First, let me start by making one point clear: If you are in need of good adventures written specifically for Trail of Cthulhu, go buy this book! These are among the best stories I've read and played (all systems included) in a long time, period. I'm giving a very low score for Style for Arkham Detective Tales for entirely different reasons which I'm going to make clear further along this review. For full disclosure, I bought the paper version (not the PDF), playtested "The Wreck" scenario with friends, and else read the book from cover to cover many times.
The book kicks off with an introductory setting framework revolving around the concept of "Mythos Detective". While the idea is interesting and usable, it covers the whole of two pages, and would have benefited from a bit more exposition and material. There are four scenarios provided, on the standard Trail of Cthulhu "framework" detailing for each The Horrible Truth (what's going on), the Spine of the adventure (the essential "path" along the story), Scenes, etc. The writing style is great, flowing and full to the brim with good storytelling. Dialogues are especially well-written. I'll try to keep this "spoiler-free" but keep in mind this is pretty hard to do in an investigative game.
The kidnapping of the son of a rich family brings the players to investigate the family itself more than anything else. This is a very simple scenario and keeps true with good Lovecraftian adventures. The story structure itself is interesting in that it presents more than one "story spine" for players to follow if they wish to do so, and can turn either into a mob story or an occult family investigation. The story is rife with potential moral dilemma that would suit very well the philanthropic sort of investigators, and the Keepers who like to torment them.
Return to Red Hook
This adventure is two-part: one takes place in the Red Hook district and the second part is located in a much stranger, dangerous and Cthulhu-esque location. A young man disappears and the players are contacted for the case by the typical but oh-so-loved femme fatale, who is going of course to prove herself more than what she appears to be. The first part is a bit confusing and probably takes a bit of fudging and railroading from the Keeper to successfully "deliver" players to the second part, but fans of cosmic horror will absolutely relish the latter part of the story. As a side note, I believe the players would benefit greatly from actually reading "The Horror at Red Hook", and I'm taking the opportunity to remind everyone that much of H.P. Lovecraft's work is available freely on the Internet.
This adventure is the exploration of a common concept within Lovecraftian literature: Things that are Dangerous for Man to Know. It revolves around a book written by a deranged and failed poet, and the chase of said book leads them to libraries, book stores and private mansions. There are probably very good roleplaying opportunities for the players to feel overwhelmed by the difficult mission of keeping an idea/concept/knowledge from spreading lest everything be lost. Add to that a very interesting take on a classic Lovecraft creature (The Hounds of Tindalos) and you'll have everything to keep your players on their toes for an entire evening.
This is probably the most "classic Lovecraft" adventure of the book, and deals with marine terrors, Cyclopean Dreams and shambling horrors from the sea. It is also a blast to play. You start with a Flashback sequence in which the players take the roles of sailors who are having a very bad, stormy night indeed. Unbeknownst to the players, events in this flashback will affect the rest of the adventure in a very concrete fashion. This one has it all: failed artists, suspicions of millenia-old cults, zombies and indestructible stones. It also has an interesting enigma behind it all that hinges on the capacity of the players to understand in time the workings of an alien artefact. It was very fun to play, and I'm looking forward to the rest of the adventures in the book as I have no doubt they'll prove just as fun to run.
There has been some criticism that none of these adventures actually take place in Arkham, and I understand this could offend some customers, but I for one do not mind "fudging locations" to fit my needs (I'm probably going to run some of them in Boston anyway...). I am not a fan of "historical accurateness", but those who are will probably appreciate that some real-history facts and events are mentioned as reference to some adventures (this is obviously a clear influence from Kenneth Hite).
The book is a relatively thin softcover compilation of adventure. The fact that it is not a very thick book makes the cover look flimsy, and it will take the look of a well-worn book relatively soon. The art decently supports the various narratives, although it is of varying quality ranging from excellent (Jérôme Huguenin's somber tableaus depicting maritime horror or sky-fires) to almost amateur (the same Jérôme's drawing of a Contact Stone that was much less to my liking), with everything in between. The layout does the job of delivering the information correctly.
It is there and then that it all goes south: the editing, proofreading and especially the post-launch support is abysmal, and this is just plainly unacceptable for any book published in the 21st century. I might give off the impression that I'm especially "picky" and unforgiving, but there is no doubt in my mind that the value of my purchase was diminished by the lack of what could be considered "basic support" from the publisher.
First, and most important, there is a whole story-critical paragraph missing from the book. The Kidnapping is not a complete adventure without them, and I noticed on my first read that something was amiss. Also of note are a lot of typographical and spelling mistakes littered throughout the book ("hold" instead of "hole"), page references that send you to the wrong part of the book (sending you to page 36 when it's really somewhere on page 31), and leftover marks from editing ("He has a [[[PISTOL]]]] in the same pocket") that make the read more difficult than it should be. There are even errors in the handouts that created confusion for my players during play (question marks appearing instead of dollar signs, probably due to font errors).
At the time of the first writing of this review, the handouts, while being printed and described in the book, were not available for download on the website contrary to what is stated on top of page 78 (they were added very recently). Even printed versions of the handouts are smallish and not very impressive, some handouts amounting to a quarter-page that is kind of hard to read.
This book has been out since September 2009 and those issues raised almost immediately on Pelgrane forums, but only corrected through an update to the PDF in July 2010 (that's a 9-month gap). There is no second printing available. The missing material was buried in blogs and forum posts, when it should have been readily available from the product's web page. There is an updated PDF correcting most if not all of these problems, and I asked for that file through "official channels". Pelgrane did provide me with the said PDF, but I had to send a proof of purchase (which I had of course lost so I sent a picture of me with the book), and I had to send a reminder by e-mail to get the PDF in time for my scheduled game.
To clarify my expectations, I would have expected easily downloadable errata and missing sections to be made available in a timely fashion on the product website, hopefully within a month but certainly within 1 year of the product publication. Errata and support material on the website is what I consider "basic support" from the publisher, and in my opinion this is valid even if you publish a PDF update through other channels.
A great source of stories for Trail of Cthulhu, very much in line with the Lovecraftian universe, and full of flavor and "winks" to elements of the Mythos. I do not have much experience with Pelgrane Press products apart from the Trail of Cthulhu book, Arkham Detective Tales and a few online PDFs bought here and there. But I hope for their sake this is not their usual level of support for their products, as it really is an unecessary blemish to an otherwise great addition to the line.