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Reviews - Trail of Cthulhu Keeper's Screen & Resource Book
by Lee Valentine

ToC Keeper's Screen & Resource BookTrail of Cthulhu Keeper's Screen & Resource Book
Published by Pelgrane Press
Written by Simon Carryer with additional material by Adrian Bott
68 page saddle-stitched resource book plus a gloss, "coffee proof" GM's screen

Trail of Cthulhu ("ToC") has been a consistently high-quality product line since it's inception. I am therefore pleased to review the Trail of Cthulhu Keeper's Screen & Resource Book. As its name implies, it is a bundle of two products shrink-wrapped together.

Typically GM's screens are expensive to produce, so they come bundled with some additional material like a one-shot adventure or photocopyable character sheets or the like. With this product bundle, the $21.95 price point represents more than just a GM's screen with a bit of filler on the side. The 68-page Keeper's Resource Book is, in my mind, the core of what's being sold, with a side of GM's screen. This review will reflect that perspective.

Resource Book: Abilities
The Keeper's Resource Book ("Resource Book") was divided by its author, Simon Carryer, into four sections. The first provides valuable genre- and 1930s-specific information on the Investigative and General Abilities used by characters in the game. The second section provides similar information, but this time about the Occupations of the characters. The third section provides 50+ detailed non-player characters ("NPCs") for use in ToC. The fourth section is a three-page summary of the Stability and Sanity rules used in ToC.

The first section of the Resource Book is perhaps the most impressive part of the product bundle. It takes most of the General and Investigative Abilities and provides information on how each Ability has plot importance in a 1930s Mythos game.

For example, the section on Accounting talks about money laundering, monetary transfers, customs evasion, tax evasion, and a variety of other accounting-specific historical details and plot points that I and many other GMs would likely be unfamiliar with or just not think of as being applicable to a role-playing game. This information helps to make every Investigative Ability seem interesting, and the wealth of detail in this section of the Resource Book will help a ToC Keeper to craft a story with a strong sense of verisimilitude, even if the Keeper is himself a novice when it comes to 1930s history and Mythos literature.

Each Investigative Ability has a section on Special Benefits that the GM may choose to grant to players with that particular Ability. Often these are "dedicated Pools" of points that can be expended on a General Ability. For example, an Accountant may gain dedicated Pool points in Intimidate over crooks if he uncovers ledgers proving the existence of their illegal money laundering operations.

Each Investigative Ability also includes a selection of "Sample Clues". These are fodder for GM-created adventures and are also examples of how information flows to characters with specific Investigative Abilities.

General Abilities have only historically relevant data about the Ability (like 1930s firearm laws for the Firearms Ability). General Abilities lack sections on Sample Benefits and Sample Clues.

Resource Book: Occupations
The second major section of the Resource Book is on Occupations. This section talks about the significance of each of the player character Occupation types. Historical details are provided on each one so that the GM may provide special bits of attention to characters with a given Occupation. This will help not only to make a ToC game fun, but will help to add an air of realism to the game.

The third major section of the Keeper's Resource Book is dedicated to descriptions of approximately 50+ non-player characters that are readily usable to flesh out an adventure, to provide recurring roles for busy GMs, or to form the basis of an entire adventure.

Each of the NPCs listed includes details on his or her behavior, appearance, and background. Each also has a sample quote, and a short block of key game statistics. All NPCs have "Three Things" listed, which are three memorable quirks to help the players remember this particular NPC. The 20 major NPCs tend to have three "Hooks" as well, which are three distinct paragraphs of unrelated plot ideas on how to work that NPC into an adventure.

A few of the minor characters are fairly forgettable and fill out roles that could be played by any faceless and nameless mook. Thankfully, most of the characters are quite memorable, both in terms of their background and their quirks. The hooks listed for some of the major characters allow the GM to play the NPC in a variety of different ways. For example a given NPC could either be played as helpful to the players, or as needing the assistance of the player characters, or as someone being drawn into the dark side of the Mythos, ready to be a featured adversary in an upcoming adventure. This range of plot hooks will provide GMs with guidance for taking some of these NPCs throughout campaign-long story arcs.

Of particular note is that many of the NPCs know each other. I appreciated this attention to detail, and it will help make your ToC campaign world more believable. However, the nature of the relations is not made explicit by page cross references citing the entries of related NPCs.

I really liked this section of the Resource Book. My only major complaint here is a lack of consistent organization of the information, which could slow down a GM using this product "on the fly" at the gaming table. Minor NPCs are divided up thematically into the following categories: cultists, thugs & henchmen, authorities, citizens, and colleagues. Even though there are 30 different minor NPCs with names and backgrounds, there are no entries in the table of contents for individual minor characters.

For some reason, major NPCs were not divided into the same categories that were used for minor characters. Nor were they inserted in alphabetical order. Instead, they were just grouped somewhat haphazardly into a section called "NPCs". They do each have an individual entry in the table of contents, though.

Overall, I wish that all the NPCs had been divided categorically (as were the minor NPCs) and then ordered within the categories alphabetically by name. It would have been easier to locate an NPC in the middle of an adventure. Were I to use this section of the Resource Book for an adventure, I would likely feel the need to photocopy specific pages and have them at hand instead of trying to find them in the Resource Book.

The only other complaint I have about this section of the Resource Book is the selection of game statistics in the NPC stat blocks. Rather than fully-formed stat blocks for each character, it was the clear intention of the author to present just the highlight abilities for each NPC, based on its intended campaign use. So, for example, only NPCs that are intended for combat scenes have a Scuffling or Athletics rating. Unfortunately, sometimes an ability (often "Languages") is not listed in the stat block even though it is reflected in the NPC's description. Sometimes other key game ratings like Health, Stability, or Sanity are left out, making a few of these characters less than ideal to crib off of to make other NPCs of your own. These omissions were minor compared to the overall value added by this section of the Resource book.

