Monday, 22 July 2013

Trail of Cthulhu and Investigations in FATE



Those of you who have read more of this blog may have seen the IC write-ups of a Hunter: the Vigil game that I have been playing in recently (the write-ups of the two previous sessions are posted here and here); this game is being run by a friend of mine using the nWoD Hunter: the Vigil rules. In the game we are playing members of a supernatural serial-killer investigation unit composed of psychics known as VASCU; our party consists of a grizzled ex-cop whose party disappeared in a strange case that was swept under the carpet (this is my character), a bureau agent who squandered his family fortune seeking to find his father whom he believes kidnapped by cultists, a technical whizzkid and a wheelchair bound agent who was seriously injured pursuing a case.

The game was originally part of a proposed 'one-off wednesday' idea where, every other wednesday, a group of us would get together in the evening and run a one-off game (my thoughts on one-off games can be viewed in this blog post); so far we've had Judge Dredd (by Mongoose Publishing), a homebrew tron-esque game where we played ourselves in a strange future where a fantasy realm had intruded on our reality, a Star Trek based game and the Hunter game. The Hunter game is the first of our 'one-offs' that has been heavily investigation based (my Judge Dredd game touched on these themes but the investigating part of the game was fairly simple and fast paced); as a result, although it has been very entertaining to play, the game has already run into a second session and we are scheduled to play a third. Although the GM freely admits that he is more used to running campaigns that one-shot sessions and that this may have contributed to the length of the game, I started to wonder whether this was the only factor or whether there was something in the nature of investigative games that lead to them taking a great deal more time?

One of the more interesting investigation based games that I have read recently is Trail of Cthulhu by Kenneth Hite (a game I intend to review on my blog in the near future) and based on the GUMSHOE system by Robin D Laws (who also wrote the fast-paced and bizarrely wide-ranging hong-kong action movie game Feng-Shui, another of my favourites). One of the things I love about ToC is that it makes no qualms about it's adaption of the popular Call of Cthulhu game to a different rules system and the designers obviously have a great deal of respect for the source material (both mythos fiction and previous RP materials). The introduction to ToC discusses what I consider to be one of the perennial problems with the investigative game; what might seem an obvious solution to the GM may seem baroque and incomprehensible to the players since they lack the GMs privileged knowledge about the backstory and have to find everything out the hard way, not only that, but in some systems a failed search or investigation roll on the dice can lead to you missing a vital clue and thus taking a lot longer to solve a mystery (assuming that you can solve it at all).

Now you might say that a good GM can always fudge things so that the players come across a clue or that something happens to advance the plot; however if this is not done subtly and with finesse then it can lead to the players feeling railroaded as though, no matter what they do, the mystery solution will reveal itself, IMO once the perception of risk or failure has disappeared completely from a game then a lot of players lose their impetus and drive.

So how does FATE fit into all this?

A valid question that you might be asking yourself by now; I feel that there are a number of mechanics and ideas that could be ported from Trail of Cthulhu across to either FATE core or Fate Accelerate Edition (FAE), some of these and my own ideas are listed below.

Occupations

In ToC the character all have occupations that help determine their skills and equipment; these could be ported across to FATE as either Aspects/High Concepts or (if a more complete overhaul including skills was desired) they could be used as templates to determine what sort of skills and stunts a starting character has.

For example: The Antiquarian occupation in ToC has the following skills - Architecture, Art History, Bargain, History, Languages, Law, Library Use, and any one Investigative ability. They also have a special ability where once per session they can discover a book that contains a clue to the current investigation or some relevant investigation.

This skill list could easily by imported, the Antiquarian label taken as a High Concept and the special ability changed into a Stunt.

Drives

Drives are a character's main motivation in Trail of Cthulhu and include concepts such as Adventure, Antiquarianism, Arrogance, Artistic Sensitivity, Bad Luck and Curiosity (amongst others); these could also be ported across as Aspects into a FATE based game.

Skills/Abilities

Skills (or Abilities as they are known in ToC) are a lot more specific that they are in FATE, and are split into Investigative and General abilities; Investigative abilities are those that allow you to find information and clues, progressing towards solving the mystery and include such skills as Archaeology, Library Use and Occult, whereas General Abilities are your more generic RPG skills such as Athletics, Firearms and First Aid.

In ToC, possessing an appropriate Investigative Ability automatically allows you to detect an associated clue; for instance if their is a clue in a museum of antiquity or a ruin that possession of the Archaeology skill would automatically allow you to detect it's presence. The game handily gives you simple descriptions of what the skill allows you to detect, in this case:

  • Tell how long something has been buried and date of its construction.
  • Identify artifacts by culture and usage.
  • Distinguish real artifacts from fakes.
  • Navigate inside ruins and catacombs, including finding secret doors and hidden construction.
  • Describe the customs of ancient or historical cultures.
  • Spot well-disguised graves and underground hiding places.

Gathering Clues

The game posits a simple and yet refreshing method of locating clues and progressing through a mystery/investigation plotline.


  1. Get your Investigator into a scene where relevant information can be gathered.
  2. Have the right ability to discover the clue.
  3. Tell the Keeper that you're using it.

Assuming that this occurs then the GM will provide you with any clue that corresponds to your query. In each scene the GM designates a core clue that is required before the players can move on to the next scene (although their may be additional supplementary clues for the players to discover).

Gathering Additional Information

One of the most interesting ideas about the game in my mind is that players can 'spend' points based on their Investigative Abilities to gain additional information about the clues; this information is never required to progress in the game but provides extra flavour to the game.

Both the use of Investigative Abilities to automatically locate clues and the spending of 'points' to gain additional information regarding the clues are both concepts that I think would be easily convertable to the FATE system; clues can easily be given out related to the skills possessed by players (possibly excpanding the list to include more detailed investigative abilities as per To) and either an additional pool of investigation point can be added or the existing fate points can be used to gain additional info in a FATE based ToC-style game.

I'm planning to try a ToC style FATE game once it rolls round to my turn to GM in our 'one-off Wednesdays' again, i'll post how it goes.