Bill White's roleplaying game design blog, with emphasis on narrativist or story-heavy games.

Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Fixing Trail of Cthulhu

On my brother Mel's podcast Virtual Play, I ask "Is Trail of Cthulhu broken, or is it just me?" To my chagrin, that prompted a somewhat defensive reaction from TOC's advocates on Story-Games. I actually really like the game, and the title was merely intended (a) as an allusion to critiques of Trail of Cthulhu I've seen elsewhere, and (b) to wink at the fact that I made some mistakes in running the game. I was pleased that the conversation was generally positive and constructive in tone, and I even sent my game notes to one of the participants in the thread, who wanted to run the adventure himself. And there was an admission that the game's author is writing a supplement that contains alternative magic rules "along the lines" of something I suggested in the podcast episode.

I ran the game at Camp Nerdly 3 at the end of May 2009, and had a great time; it was a very satisfying run. But I was sensitized to pay attention to problematic aspects of running the game. And a conversation I had with independent insurgent and indie game designer Rob Bohl helped me identify one.

In Trail of Cthulhu, when you have a "contest" between two characters -- one is chasing the other, or some such -- you roll until someone fails, spending your precious skill pool points on each roll. This has a number of unhappy effects, chief among which is that it makes contests largely an exercise in die-rolling and point-spending, with the edge going to the character who can outspend the other.

Fixing the Contest

It might be more fun if there were some "tactical" decision-making going on. The idea I had on the drive home from Nerdly was this: you spend for an automatic success, but the amount you have to spend goes up each round until you "reset" by rolling instead of spending.

So, for example, if you're chasing me, you spend from your Athletics and I spend from my Athletics and/or Fleeing.  On the first round, you spend 1 for an automatic success and so do I. On the next round, you roll and I spend 2 for an automatic success. On the third round, we both spend for automatic successes, but I have to spend 3 and you spend only 1, because you "reset" in the last round.

This strikes me as setting up an interesting choice for players each round. Now, I think that there should be a system for setting the difficulty of the roll based on the differential between the two pools. I think for every 3 points you are lower or higher than the opponent, your target number of 4 goes up or down by one, rounded down. So if your Athletics is 8 and my Fleeing is 12, my skill roll is 3 or higher and yours is 5 or better. 

This means that if the differential is 10 or more, the lower value automatically fails on the roll and the higher value automatically wins -- no rolling necessary. Or should there be a 6 always succeeds, 1 always fails rule? Probably yes.

You could use a similar system in combat, where a hit always takes an opponent out unless the victim succeeds on a roll of Health versus the damage.

I will try this at Dexcon and see if it works.


S. Mathis said...

Hi Bill:
I followed that thread on Story-Games and a lot of your experience with ToC mirrors my own. I like the game a lot. Even more than Call of Cthulhu.

But there are just entire chunks of it that don't seem to play out as effectively as they should. You've hit on just one of them (which also applies to some contests between an NPC and a PC, btw).

Your "fix" sounds very interesting and is worth trying, IMO. Next time I give ToC a spin, I'll add it in as a house rule to see how it works out.

Bill White said...

Thanks! Let me know how it works out. My TOC heartbreaker has magic rules mainly based on spending Cthulhu Mythos, sharper contest rules, and maybe a combat system that integrates Stability loss into it -- so that fighting someone works the same as encountering a mythos creature. "When you gaze into the abyss, the abyss gazes also into you..."

Robert Bohl said...

I have to say—and I mean this in no way direspectfully, Bill—that only sounds less-boring, not exciting. And chases can totally be fictionally exciting! Anyway, I hope it works for you.

The part that bothers me more about the game is how it seems like you have to roll or spend points for things the GM as to show you anyway.

Bill White said...

I don't know, Rob. You could be right. But it occurs to me that it could be that it could be *really intense* to try to sustain your effort in the face of a Mythos threat that can outspend you, or *really suspenseful* to keep rolling the dice because you want to husband your resources.

It occurs to me that I'll probably want to set the Target Numbers lower for folks with larger pools, regardless of how much has been spent from them (so if you have 0 to 3 points in a skill you're looking for a 4+; 4 to 7, a 3+; 8 or more, a 2+.

The ultimate effect is to give players a stronger sense of making choices that affect the outcome; as is, the decision to spend or not spend is not terribly engaging.

Whether this "fix" will actually engage players in the contest, I'm not sure. I'll let you know after Dreamation!

Bill White said...

As for the other part: shit, that's not the problem, Rob. The problem is that there are no social mechanics other than the ones for revealing clues, so you have no way of, for example, spreading a rumor, unless it's intended as a way of getting some kind of clue. But not every social interaction you're going to want to resolve necessarily plays into the mystery (just like not every fight necessarily helps you solve the mystery). But you can resolve one mechanically (the fight) but not the other (the social encounter). Which means that I have a tough time "modeling" the situation I want to model without house-ruling the fuck out of this game. Which is what I'm doing.

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A communication Ph.D., I teach public speaking and media-related courses in the middle of PA. I do research on scholarly/scientific communication, and I write & play roleplaying games.