Actual Play: GUMSHOE/Trail of Cthulhu

Robert Lee Hampton started out in World War 1, May 27 1918, at an infamous hospital in France. We heard rumors of an unanticipated German offensive, which smashed through a few French divisions.

On the 28th of May, my character, Doctor Robert Lee Hampton, heard that some American and British divisions tried to offer some token resistance on the way to Reims. I’m stuck into an ambulance and driven (by a woman by name of Emma “Cheery” Patterson) who got a call to drive to pick up some injured men north of here, and try and get them back to the hospital before the German tidal wave arrives.

She asks me if I’d been to Military Hospital #5 before, and I reply in the negative. She’d been working there since the Spring, and notes that I should report to Major Parker, the Chief Surgeon, and that the chief nurse is Ms Ogilvy, who has a bad rep for being quite the tyrant. We speed onward.

***
Meanwhile, elsewhere, the three other PCs are part of a hodgepodge Allied division, forced to retreat. Six ambulances show up, and the PCs are all shoved into the same ambulance, in a very plot-convenient way.

I’m asked to make a Preparedness roll by +Jeromy French , and I roll a 6, spending 2 points from my pool of 5 for a total 8, which means my Pharmacy skill is improved by 1 (from 4 to 5) for the rest of the session. The others roll to see how injured they are, Jaque Dupond ( +Matt Sutton ) has a mild head wound, but Philip Gibbs ( +Nathan Joy ) and Norman Adams ( +kung fu hillbilly ) were both injured. Norman has a fractured femur, while Phillip has a shell fragment wound to the left forearm. None are horrible or life threatening, but none are fun.

Gibbs is in shock, and Dr. Hampton steps in to treat him, successfully. We speed south towards Reims, with six total patients, plus the nurse and Dr. Hampton. As Hampton works frantically to patch up the head wound, Dupond recounts a vivid dream, dealing with reincarnation and past lives. He’s writing in a journal of his remembered dream as if he mightn’t see another tomorrow. Hampton assures him he will live to see another day, so he can write more slowly.

As he patches up the broken femur, he and Norman discuss his academic background (Citadel and UVA Med School), which Norman declares is respectable enough, since he’s an Oxford Don. Can he fence again? Yes, stay off it and you’re fine.

Finally, the shell fragment is lodged, but removable. “Can you believe the Jerried tried to kill me? Hell of a thing. Not my writing arm,” Gibbs notes, and gives a classic thin-lipped British smile.

***

We continue driving, and the ride is rocky but uneventful, up until the ripping linen sound of big guns tears through the air. Within seconds, the lead ambulance is destroyed, its wreckage blocking our way, and the broken bodies that are not flung about are rapidly burned to death. Cheery stops the ambulance, in shock. Perhaps she knew someone? Unknown, but Hampton shoves her out of the way and gets behind the wheel. He guns it, slamming through the wreckage, pushing it aside to continue through the shellfire pattern.

As we slam through the wreckage, both Hampton and Dupond note that, oddly, a flock of ravens were in the bombardment zone, and as we pass, they all take off together in a flock, and fly south, in the same direction as the hospital.

Matt and I both have Outdoorsman, so we automatically notice the ravens. Jaime elects to spend a point in Occult to get more info on what the flock might portend.

“Interesting,” says Hampton. “I’ve never seen ravens stay put in an active bombard zone. Birds know to fly to the hospital, though.”

“No,” says Norman. “Those were fan-tailed ravens, native to Egypt. There’s a passage in the Koran that indicates that a raven taught Cain how to bury his dead brother. The fact that they’re flying in our direction is . . . well. Death travels with us.”

Cheery Patterson is still beside herself, having just witnessed, we find out, the detonation of her best friend. Dupond leans in and gives her a quote from Hawthorne: “All brave men love; for he only is brave who has affections to fight for, whether in the daily battle of life, or in physical contests.” He consoles her the best he can.

He spends a point of his Reassure pool to calm her and forge a relationship.

We drive for another hour or so, and come across the husk of what used to be lovely manor house, but which has since been shelled into oblivion. It is our military field hospital, surrounded by at least six tents, acting as portable triage and medical centers.

The unkindness of ravens has preceded us here. They decorate the landscape, perching on the tents, roofs, and other places where they can find purchase. The wounded PCs are placed in separate areas, and Dr Hampton is shuffled off to serve his purpose.

Norman overhears a man wandering around, shaking a reliquary of some sort at the ravens and the wounded. “To the scavenger of death, may you weigh each heart to be judged.” An unfamiliar phrase catches Norman’s ear. “What are you trying to save them from?,” Abd Nazari says in Arabic. “To keep the soul going in the right direction; we can pray to many gods,” the man notes. Clearly a reference to Anubis.

An obviously-frocked Catholic priest is traveling from area to area, giving blessings where possible, and Last Rites where not. He mutters darkly when Abd Nazari passes, noting “heathen should not be allowed in a good Christian hospice.”

Gibbs, a devout Catholic, engages him in conversation, and sympathizes with the priest, noting that such burdens are part of our journey here. The priest notes that the Arab is a lackey of Zenna Borden, an apparently “untouchable” nurse who is well-liked by Ogilvy, the head nurse – that in itself an oddity. “She seems strangely incompetent, even in this place. I’ve said too much, my son. Thank you for the cigarette.”

