Character immersion in Trail of Cthulhu


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.