A Review of the Role Playing Game Supplement Trail of Cthulhu: Bookhounds of London

Trail of Cthulhu: Bookhounds of London by Kenneth Hite is a role playing game supplement published by Pelgrane Press. This is a supplement for their Trail of Cthulhu game which uses the GUMSHOE system; the game itself is a horror game based on the works of H. P. Lovecraft. This supplement is based in 1930s London, and the focus of the game is on books – something that is normally important in many Cthulhu-based games, but here is the main focus of the plot. London of the 1930s has been hit by the Great Depression, although not to the degree of other places, and many books are coming onto the market cheaply. The GUMSHOE system itself isn’t based on finding clues but on interpreting them; the concept behind this is to stop play in investigative games coming to a standstill due to a failed dice roll.

Trail of Cthulhu: Bookhounds of LondonThe supplement is available from RPGNow at the regular price of $19.95, but was purchased at the reduced price of $13.97. It is also available as a printed hardcover from sites such as Amazon. This is a 185 page bookmarked PDF, with one page being the front cover, two pages being the front matter, two pages the Contents, two blank pages and one page is a short Introduction, which explains that this is a different type of Mythos experience.

Bookhounds introduces the concept of this type of campaign; players’ characters are “Bookhounds,” a variety of classes based out of a bookstore who deal with the buying and selling of rare books, such as those found in the Cthulhu Mythos works. This section covers occupations and changes to them, new occupations, contacts and connections, a new drive, new abilities (including The Knowledge) and new abilities for old occupations. This section also covers Bookshops, which function as a base of operations for the bookhounds. This covers creating a bookshop, including jointly, its credit rating and how this affects the game and can be improved, or worsen, how the stock can be improved and the concept of the “squiz” or exquisite item.

The Purchase of Curious Tomes is about the book trade and where books can be found. It covers pre-decimal British money and why money should be kept abstract in the game, book terminology, finding books and running book auctions including auction terminology. Details are provided on libraries, especially the more important (for the game anyway) London libraries and books themselves. The latter includes such as appearance, occult nooks, in categories and with some examples, and finally Mythos Tomes, the actual books which grant knowledge of the Mythos, with some detailed and a new rule.

Thirties London covers the city itself, as the game is primarily set in the Great Depression-era London of the 1930s. The city is divided into various areas; each area is given an overview and has a map at the rear. Also listed are details for The Knowledge (similar to the London taxi driver skill, this gives information about what can be found in parts of London), archaeology and the Cthulhu Mythos particular to each area, and the various Contacts who could be found there. There are various sidebars on such as legendary London, the Peelers (police), clubs, cemeteries and the London Underground. The various areas are marked on maps later on.

The London Mythos has various cults, including some from the main Trail of Cthulhu core rulebook and how these are active in Thirties London. There are also new cults, some adventure hooks and some details on Rhan-Tegoth (from The Horror in the Museum), the only Great Old One definitely active in London at that time.

London’s Monsters covers Mythos creatures which have a possible connection to either London or books. Details are provided on new monsters, and information various skills could obtain on them, and how monsters from the core book could be used. This section also has a new, optional, magick, megapolisomancy, a magic that uses the energy of the city itself to accomplish attacks and other things.

Building a Bookhounds Campaign has three different campaign styles, Arabesque, Sordid and Technicolor and how these would work in Purist and Pulp campaigns. Dramatis Personae covers how important NPCs are to a Bookhounds campaign and provides six different sample non-player characters, each with multiple options, including names and descriptions, as well as details on how they could be used in different campaign styles. There are three rivals and three collectors – the latter being the people who actually want the books. Scenarios has information on building such, with a sample framework, and finally has details on how to deal with a player-run adventure, where the players follow up on a hook they find interesting and the Keeper fleshes it out. There are also sidebars on matters such as how maps are useful.

Whitechapel Black-Letter is a sample Bookhounds adventure, which is intended to introduce the Bookhounds of London setting, and as a distant second Trail of Cthulhu itself. Set in London, naturally, the players are asked to seek out a book and stumble across a link to the Jack the Ripper killings. There are various different options; megapolisomancy is used but there are notes on replacing it, various areas can be altered, some NPCs may have different motivations and Jack himself may appear if desired. There are also a number of references to playtests run.

Bibliography is two pages on various books that have been and could be used for inspiration. These include works on Lovecraftian horror fiction, urban horror fiction, London itself, horror role playing games – Call of Cthulhu basically – and actual real life bookhounds.

Floorplans has eight pages of important buildings, both in general and specific to a Bookhounds campaign, such as the Houses of Parliament, British Museum and Natural History Museum. This is followed by another twenty nine pages of maps. These show London, areas of London, the surrounding area and the railways, including the Underground.

Next are several blank reference pages, a Bookshop Record Sheet, Dramatis Personae for NPCs, a Tip Sheet and a Bookhound character sheet.

The Appendices contain a list of 1930s rare book prices and a list of various London antiquarian book dealers. There is a single page on a companion book, The Occult Guide to London. These would actually seem to be referencing Trail of Cthulhu: The Book of the Smoke; perhaps the name changed at some point. Four pages then give a timeline for London from 1929 to 1939.

The four page General Index is very thorough and is then followed by the Locations Index. The latter is fifteen pages of locations that can be found on the earlier maps.

Trail of Cthulhu: Bookhounds of London in Review

The PDF is reasonably well bookmarked with the major and many of the minor sections covered. They could have been more thorough, including such as sidebars, and better organised, but they are not bad. The Contents is to a similar level of detail but the addition of the thorough General Index is useful. Overall, navigation is above average. The text itself maintains a three column format an no errors were noticed. There are a number of black and white illustrations throughout, up to full page in size. Some would appear to be period images of London whilst others are illustrations that may be appropriate to the associated text.

The sidebars throughout add extra details and notes on playtests and there are asides about avoiding the game turning into one on small business management or of accounting-based horror – unless, of course, these are enjoyed. There are quotes from various Mythos stories appropriate to the section in various places. It appears that extensive research was done for the book’s setting (although this can’t be truly confirmed without the requisite knowledge or doing the same research). It certainly appears that way, and this adds colour and flavour to the setting. The various maps, both of buildings and of London – which do take up a substantial portion of the book admittedly – also help in this.

The supplement may be aimed at the GUMSHOE system but this could always, with a bit of work, be adapted for a regular Call of Cthulhu game – it is produced under license and several Call of Cthulhu scenarios are mentioned in the Bibliography. This goes the other way as well; scenarios for Call of Cthulhu could also be adapted. Familiarity with both systems is necessary for this. It might be possible to run Bookhounds without using the Trail of Cthulhu core rulebook, as there is a fair amount of detail provided in this one, but having it would probably make it easier. In addition, this may be set in London, but the core idea could be transferred to another city – Paris and New York are definite possibilities. In such a case all the background information on London would, of course, no longer be useful, but it certainly could be done.

If the players are bibliophiles – which for players of role playing games is highly likely – this is very likely to appeal; a game in which the books themselves and a bookshop are a focal point. Like with all games based on the Cthulhu Mythos, there is still the chance of dying horribly. This is lessened to a degree if the idea of a Pulp campaign (which is said to be more in the style of Indiana Jones) rather than a Purist (with suitable cosmic dread) is used. Overall, Trail of Cthulhu: Bookhounds of London is a nice new take on the standard Cthulhu Mythos setting that examines it from a new angle.

 

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