The GM calls for a Sense Trouble roll from Gibbs, who spends a point and nails it with a 7.

At the edge of his vision, he sees one of the injured, who was apparently hovering outside the tent, and clearly overhead the conversation, bolt away from the “arm tent” to the “leg pit.” Gibbs casually strolls after him, not obviously following him.

Nate notes he’s Shadowing, and chooses to spend 2 points. Rolls a total of 3.

Gibbs is stopped at the entrance by a fairly burly looking nurse, who tries to redirect him back to the “arm” tent. Hampton declares that Gibbs is less injured than he seems, and is serving as my assistant, since we’re understaffed.

This puts Gibbs, Norman, and Hampton in the same tent, at least for a moment. “What brings you to the leg tent?” Tensions between the good Father and the Arab praying to Anubis, and the eavesdropping stranger. Nothing more develops from this at the moment.

As Dupond wanders the grounds on his own, he notes the ravens almost seen to follow the funeral processions of the stream of dead and dying. As he walks, he notes that the dead are being buried in what seems to be old Roman ruins – an oddity.

Matt spends a point of his Architecture pool.

While the space was wide and open on the surface, it clearly showing Roman funerary stones. A piece of metal sticking out from the ground looks to be a bronze case used to hold parchment or something. Opening it, a piece of mouldy parchment is revealed, showing pictures that seem fairly meaningless at the time. He tucks the scroll case into his pack, for later study.

As Dupond tours the grounds, he encounters a uniformed Lieutenant, with a massive head wound, who is hobbling purposefully in his direction. As they pass, Dupond tips his hat politely, and the wounded Frenchman greets him back, saluting as much as he can. “You appear to have been gravely wounded, Lt.”

“Yes, I am Maurice Bowles. My sight is truly limited, and I would do well to return to my bed before night falls – I can not navigate the grounds except in brightest day.”

Matt spends another point of his Reassurance pool to bond with him.

Maurice takes Dupond’s reassurance and kind words graciously, and notes subtly that he has heard of a way to restore his sight, and if Dupond comes by his room later, he can discuss it in more detail.

 ***

We end there, since the pacing of the adventure suggests that this is a good stopping point.’

Gumshoe and Trail of Chthulhu: First Impressions

It’s been a long time since I’ve really learned a new game system. I restarted Pathfinder recently, but I cut my teeth on Dungeons and Dragons, so I was familiar enough with it to slide right in.

GUMSHOE, now. I’m not sold on the mechanics of it, yet. The pool-based system is . . . odd. The way it seems to work is that everyone is more or less equally good at things, except for the few times per adventure when you can spend your supply of skill pool. For Investigative skills, if you have the skill, you get certain clues, and can spend points from that pool to improve things, get more information, etc.

It was our first adventure, so I’ll withhold judgement, but my first impression, based on incredibly limited play time, is that GURPS‘ skills plus Destiny Points allow you to (for example) consistently be a better doctor than others, but also whip out a few narrative successes at critical times, much like spending from the pool provides. Right now, I feel like anyone could roll the same 1d6 and have a 50% chance of success.

I’ll presume that most people won’t attempt a no-pool roll, and that drama and implicit niche protection prevents this from happening. And I’m also such a newbie with the system that I can’t yet form a judgement. We’ll see what happens next time.

4 thoughts on “Actual Play: GUMSHOE/Trail of Cthulhu

  1. "Ms" is not strictly anachronistic, but highly unlikely before the 1970s.

    I see the point-spending system in ToC as a way to try to make sure everyone has spotlight time: your PC and mine may have the same skill set, but if you've spent all your points in the first scenes I can still shine later on. I'm not a big fan of it, because it makes a world expert at something useless if he tries to do it too often. I'm generally happier with a GURPS-style template system (as in Dungeon Fantasy or Action) that goes some way to encouraging niche separation.

    1. I already have a suggestion for a house rule that will address this, but I'm going to wait until I have another session or so under my belt (and actually read the full ruleset) before I throw it down on my blog here.

  2. I was in a one-shot with Gumshoe/ToC. My GM had been hot on the system for a while since you automatically get a number of things and can spend your pool pts when it's important. this may be alri9ght as long as the GM always tells you when it's important and you can safely assume it's not important when he does.t. Also of course that you have enough pool pts for the adventure.

    As much as I love Ken Hite as a brother Gumshoe shows a peculiar CoC centric world-view. "Strength? Charisma? An Investigator desires not such things!".. It's all about finding the clues, confronting the monsters and losing your SAN when that happens.

    It's obviously not am very flexible game system what with it being so narrowly focused. I mostly play along with our limited forays into CoC to not blow up the group but it's seldom that I've really enjoyed any of them. Gumshoe isn't really solving any of _my_ problems with CoC.. Maybe it's helping the GM by stripping down the PCs to a bare minimum.

    1. I view gaming Yog-Sothothery (whatever the system) as an inescapable downward spiral into madness and death; even if you "win", you've given up your health and sanity just in order to hold off the inevitable for another few scant years. I think Ken feels the same way. Not everyone agrees.

      But as I was saying a little while back over on RPG Snob, what a new system needs to do to appeal to me is to be significantly better than GURPS at something. GURPS offers me so much simply as built-in features that I have to be offered something really compelling in order to give it up. ToC has some interesting ideas, but it doesn't meet that bar for me.

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