I am part way through running Eternal Lies, a large campaign that uses the Trail of Cthulhu system. I have three players in the group, and we are generally running into an issue with the flow of the game.

Trail of Cthulhu (and to an extent other Gumshoe based games) places a great deal of emphasis on the interpretation of the clues that the PCs find during the investigation, rather than the effort of finding the clues themselves. In this particular campaign, the majority of the clues they find are paper based such as telegrams, letters, diaries etc.

During the reading and interpretation of these clues players are largely out of character. I give them a prop, they read it and discuss it.

In addition, we are finding the mechanical way refreshes work to be immersion breaking, as the limits and circumstances in which different general abilities refresh seem very artificial. For example,the way First Aid works is that you need to pass a check to see if you are successful, but even if you are then you need to spend points from your pool to actually do any healing. This means that after a certain point, you can't use first aid at all until after a refresh, which doesn't happen until the end of the current locale.

These two things is making it extremely difficult for players to become properly immersed in their characters, and this has a number of knock on effects.

  • I am making a real effort to introduce time pressure into the investigation, but the lack of character immersion means this isn't working, and players are making decisions on a meta level as players rather than considering how their characters would react. For example, they know one of the evil guys is onto their friends and families. I have played out a number of scenes with these characters to establish them and their relationships to the PCs, and this has worked really well. The evil guys are likely to be doing horrible things whilst they are away from New York. This knowledge was intended to keep them focused on dealing with Bangkok as quickly as they could. However, they are taking their time, with no feeling of urgency at all. Bad things that happen don't seem to have impact on character decisions.

  • It is leading to risk averse play. Decisions about what to do are coloured by what players would do in those circumstances rather than protagonists. They tiptoe around things rather than get stuck into dealing with stuff. The effect of this is that nothing is getting properly resolved, and if I follow through with 'realistic' reactions to their actions, the evil guys would be becoming so prepared for them, the difficulty in them achieving their goals would be so high as to become extremely unlikely.

It is worth noting the near the beginning of the campaign there was an issue where, despite the characters having drives that gave reasons to want to continue to get involved in the story, the players were talking about letting them just go back to work and effectively ignoring what had already started to happen. It was almost as if they'd created their characters in such a way as to not want to get involved in Cthulhuesque adventures at all. After raising this with them and reminding them that the point of us playing was for them to have proactive characters who would want to get involved, things settled a little.

The players are aware there is an issue here. We all know each other very well and openly discuss things as they come up at the table.

How have other GMs avoided or addressed these problems? I am mainly interested in those who have run Trail of Cthulhu or other Gumshoe games.


1 Answer 1


You say "we are generally running into an issue ..." but it seems from the rest of the question, and forgive me if I'm wrong, that you mean "I am generally running into an issue ..." That is, have your players actually raised this as an issue that is damaging their enjoyment of the game?

I have not played or GMed the Gumshoe or Cthulhu systems but I am aware of the mechanics and with the particular adventure path.

Out of Character

I must say that a number of things you raise as OoC or immersion breaking do not strike me as such on the face of it, perhaps there is more to it that you say, but:

During the reading and interpretation of these clues players are largely out of character. I give them a prop, they read it and discuss it.

This seems to be exactly what the character's would do; certainly I can't see investigators who find a written clue screwing it up and tossing it away. If the players are saying "I think ...", "What if this means ...", "Would you say ..." then I cannot honestly tell if this is the player talking or the character talking as both would make perfect sense.

the mechanical way refreshes work to be immersion breaking

I can't see this at all: you have to be in a place of safety, time has to pass, or you have to be between scenarios all of which mean that you are taking a respite from your activities and that's exactly how people in real life refresh themselves.

You make reference to friends and family. Have you actually role-played these friends and family with the players in a way that allows the players to connect with them? If not they are just names in a telephone book. Human beings do not care about strangers in an emotional way - this is why humanitarian organisations try to put a single face on disaster relief appeals. One person we can relate to is more important than millions we do not know.


Failure is an option.

Providing there are sufficient clues that the character's are on a deadline and the players still do not act with adequate urgency then they fail and unspeakable horrors eat their brains. In fact, this is the most sensible way for a Cthulhu campaign to end.

However, do not underestimate just how difficult it is to interpret clues: they look easy to you because you have the answers. Subtlety is not your friend here: even if you give them a calendar with a red circle around the 12th and a big label saying "END OF THE WORLD DAY!" at least half of the players will miss it, or forget it, or think you're messing with them.

Personally, I think the character's should find just such a calendar and you should put it in a prominent place, ostentatiously crossing off each day as they waste it. Even then, sometimes you have to break character and say "Look guys, I really mean it, the world ends on the twelfth, you can flap around here if you want but you're just wasting time."

As to the reactions of the bad guys: go for it! If the players are making choices that will make their own progress harder then you role as GM is to enable what the players do. If there are now 12 guards at a site instead of 4 let the character's find a note saying "The boss says that [the party] is coming: they his the [place they hit] two days ago, triple the guard, I want 12 guys on duty at all times! Signed [Underling No 2]". This tells them that if they moved quicker things would be easier: it is still up to them whether to move quicker or not.

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    \$\begingroup\$ I've updated my question a little to make it clear players are aware and agree there is an issue. I also don't really get the bit about interpreting clues. I haven't raised this as an issue because it isn't one so I'm not sure why you bring it up \$\endgroup\$
    – Wibbs
    Jun 6, 2016 at 6:41
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    \$\begingroup\$ You started your query discussing the emphasis of Gumshoe on interpreting clues and how the players appear to have to break immersion to make sense them. As a result, Dale M has responded to this as well as the other issues raised. \$\endgroup\$ Jun 14, 2016 at 7:18

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