Tabletop Review: Trail of Cthulhu – The Repairer of Reputations

Trail of Cthulhu: The Repairer of Reputations
Publisher: Pelgrane Press
Page Count: 44
Release Date: 09/02/2011
Cost: $6.95
Get it Here: DrivethruRPG.com

There is sort of an unwritten rule when it comes to licensed RPGs: Never adapt one of the author’s actual stories into an adventure. Sequels? Sure. Spin-offs? Why not? Using the original tale as part of a source book? But of course. But turning an actual story into a playable adventure? It’s considered the height of hubris. So I was more than a little taken aback when I saw that Pelgrane Press adapted “The Repairer of Reputations” into an adventure. This story, by my favorite author Robert W. Chambers, features his most famous creation – the King in Yellow and is one of his best short pieces. I have to admit I’m not really a fan of Trail of Cthulhu as it’s a mash up of Call of Cthulhu and Gumshoe and it comes across as a second rate CoC for gamers that need more hand holding and less critical thinking skills. It’s an interesting system and I can see why it has a niche fan base, but it’s yet to prove to be something I’d actually want to run a campaign with. So with the ToC system AND being an adventurer that breaks the cardinal rule of licensed table-topping, The Repairer of Reputations already had two strikes against it.

I am happy to report that fifteen pages of the forty-four page adventure are the actual short story by Chambers himself. It’s always fun to re-read this, and for people who pick this adventure up but for some reason haven’t read the story, now they can. The problem is that RoR is merely one tenth of a larger tale – that of The King in Yellow. As such, both players and readers of this will only get a small piece of the bigger puzzle. Of course, after playing this adventure, players might be inspired to look up the rest of the KiY collection or worse, an enterprising DM tries to adapt ALL of the Carcosa saga into playable adventures.

Unfortunately, readers, researchers and writers on the works of Chambers won’t be too happy with the adventure as from the very first paragraph of the adventure on, the setup is all about a “Hasturized America.” Of course, the Hastur Chambers uses in this story is a LOCATION and not a GREAT OLD ONE. He took this name from Ambrose Bierce’s Hastur, who was a god of shepards. Even Lovecraft’s use of Hastur is unclear as it is used in a nebulous fashion, not as the name of a being. August Derelth then took the name and used it for a GOO of his creation, later using the King in Yellow as an avatar. Chaosium used this back when Call of Cthulhu first started (as it tried to create a unified theory of sorts for the Mythos) and this useage of Hastur and the King in Yellow has annoyed Cambers scholars ever since. This isn’t something you can blame on Robin D. Laws (who wrote this adventure), or even get mad at him for, because he’s just following a decades-old issue that highlights who actually reads Mythos authors and who just reads the snippets from gaming sourcebooks. So fans of the actual writing will be annoyed while fans of the tabletop games won’t find anything amiss at all, because it’s what they are used to. My thought is, “It’s a GAME and not a research paper, so lighten up.” Plus there is precedent for the KiY-GOO Hastur connection, even if it’s not by Chambers himself.

Laws does a good job of break down important bits from the story for the GM to use when describing this alternate timeline to his or her players. This point by point political breakdown will really help players and the GM to remember details about this 1920s and how it is dissimilar to the real one. My worry is that a sloppy GM will skip reading the story and just use these bullet points, but that’s hardly Laws’ fault.

The Repairer of Reputations uses a stripped down version of the Trail of Cthulhu rules, which will no doubt be confusing to newcomers and veterans of the game alike. For veterans they’ll instinctively want to do things as they are in the core rulebook instead of the special bits based on this adventure. For newcomers, it’ll simply be trying to wrap their head around the rules they just read and then being hit with a new one-time only set.

