First Impressions – Cthulhu Confidential

Cthulhu Confidential is an elaboration of a version of GUMSHOE, an investigative RPG by Pelgrane Press. Let’s untangle this a bit. GUMSHOE is the engine upon which multiple games are built. It’s core idea is as follows: it’s not fun, and therefore shouldn’t be possible, for investigators to fail to solve a mystery because they failed a roll to find the crucial clue. To that end, character abilities are divided into investigative and general ones. Characters are masters of ther investigative fields, and automatically succeed whenever their skills are applicable. In the core GUMSHOE system, there’s a resource/spotlight management element involved, but it is entirely absent in Cthulhu Confidential for reasons which shall become apparent momentarily.

Trail of Cthulhu is one of the games based on GUMSHOE, and portrays, unsurprisingly, investigators of Lovecraftian mysteries. Finally, Cthulhu Confidential is an adaptation of Trail of Cthulhu to a new variant of GUMSHOE, GUMSHOE one-2-one. One GM, one player, all the horrifying mysteries between them.

It is a very light system. The book itself consists of 70 pages of rules, of which 8 are dedicated to a primer on Cthulhu Mythos, followed by 220 pages dedicated to 3 scenarios. I’ve run the first scenario so far, and, as an experiment, have recorded it for my friend and player’s youtube channel. If you so wish, you can follow Dex Raymond, a hardboiled detective, as he tries to solve the mystery of Fathomless Sleep, or listen to our post-game discussion.

How it Runs

The scenario is excellent. Not once did the player get stuck, not knowing what to do next – there was always a clue to follow up on, something else to investigate, all the way to the resolution. Оn the flip side, the scenario made my job as a GM easy as it offered a scene for every thing my player had tried, and an answer for most questions he’s asked. And a good thing, too – this game isn’t meant to be improvised.

The three scenarios in the book are set in three different cities and time periods, following three different detectives, with plenty of setting details and potential story hooks provided for each. Should you decide to continue the adventures of a detective you liked, you’ll find everything you need there.

I found it very interesting (and this is a very slight spoiler) how little supernatural elements there were, at least in Fathomless Sleep. Majority of the time is spent on Dex simply talking to various unsavory characters. When the supernatural does show up, it is all the more efficient.

The book warns of the “intensity” of this game: the player has no one to hide behind, no one to take the spotlight or responsibility from them. They’re it. To mitigate this intensity, the PC can turn to their sources, friendly NPCs offering expertiese in the investigative skill fields not covered by the PC. There is advise on using them to break up the tension a bit, though I’m not sure how practical that is: the player is the one initiating contact with sources, typically when there is something they need help with, and not when pacing would suggest they need a break.

Intensity works both ways. Just as the player is constantly in the spotlight, so is the GM. You don’t get a chance to look up the upcoming scene or plot what comes next while the players argue with one another. And in this game every detail matters, you really don’t want to mess up what clues you give out. As we were recording the game in 30 minute episodes, we had natural breaks which were very convenient. I’d suggest calling for an occasional pause as you play, even if you’re used to running uninterrupted sessions in other games.

How it Works

Scenarios are well and good, but what about the mechanics? In addition to the investigative abilities at which the character simply succeeds, they get a bunch of general abilities, rated at one or two dice. These cover the “action” side of the game: Fighting, Sense Trouble, Shadowing, Stability, etc. Most of the time, these are used in Challenges, which provide branching outcomes to a scene. On the face of it, it’s a standard Success/Success with Complications/Failure mechanic, but there are some fascinating subtleties.

If you haven’t rolled high enough, you can take on a Problem in order to get an extra die. Reaching the “success” value usually grants you an Edge in addition to accomplishing whatever it is you were doing, while failure often saddles you with another Problem. These Edges and Problems are represented by cards detailing how they work. Cards impose penalties or offer benefits on rolls, restrict your options in some way, or merely remind of their existence in the narrative.

While there are generic Problems and Edges in the appendix of the book, scenarios provide their own cards specific to the situations within. This underscores the need for GM preparation: ideally, you’ll have your own tiny decks written up, covering the likely eventualities.

As the GM decides what the outcomes of a Challenge can be, it doesn’t get a chance to derail the game. The PC can’t die due to an unlucky roll, but neither can they beat up an entire mob.

Taken together, the cards and the way the Challenges are framed essentially replace all the other mechanics the game might have had. There’s no damage or sanity system – if you get wounded, you’ll likely have a Problem card that tells you what it means. Why was injury on the table in the first place? Because the Challenge was set up that way. There are no antagonist stats of any kind. It works, and the game flows quite smoothly, but there isn’t even a shade of “simulation” as the result, and it does feel a bit lazy, especially once you find out how the target numbers are assigned – more on that in a moment.

First, some more thoughts on the nuances of this mechanic. Unlike Fate, where you get “karmic credit” by accepting problems that you later spend on overcoming other problems, here the Problem you get is a direct consequence of your actions as you push yourself further in order to succeed, e.g. a pulled back as you dodge a blow. It’s Edges that often act as somewhat specialized fate points, as many of them can be spent for an extra die on a particular kind of a Challenge. But Edges are earned by rolling high, not by choosing to make your life harder.

The player isn’t rewarded for screwing themselves over in an entertaining fashion, neither are they expected to do so. Instead, they accept Problems as a means to an end, to succeed and hopefully gain Edges. And as Challenges resolve a scene’s worth of conflict, you’re going to need all the Edges you can save up for that last roll or two which decide how it all turns out.

Overall, while it is a narrative system with seeming similarities to Fate, the underlying dynamics are quite different.

As there is only one character, the adventure is custom made for them. Their abilities are known, and so all the Challenge difficulties are set with them in mind. The table for choosing these difficulties is based on how the different outcomes will affect the plot, and comes with two columns, for one or two dice the PC has in the general ability used. So what does having two dice even do for you?

Mainly, it safeguards you from the randomness of dice. Two dice are a tiny bit less likely to screw you over than one, simple as that. Preciously few rolls are made each session, and they are prone to feedback loops: roll poorly once, and you’re saddled with Problems making it harder to roll well next time. Roll well, though, and you have an Edge which may help you get more Edges in the future. Thus even though having 2 dice in a skill doesn’t actually make you better at it, it makes you more reliable at it, and given the feedback loops that is extremely important.

First Impression

Running Cthulhu Confidential is like having a conversation. The rules get out of the way to let the player be engulfed by the story. There’s no bookkeeping, nothing to reference, just the very brief character sheet and the cards you gain. There’s no one to hide behind, either. It is a perfect set up for a horror game. Just you and the mystery.