cabal, members of the Coven may feed information to investigators that will allow them to impact activities of the Cabal and, hopefully, increase their own temporal and occult powers within the city.

    Great Arkham is like a gigantic chessboard, and all of the pieces are not only in near constant motion, but they are almost all of importance to the game being played. Even a pawn, someone who thinks that their actions are unimportant against the backdrop of the city, can be positioned in such a way to be able to capture a much greater piece upon the board.

    Cthulhu City is much like one of the classic Works Progress Administration, the government organization that gave jobs to writers, artists and other creative types after the Great Depression, city guidebooks. Where my WPA Guide to New York City is an indispensible part of my pulp role-playing library, so can Cthulhu City fill a similar niche for horror GMs. However, like I mentioned earlier, there are new mechanics for your Trail of Cthulhu games in Great Arkham.

    There are new investigative abilities wrapped around the knowledge of the districts of Great Arkham. In a shadowy city like Great Arkham, knowing the lay of the land can be just as important as having occult powers. And speaking of occult powers, there are a number of new spells for your Trail of Cthulhu games that have arisen from the studies of the sorcerers, witches and necromancers living within Great Arkham. There are also mechanics covering the many gates that connect Great Arkham to other worlds and realms. You can play Great Arkham as a Sigil-like city that exists both outside of time and space, and at the center of everything. This is how you can bring Great Arkham into a Trail of Cthulhu game that isn't set entirely in the city itself. Coming and going from Great Arkham isn't easy, and not getting trapped within the city can become the focus of a group of characters who have inadvertently wandered into it, or who have been sent there by some dread force or spell.

    There is a lot to be found in Cthulhu City, both for Keepers and players of Trail of Cthulhu games, and for those who are looking for an evocative game setting influenced by the Cthulhu Mythos.

    As someone who has spent a lot of time running and playing in horror games, I think that we need to see more tools like Cthulhu City that take our horror games into new directions. Horror games have covered a lot of ground in the decades since the original Call of Cthulhu was published. Instead of retilling this land, digging deeper and deeper until returns are diminished as the same ground is covered again and again. It is good to see a book like Cthulhu City that manages to not only dig deeply into the materials of the Cthulhu Mythos, but to still bring up material that is fresh and useful for your games.
    Comments 13 Comments
    1. William Mize's Avatar
      William Mize -
      There are some REALLY GOOD Trail of C'thulhu scenarios out there.
      I know a lot of people in the ToC community are working hard at converting CoC scenarios to ToC, but I also think an equally valid action would be converting some of the wonderful ToC scenarios to CoC.

      - Bill
    1. TheSwartz's Avatar
      TheSwartz -
      Where the grass is green, and the girls are pretty?
    1. Dannyalcatraz's Avatar
      Dannyalcatraz -
      “...the girls are slith’ry.”
    1. TheIdeaOfGood's Avatar
      TheIdeaOfGood -
      I love Dark City and this looks right up my alley. Now it only needs to come out in digital format so I can get it here in Germany....any eta?
    1. Jhaelen -
      Huh, that's really interesting. That reminds me quite a bit of Neil Gaiman's short story 'A Study in Emerald'.
    1. JPL's Avatar
      JPL -
      Looks like you get a PDF when you order the hard copy, but no PDF only option? Sounds mighty fine, this setting.
    1. M.L. Martin's Avatar
      M.L. Martin -
      Quote Originally Posted by JPL View Post
      Looks like you get a PDF when you order the hard copy, but no PDF only option? Sounds mighty fine, this setting.
      Pelgrane has a policy of not putting standalone PDFs up for sale until the print version's been in stores for usually a month at least.
    1. TheIdeaOfGood's Avatar
      TheIdeaOfGood -
      Quote Originally Posted by Matthew L. Martin View Post
      Pelgrane has a policy of not putting standalone PDFs up for sale until the print version's been in stores for usually a month at least.
      That sucks...any idea when that will be?
    1. JPL's Avatar
      JPL -
      Well, I sprung for the hard copy, and a PDF of the "Trail" corebook, and I'm about thirty minutes into both PDFs. Fine stuff. I like that "hobo" is a featured character background. Hobos vs. Great Old Ones. If that doesn't sound like a great campaign, you need a different hobby.
    1. Nostalgia Ward's Avatar
      Nostalgia Ward -
      This seems line one hell of a game! I'm interested in checking out some of the scenarios. JPL, I was hooked at Hobo's vs. Great Old Ones!
    1. TheIdeaOfGood's Avatar
      TheIdeaOfGood -
      Quote Originally Posted by JPL View Post
      Well, I sprung for the hard copy, and a PDF of the "Trail" corebook, and I'm about thirty minutes into both PDFs. Fine stuff. I like that "hobo" is a featured character background. Hobos vs. Great Old Ones. If that doesn't sound like a great campaign, you need a different hobby.
      Does this scream " They live!" to anyone else but me?
    1. JPL's Avatar
      JPL -
      Quote Originally Posted by TheIdeaOfGood View Post
      Does this scream " They live!" to anyone else but me?
      Or: after you encounter a few things Man Was Not Meant To Know and the old sanity points start eroding, normal life becomes out of the question. You fall in with a group of like-minded knights of the road. They go where they are needed, riding the rails and reading the signs. They walk on the fringes of civilization so they can watch and guard against the dangers that lie beyond. Are they what is left of an ancient brotherhood of mystic knights-errant, or is that just crazy talk?
    1. TheIdeaOfGood's Avatar
      TheIdeaOfGood -
      Quote Originally Posted by JPL View Post
      Or: after you encounter a few things Man Was Not Meant To Know and the old sanity points start eroding, normal life becomes out of the question. You fall in with a group of like-minded knights of the road. They go where they are needed, riding the rails and reading the signs. They walk on the fringes of civilization so they can watch and guard against the dangers that lie beyond. Are they what is left of an ancient brotherhood of mystic knights-errant, or is that just crazy talk?
      Add to this other "invisibles" like maintenance etc...and I give you...the Janitor Conspiracy!
      Damn, I want this book!
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