Resource Book: Stability & Sanity
The fourth and final section of the Resource Book is a three page summary of the Sanity and Stability rules from the core ToC rulebook. As a disclaimer, I apparently got unintentionally published as a part of this product. After my initial review of the ToC core rulebook, I sent the publisher some Sanity and Stability rule summaries as well as a chart that consolidated a lot of weapon data from that book. I told the publisher that this information should have been included in the core rules, and that Pelgrane Press could "do whatever they wanted to" with the material. Apparently they did - they published some of it as three pages of the Resource Book and half of the Keeper's Screen.

I thought these rules summaries were needed because there are basically four types of mental damage statistics in the game: Stability Pool, Stability Rating, Sanity Pool, and Sanity Rating. For me at least, after my initial reading of the ToC core rules, I couldn't always remember the differences between each of these. I think these rules summaries help with that problem.

Some significant editorial revisions were made from my original draft of these pages. Unfortunately, these revisions introduced new errors into the work. At one point, I wish Pelgrane had edited me, but didn't. Recalling that I submitted these summaries as a follow-up email to a review I wrote rather than an attempt to get published, I included some notes to Pelgrane Press about their rules. For example, I wrote, "The rules do not clearly state whether Fainting can offset a Mythos-oriented Sanity Pool loss from an attack." Much to my bemusement, rather than clarifying the Fainting rules, Pelgrane simply published that sentence unedited.

The few editing problems in this section were not reflective of the rest of the book, which had better editing. This section of the Resource Book will undoubtedly be useful to some Keepers with poor memories like me.

Keeper's Screen
While I really consider the Resource Book the meat of this product, the metaphorical potatoes has to be the Keeper's Screen. The screen is three panels with art on one side and three pages of charts, tables, and rules summaries on the other.

In my original review of the ToC rulebook I complained that some of the rules regarding weapons were scattered throughout the rulebook in multiple sections and had to be synthesized for use. Half of the Keeper's Screen is a chart I prepared for Pelgrane telling them what should have been included with the core rules. As I have some level of visual impairment, I can't tell you if all the numbers on the chart are absolutely correct and if they received appropriate editorial attention. They are well formatted and look easy to reference.

Other notable inclusions on the screen are rules for combat and the game's large key table on Stability losses. This table does not include Sanity or Stability losses for specific creatures or Mythos deities, but since each Investigation will likely only contain one or two hand-picked creatures, I didn't consider the omission of these details relevant. Further, their inclusion would have added another full panel to the GM's screen.

The appearance of the product bundle is solid. Pelgrane Press brought back Jérôme Huguenin to do the cover work for both the Resource Book and the Keeper's Screen, as well as a selection of interior illustrations in the book. Huguenin's illustrations help to maintain a consistent tone and brand identity for this book as it has for the rest of the product line.

The Resource Book is saddle-stitched with semi-gloss grayscale pages. The internal pages lack the extra color (a brass-colored ink) that was used in the ToC core rulebook. The Resource Book has a gloss color cover in the gray and green color palette that has come to be part of the ToC brand identity. It features an image of Investigators looking around an excavation site filled with stone pilings. It helps to conjure images of dark night investigations, if not of the Mythos specifically.

The outside of the three-panel Keeper's Screen displays an evocative image of Investigators looking out over a valley whose central feature is a cave opening resembling a giant Cthulhoid maw or eye. The Keeper's side of the screen is in gray scale, and here again the brassy-inked table borders of the core rules are gone. The screen is high gloss on both sides. It is printed on an acceptably sturdy stock, though I have owned thicker GM's screens. That said, the publisher describes the screen as "coffee proof". While I haven't verified this claim, if it is true, then it may prove invaluable during some late night horror gaming sessions.

I had some complaints about editing and organization (particularly in the NPC's section) so I considered giving this product bundle a slightly lower overall score than I did. However, Simon Carryer's excellent writing and innovative concepts really pushed this product to great heights for me. I can strongly recommend this product to any Keeper of Trail of Cthulhu. I give it a slightly more modest recommendation to GM's of Call of Cthulhu or other pulp genres, as much of the material is not rule system specific and is of high quality. I am now intrigued by Carryer's writings, and will look for his name on future RPG releases as an author of quality.

For Retailers
GM's screens are inherently niche market products in a niche market industry. Some Trail of Cthulhu Keepers will buy this product bundle automatically, based on the quality of the rest of the product line or the natural inclination to be completist. If you do nothing other than carry this product line, your store will likely sell some copies of this product on that basis.

However, a price point of $21.95 may seem a bit high to some customers if they believe they are primarily buying a GM's screen. You should inform your Mythos-gaming player base that the real value of this product lies with the Resource Book. The Screen is of great utility and is professionally done, but it may not justify the price point of the bundle. The inclusion of the Resource Book, however, does merit the $21.95 price tag.

As a retailer you also have the opportunity to expand your market a bit with this product, beyond just Trail of Cthulhu players. While the Keeper's Screen is system-specific, most of the Resource Book is not, and it may appeal to a broader audience, including GMs of the pulp genre and Keepers for Call of Cthulhu.


Lee's Ratings:

Overall Rating: A-
Content: A-
Appearance: B+
Retailer Salability: B- (higher if your store has a dedicated Mythos fan base)


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