An Overview of Down Darker Trails
By Steve Rosenstein
There’s something romantic about a showdown at high noon, fingers tensed at your hip as your heart thunders in your chest, knowing that you’re fast, but are you fast enough. Something in travelling across the prairie by moonlight, six-gun at the ready, listening for any sound that might betray the whereabouts of the varmints that burned down your homestead pulls at the soul of just about every kid who grew up on a diet of Westerns. Sure, there have been plenty of role-playing games that have given us that Wild West feeling: TSR’s Boot Hill and Kenzer & Co.’s Aces & Eights come to mind, and Pinnacle Entertainment’s Deadlands adds the elements of the weird to widen the possibilities of the genre. So what does Chaosium’s Down Darker Trails bring to the table?
The short answer is 7th Edition Call of Cthulhu. With the release of Pulp Cthulhu sourcebook, Chaosium has been providing Call of Cthulhu players the means of expanding the foundations of BRP horror roleplaying beyond Lovecraft and his literary progeny. Authors like Robert E. Howard and Clark Aston Smith, whose style were distinct from that of Lovecraft’s, have really only been represented as entries in the Malleus Monstrorum but never in the actual flavor of the game itself. Down Darker Trails allows for a spectrum of play styles that range from the Lovecraftian “Purist” style of play (Curse of Yig) to the more Two-Fisted Howard “Pulp” style (The Horror From The Mound) and everything in between.
The first thing that strikes you about this book is the layout. Chaosium has been doubling down on their book design since the 7th Edition was first published, with each subsequent volume getting better and better. Down Darker Trails does not disappoint. Some of the artwork is breathtaking, and Nicholas Nacario, has really put together a book that looks like it delivers.
Down Darker Trails is not a stand-alone system, it does require a familiarity with the 7th Edition Call of Cthulhu rules, and, if you want to play a more action oriented game, the Pulp Cthulhu supplement. That being said, Down Darker Trails does give you almost everything you need to play Call of Cthulhu in the Weird West, from character creation to equipment, to setting materials. Those familiar with the 7th Edition will find little surprises in the character creation process, some of the skills are modified to fit the setting, and there are a few new skills such as Gambling, Rope Use, and Trap that also add a Western flavor to characters. If Pulp is more your style, there is a table for pulp talents included and the pulp archetypes translate well to this setting, as well as a set of “Optional Rules for the Old West” that covers quick draws, Duel-Wielding, Shooting from Horseback and the like. But really, there is so much more to a setting than only in the characters that inhabit it. Fortunately, Down Darker Trails gives the Keeper some fine resources to set their campaigns and scenarios right square west of the Mississippi.
There is a great chapter that serves as a primer for the old west that looks at the history of the west from pre-Columbian peoples through the antebellum and post war periods, as well as a timeline of major historical events that helped shape the West. There is a lot of ink spilled on the War Between the States and how it impacts the setting. There is also a resource that looks at some of the activities of day to day life of various segments of society, such as buffalo hunts, mining, the law, and cattle drives (move ‘em out!), all of the good stuff that really drives home the setting.
There is a survey of Native American Tribes included in the book that discusses, briefly, some of their language and cultural statistics, providing enough information to allow for the use of Native peoples as setting material, unfortunate as this is. I realize that there isn’t enough room in a book like this to provide any more than a bit of information about each tribe, and it may be unfair to criticize the book in regard to this, I just was hoping that even though portraying Native Americans as the ‘other’ is part and parcel for the genre, that it would have been more possible to be inclusive and have them be more than set dressing. Of course nothing is stopping anyone from coming up with a better system for including Native Americans, and maybe Chaosium would take the opportunity to approach Native American gamers to expand upon the role of Native Americans in this supplement.
After the historical information, the stuff you paid your money for is presented: the Supernatural West, where we are treated to settings appropriate monsters, deities, grimoires, and folk magic. There really isn’t anything new in terms of monsters and deities, except advice on how to blend them into the weird west. For example, a Shantak are spun as to be a possible source for the Thunderbird legend, or having Flying Polyps haunting mines when they dig too deep. I would have loved to have seen some of the local legends incorporated into the book, to exist side-by-side with the mythos, why not have both the Thunderbird AND the Shantak? Once again a clever keeper could make that happen. Unfortunately, none of the monsters are statted out, except a few new beings, which wouldn’t be a problem as most of the stats can be found in the Call of Cthulhu Keeper’s Guide, but some of the entities can only be found in the Malleus Monstrorum supplement which has not yet been updated for the current edition.
The really interesting thing is the incorporation of folk magic which is presented as possibly “…watered-down versions of Mythos magic, learnt through misunderstanding and passed down over generations…”. Once again, I see no reason that folk magic has to be associated thematically with the Mythos, but there are possibilities here, especially for a pulp campaign.
Included in the text are a few “Lost Worlds of the Old West” that can serve as story hooks or physical settings for scenarios. The first is the Lost Valley, a Robert E. Howard inspired place populated by the pre-human ‘Old People.’ The second may be recognized by CoC grognards, K’n-Yan from the pen of Keith Herber, originally published in the Keeper’s Companion Volume One. There is the Shadow Desert a mysterious dark reflection of the material world, and El Canon De Los Viejos, a place where dinosaurs survive alongside people. Finally there is a chapter giving advice on how to design Old-West adventures, covering tropes and sources of inspiration, followed by two adventures ready to play. Really, almost everything that you need to start adventuring in the Old, Weird, and Wild is included in this book. So, what are you waiting for?