The Cthulhu Conundrum: Call or Trail for running the Masks of Nyarlathotep?

I’ve been thinking of running Masks of Nyarlathotep for my gaming group after I’m done with my current Mage: the Awakening campaign. However, one of the possibilities that has been recently opened to me is the idea of running the campaign using the highly praised Trail of Cthulhu by Pelgrane Press.

It’s an interesting possibility, as it’ll give me a chance to both run an old favorite campaign that I’ve been itching to run for a while now, and playtest the GUMSHOE system that I’ve been meaning to study for a while now. Still, I’m worried about being too ambitious about trying both at the same time.

As such I turn to you guys. Call of Cthulhu is no slouch, it’s been around forever, and it works great as a game that enforces the kind of horror play that has made it a timeless classic. Trail of Cthulhu on the other hand is getting rave reviews and a lot of praise, while opening the possibilities of playing other GUMSHOE titles down the line, such as Mutant City Blues or even Esoterrorists and Ashen Stars.

I’m curious to hear from both sides, and from those who’ve run or played the games before. I’d like to read about your experiences with the systems and why you feel that I should run with one or the other.

11 thoughts on “The Cthulhu Conundrum: Call or Trail for running the Masks of Nyarlathotep?

  1. If I was back home, I would vote Masks of Nyarlathotep. Its like running a piece of history. It’s like running Tomb of Horrors or Temple of Elemental Evil for D&D players.

    1. Hey Tentaclese,

      There’s no question that I’ll be running Masks of Nyarlathotep. My remaining issue is whether I should use the original CoC system or if I should attempt a conversion to Trail of Cthulhu.

  2. As much as Trail of Cthulu is renowned, if I were in that situation, I’d rather have a competent GM run it on the original Chaosium system. I’d like to experience the Masks with its original mechanics ‘intact’.

    Save trail for its own one-shot, IMO

  3. Gumshoe is interesting and fun to play. Trail is often praised, however, for its investigation mechanic which in my opinion solves a problem that some inexperienced or weak Keepers have, but you I think, do not. It is a great way for a newcomer to learn how to run investigative sequences, but many, many Keepers could do that properly before Trail came along. Knowing when to call for rolls, how to interpret them, and how to elicit player interaction with the scene elements as though they were there (voiding the need for certain rolls) are a part of the skill of being a good Keeper. Additionally, certain aspects of Trail/Gumshoe involve resource management which can be a barrier to immersion for some players and GMs – especially when they are learning/play testing. That might not be a problem for your group, but if it is, Masks deserves the best you can give it. It might be best to stick with CoC as it is familiar (and very easily learned if not).

    Other arguments are purely ones of style and will need to be assessed on your own, I think. CoC is a game about survival in many respects, and this is brought into stark relief by most characters not doing so. Approaches which increase survival and rates of success diminish the rewards of accomplishment that can be achieved through great play. Masks brings this to life in an incomparable way.

    Have a great time with it!

  4. It is of course a matter of taste.

    Here is a 130-page actual play report for Mask of Nyarlathotep run with Trail by a long-time Call of Cthulhu Keeper

    The Mask conversion document is here:

    Mythos investigation is all about danger, insanity and risk, not whether you find a piece of information or not. GUMSHOE pushes those mechanical considerations aside and concentrates on those important aspects of play such as the motivation of the PCs moral choices, and what do with the information you get.

    This is what the Trail Keeper said when asked about the differences between running the game with Call and with Trail

    “Players have a lot more agency – which is to say, they are a lot more empowered to do things to creatively get clues. For example, Lord Symmington was able to say ‘I know Erica Carlyle’ and spend some points on Credit Rating to gain access to her book collection. As a consequence, there is a lot less ‘pixel bitching’ over clues.

    I’d also add that it is a lot less deadly – and that the Stability rules have worked very well. Also, the ability of a player to have a Mythos insight by spending Cthulhu Mythos is great.

    And the drives – oh, the drives are magnificent. As a GM, they allow me to create a much more Lovecraft type game than CoC, while still allowing players to retain control of their characters. You’ll see this in action when I get around to posting our latest session.”

    1. Hi Simon,

      This is definitely worth checking out, thanks for the link! The good thing about this is that I can actually pitch running the campaign on the original system and see if the players take well to it. If not, at least now I have the option of switching to Trail with a good conversion guide already in place!

  5. I will be running Mask of Nyarlathotep for Trail of Cthulhu in the next couple of months, but I am warming up with GUMSHOE via Mutant City Blues first. Still, having all the conversion resources available will make the job easier. GUMSHOE will allow me to focus on the investigation side of the story which is what I want to run, and won’t be too concerned with combat.

  6. Interesting thread.
    I’ve been running Call for years and ran Trail last year. I honestly found that Trail just made the game a lot easier for the players, the sanity system is a lot more forgiving. That being said, it wouldn’t be my choice for “Masks”…I’d use it for something heavier on investigation like “Tatters of the King”.
    I think “Realms of Cthulhu” is actually the best fit for “Masks”. It’d certainly handle Kenya better, which I think wouldn’t be anywhere near as exciting if you used Trail.

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