One thing I don’t like is the use of the Drive Cards. For those that don’t know Trail of Cthulhu, Drive Cards all but determine a large portion of your characters personality and behavior patterns. It tells you how to make your character act, and that to me, is the sign of a poorly done game system. If the player can’t choose their own character motivations, than they really aren’t role-playing. Worse yet, these are to be used randomly in conjunction with pre-generated characters, taking most of the fun of playing a character out of a gamers hand and instead giving them guidelines for how to act and behave. The GM is also charged with giving the characters a specific common background trait, which again only helps to reinforce that ToC is CoC for less capable players and GMs alike.

What I do like are the special sanity rules for this adventure which nicely relate to the madness which is brought upon by all things related to the insidious play and the symbol that adorns its cover. There is a wonderful aspect here that outright punishes meta-gaming and yet gives characters a chance for a bit more knowledge than they otherwise would have. Once The King In Yellow is brought up, the GM lets the players decide if any of their characters have read the play in question. If so, they have a whopping 1 Sanity Point. AWESOME. If they haven’t read the play, then their Sanity Points are determined by their randomly drawn Drive Card. FAR LESS AWESOME.

The worst rule I’ve found is as follows, “If at any time a player mentions a familiarity with the original ‘Repairer of Reputations’ story or the King in Yellow mythology, even when speaking out of character, his PC’s Sanity drops by half, or to 0, whichever is worse.” Jesus, with rules like this you have to wonder how Trail of Cthulhu won any awards or has any fans at all. A game that punishes you for talking out of character about Chambers and his works? This might honestly be the stupidest single rule I’ve seen published EVER. That would be like a Call of Cthulhu where if someone has read anything by a Mythos Author, their character is hunted eternally by a Hound of Tindalos or something. Or having a Tarrasque appear in a D&D game if anyone ever says the words “hit points.” As well, look at the horrible wording. Sanity drops by half or to 0, whichever is worse? WHAT’S WORSE THAN ZERO? This is so incredibly stupid you have to wonder how this system won an Ennie for “Best Writing.” Holy crap this is bad. Seriously, this one adventurer is so bad, it could undo the years of good reputation Trail of Cthulhu has received.

The adventure plays out over seventeen short scenes, very few of which have to do with the actual “The Repairers of Reputation” short story itself. Names, locations and events are sometimes similar, but it’s akin to a Hollywood film where very little is left the same. Again, fans of Chambers will be annoyed by the adventure and how several characters are portrayed and some of the thematic leaps the plot makes. The entire adventure is rather disjointed and poorly thought out. Characterization is limited and motivation is two-dimensional at best. At no time is there even an attempt to flesh out the NPCs players will encounter. All possible endings are utterly unsatisfactory and much like late 3rd Edition Vampire: the Masquerade, this adventure has the PC more or less simply along for the ride as they encounter mover and shaker NPCs.

So what’s wrong with the adventure? Well, it’s clear from the writing and notes in the adventure than the writer isn’t all that familiar with Chambers’ work and doesn’t really understand the story he is basing his adventure on. It forces players to use pre-generated characters, which is the sign of a poor quality adventure, and then it goes a step further by constantly hitting players with information about their characters that they themselves did not come up with such as, “Oh by the way, you’re an accountant at a bank.” The adventure is little more than the GM telling players what they know and how to advance the plot instead of letting them think for themselves. You also have the strange punishment if you know something about the actual writing of Chambers, even if you don’t apply it to your character. There are a few good things I can say about “The Repairer of Reputations,” like how a character can decide if they are familiar with The King in Yellow or not and reap in-game knowledge and a massive Sanity penalty for doing so but these are minor compared to the issues that plague the adventure as a whole.

The bottom line is that “The Repairer of Reputations” is a huge disservice to Chambers as a whole and fans of his writing, or any Mythos writer at all, should be insulted and annoyed by what lies between these pages. Don’t pick this up as that $6.95 is better spent on actually picking up The King In Yellow. Hell, you can get the entire ten piece collection for free if you have a Kindle. Again, “The Repairer of Reputations” is a perfect example of WHY you don’t adapt an actual story into an adventure and god only knows what drugs Pelgrane Press was one when they thought this was a good idea to publish. Stay away. Stay far away.

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