These are my pre-play and post-play thoughts on Cthulhu Confidential, a GUMSHOE game from Pelgrane Press. It’s by Robin Laws, Chris Spivey, and Ruth Tillman. Short version: if you want a sourcebook for noir Cthulhu Mythos play, it’s great, and it works way better than I expected for one-on-one roleplaying.
I was always going to buy Cthulhu Confidential. I haven’t ever read anything from Pelgrane that I didn’t enjoy, I’m a huge GUMSHOE fan, and I was really curious how Robin Laws would implement the dream of one on one roleplaying. So, hey, no brainer.
Without ever actually playing a game, I found it a useful purchase. We’ve seen Cthulhu sourcebooks that push the Mythos into the late 1930s and 1940s, but mostly in the context of World War II. Cthulhu Confidential takes a noir angle on the whole era. As a big fan of noir movies, I approve. The main rulebook includes three solid sections: LA and New York in 1937, and Washington, D.C. in 1943. These are useful independently of the system, even if you just wanted to run Call of Cthulhu in a noir vein.
Along with the basic rules and the city write-ups, you also get a corresponding trio of player characters and one scenario for each. The game assumes you’ll be playing the characters provided, which enables the scenarios to be better tuned to the characters. For example, Cthulhu Confidential characters don’t have all possible investigative skills, so it’s helpful to make sure any clues which require an NPC to help out aren’t time-dependent. The scenarios could be modified for other characters, though, and there’s a brief section on creating original characters.
Pelgrane also gets the need for diversity. It’s nice to read a New York setting through the lens of an assumed female protagonist. Likewise, the D.C. section assumes a black protagonist. This is extra information that I want in my brain. If I’m running D.C. for a white player character, it’s easy to course correct for a more privileged protagonist. I don’t have the background to do the opposite course correction gracefully. Diversity is the correct choice and it’s practically useful, unsurprisingly.
It’s a gorgeous book. Pelgrane is generally good at layout and this case is no exception. I particularly liked the maps; they’re aged, retro styled artifacts that help capture the feel of the era.
Now, while I loved reading the Cthulhu Confidential rulebook, I didn’t completely believe in it. I was uncertain of the viability of focused, single PC play. In my experience, single PCs are fragile along a couple of dimensions. Certainly one person can lose a combat and (in my head) cut the mystery very short. It also often takes multiple people to brainstorm about clues.
I wasn’t sure I’d get the same satisfaction from running or playing a two person game as I do from a more conventional game, either. Part of the pleasure of roleplaying for me is the group dynamic. More people means more ways for ideas to bounce off each other. My assumption was that a two person game might feel flat.
But, hey, you don’t know until you give it a try. I ran the Vivian Sinclair scenario for my wife, and she ran the Dex Raymond scenario for me.
Spoiler: I was wrong. This system works very well.
It doesn’t feel the same as a multi-player GUMSHOE game. Each challenge — each dice-driven interaction with the fiction — is written up separately. The core mechanic is the same in every case, but the thresholds for success vary and the consequences (Problems and Edges) are written up specifically for every challenge.
If you already feel like GUMSHOE is a bit of a railroad, this won’t convince you otherwise. And there’s some validity to that. Consequences come as physical cards, which makes them easy to track. It also means you can fall into the trap of steering a game session back to the plot lines that the author wrote down. It’s not that hard to be flexible while running a Cthulhu Confidential scenario, but you need to be comfortable going off book. This was easy for my wife, but harder for me.
On the other hand, it also makes it much more comfortable for new GMs. That’s a good trade-off. Furthermore, the three scenarios that come in the main book are hardly straightjackets. They are the opposite of railroads: every one has multiple paths and plenty of discussion of alternate things the player character might do. There are also pages and pages of example generic challenges and consequence cards for the intrepid GM. The mystery is a fixed artifact, exhaustively explored and laid out. The path a player takes through the mystery is completely up to the player.
Robin Laws’ design work is centered around his concept of story beats. The central place of scenes in that concept is mirrored in the Cthulhu Confidential scenarios. This is maybe also where the feeling of railroad comes from. The scenario design tradition inherited from Gygax and Arneson is predicated on the sandbox. Even strongly scripted adventures have some of that DNA: they’re more likely to describe the terrain than the potential scenes laid out on top of the sandbox. GUMSHOE, and even more so Cthulhu Confidential, builds scenarios out of scenes connected by clues. It’s a very different feel.
Deeper discussion of railroading and GUMSHOE will wait for another post, I think, but I’m gonna hold onto that insight and see if it still smells right after I’ve thought about it more.
Other interesting notes that became clearer during play: one mechanic is explicitly designed to keep characters alive till the end of the scenario, since you don’t want to cut things off halfway through because of a single bad die roll. That’s much more likely in a two player game. There are Problem cards which explicitly say your character will die if you’re holding them at the end of the story. This doesn’t feel like plot immunity to me, though. It feels like a looming horrific outcome, which is totally appropriate.
The challenges are high level: an entire fight scene is resolved in one or two rolls. This puts the focus on the character’s decisions and the story that arises from them even more than in a traditional GUMSHOE game. Since the system is pretty lightweight, there’s not an awkward transition between roleplaying and dice rolling.
The cards help in that regard. Since mechanical consequences are all written down on cards, you spend less time during play reiterating rules and flipping through the book. It means more prep work, of course, but it’s worth it.
Both scenarios took us around six hours to finish, over a few sessions. It’s also much easier to pause mid-scenario when it’s just two players, for obvious reasons. We’re eager to keep going, and there are going to be over a dozen total published scenarios when Even Death Can Die is released. Nice support even before we start writing our own scenarios.
So, obviously, recommended.