Trail of Cthulhu: The Kingsbury Horror
This review is by Jeremy Wong, my friend, colleague, and mind-theater adversary.
Anyway, here are some stats…
An (Included) Adventure for Trail of Cthulhu
Trail of Cthulhu is an award-winning roleplaying game of investigative horror, powered by the GUMSHOE system. This adventure comes inside the base book.
248 pg. PDF/Print
The investigators are set off on the trail of a real-life serial killer in 1938 Cleveland. The “Butcher of Kingsbury Run” seems to have an unhealthy obsession with tattoos, Greco-Roman mythology, and taking pieces of his victims. And that’s before the time travel.
Trail of Cthulhu is a system that needs no introduction.
Okay, maybe it does. The GUMSHOE system that powers it is worth many blog posts, but the long and short is that it’s about competent player characters that investigate. BRPS (the system that powers the eternal classic and my first love Call of Cthulhu) and D&D were both originally used for fantasy combat games about crawling through dungeons; as a result, their mechanics will always be tainted by the combat-subgame that was always at its heart.
GUMSHOE (like its pseudo-successor, The Yellow King Roleplaying Game) is about investigation. The mechanics for things like combat or tests are even simpler than the very simple Call of Cthulhu. The GM is exposed to a wide suite of new tools based around gathering clues, though for the players it mostly means less rolling.
That said, this could easily be adapted to Call of Cthulhu or any other investigative game - GURPS or D20 or maybe Fate depending on how you play your investigations.
This game is set in Cleveland in 1938.
That’s probably not negotiable. I mean, you could change that around if you’re a competent GM, but that’s a big part of the game. Trail of Cthulhu, even moreso than its predecessors, really prizes historical feel. Not that it’s nitty-gritty with the details but that its historical attention to detail creates immense verisimilitude for its setting.
Here’s an example; Call of Cthulhu is set in the 1920s, maybe around Arkham. Do you know what that means? I don’t. I don’t know anything about Boston, much less the world and social norms of 1920s Boston.
But The Kingsbury Horror is filled with bits of Cleveland lore and history, and it burts with interesting details about the feel of the city. It ties deeply to one of its most infamous criminals (the technically unresolved Cleveland Torso Murderer) and stripping all that out takes a good deal of the fun away from the game.
The city is filled with tools - corrupt cops, hoboes, neighborhoods, colleges - that get brief but interesting mentions in the book. Taking them away would be like taking away the setting of Exalted and sticking the paradigm of “super-powered reborn gods” in some other setting.
Setting aside, the adventure is good… but not amazing. There are a few “wow” moments and a lot of good creepy scenes. However, they end the way so many Call of Cthulhu adventures end - a confrontation in a spooky lab or hideout. Seen it.
The GUMSHOE system is all about breadcrumbs; players are constantly getting tools to go to new areas and investigate new leads. That’s done in spades, but the supernatural elements and the mundane investigations don’t really mesh well.
The Torso Killer (also called “The Butcher” or “The Butcher of Kingsbury Run”) is assembling a mysterious idol to Scylla (the very same of Greek myth.) But why? I guess because he’s crazy.
How do you stop it? The interesting answer involves getting people killed and going mad, and that’s kind of distasteful. The boring answer involves breaking a red stone. It’s about as exciting as the generic action of “sealing gates” in a Cthulhu-themed board game.
With that in mind, the investigation is a good one, but it doesn’t really showcase the system of Core Clues and Spends the way that it could, and it only kind of showcases the fascinating writing that Trail of Cthulhu benefits from. It’s still above average for many Cthulhu scenarios, for sure; it’s completely nonlinear and has lots of interesting ways for players to get from Point A to Point Z. Characters of all stripes are welcome. There are libraries to peruse, hoboes to interrogate, and insane time-traveling pimps to make Reassurance Spends on. There’s nothing quite like time travel to make players giddy.
Complicated, two sessions long. Running it in one is possible but you’d be rushed; it doesn’t feel entirely satisfying as just one, though. You’d be better with two short sessions or one long one.
A bit complex for a “first Cthulhu” adventure. Doesn’t really answer questions, and the climax is interesting to imagine but boring in execution.
Things that would be interesting to know, even if the players don’t, are not really fleshed out. (Examples: the nature of the evil magic being used, the Butcher’s plan, what happens if he succeeds)
Ties into real life history in a fascinating way, and uses a tragic event to the best RPG potential possible.
Lots of clues. Excellent nonlinear investigation with loads of opportunities. Players never feel railroaded since there are so many ways to learn.
Good handouts. (And by the way, the handouts are pretty necessary! Give ‘em to the players. They’ll need them..)
The real life Butcher of Kingsbury Run was probably one Dr. Thomas Sweeney. Elliot Ness, the “Untouchable” responsible for the Torso Killings investigations, burned several large hobo encampments to the ground searching for the killer. When he eventually settled on Sweeney, he had him incarcerated in a mental institution - but never prosecuted, as Sweeney was related to a congressman.
Every year, until his death, Sweeney would send Elliot Ness threatening postcards for Christmas, implying that he could have been the Butcher. Hypothetically, of course.
Buy or not buy?
This is more of a “run or don’t run,” since Trail of Cthulhu is so mind-blowingly good that it’s an automatic buy if you’re interested in investigative games or Lovecraftian horror. It’s in the back of the book, so you’re not paying extra.
I’m not sure if this is good for a Cthulhu one-shot session. It’s certainly complex and you need to do some answering of questions on your own. One quick fix is to say that the Butcher (who is, by the way, a stand-in for the real life Doctor Sweeney) wants to become immortal by summoning Scylla and Charybdis.
But it might be very good as part of an ongoing campaign. Very good indeed; it’s meaty and very good for players who have an understanding of the game and feel and crave something to chew on. It’s more like the “main course” than a Cthulhu one-shot. No reason you can’t have the Investigator PCs be an out-of-town party, visiting Cleveland in the summer of 1938.
...unless, of course, you’ve read a different GUMSHOE adventure, and you’ve suddenly got the urge to have them as USMC and United States Navy cadets in 1954…
Buy this product at your friendly local game store, Pelgrane Press, or DriveThruRPG…
Clayton uses the profits to shotgun coffee.
Jeremy uses the profits to binge gumshoe.