Hello everyone, it’s Slick Dungeon here. Over the past couple of years I have posted on this blog about my love of role playing games and I have mentioned Call of Cthulhu as one of the games I play several times.
I thought for those who are unfamiliar with this game and how it works I could do a series of posts to help you get started. I’ve seen lots of articles like this but they all seem to assume you’ve at least played role playing games before and sometimes that you’ve played this role playing game before.
These posts will be for those who are interested in playing the horror themed tabletop role playing game but are newcomers to it. I’ll be starting with the basics and give you a rundown of more of the nitty gritty rules in future posts.
If you’ve ever considered playing this game but might be on the fence, let me be your guide and you can decide if it is right for you. Also, let me know if you find this useful or have any feedback for me so I can tailor these entries towards those most interested.
Just in case you have never heard of this game and have no idea what a tabletop role playing is, let me lay it out for you.
A tabletop role playing game is a shared narrative between a group of people. Typically it involves one person taking on the role of a Game Master (in Call of Cthulhu referred to as a Keeper) who guides the group through the story. Not only does this individual control the monsters and other villains who populate the game, they play all of the non-player characters as well. If you were to think of this in video game terms, it’s like being the writer of the game or the developer of the game. Only, unlike video games, the Keeper can actually adapt the story to what the players are doing in real time. The Keeper is also the final arbiter of the rules deciding what does and does not succeed in challenging situations. This usually takes a fair amount of preparation as well as a lot of improvising on the part of the Keeper to pull off well. But it can be a very rewarding experience.
The rest of the people playing are characters. Their characters are who play through the game. In video game terms this would be your avatar. Only, unlike video games, you won’t hit any walls you can’t go past or things the computer just doesn’t allow you to do. You can try to do anything. You may not succeed but in almost all cases you can try. In Call of Cthulhu these characters are called Investigators.
Telling a shared narrative where many of the outcomes are determined by a random number generator in the form of dice is a unique experience and can be seriously rewarding. If you find a like minded group of people to do this with, you will be in for life-long memories. I recommend giving it a try at least once in your life.
If you want to play a game like this which is horror themed, Call of Cthulhu is out and out one of the best games there is to play. I’ll give you a quick overview of it below and provide you with some resources so you can get started with your very own campaign if you decide you want to try it.
The Cthulhu Mythos
Call of Cthulhu is all about Lovecraftian cosmic horror. Cosmic horror is otherworldly, immense, and unknowable. It’s the strange haze in the sky that seems to be making everyone who sees it sick. It’s the unseen bump in the night ready to grab you with its slimy, flesh rotten fingers. It’s the creatures from the depths of the ocean you never knew existed reaching over the side of the railing on your boat before you can do anything about it. It’s alien gods come to toy with humanity in unknown ways for unknown reasons. It’s your sanity slipping away as you finally come face to face with what the universe truly holds.
While there were some instances of cosmic horror prior to H.P. Lovecraft, he was the first one to create a whole mythos around these types of stories. You see some of the same characters, creatures and settings in different stories of his, creating a shared universe.
You don’t need to know a lot about cosmic horror, or H.P. Lovecraft’s work to play this game. There are some who would argue the game is even better when you don’t know about these things because you’re more likely to be surprised by what you are confronting.
In my opinion it can go either way. I have read several Lovecraft stories and other cosmic horror stories and I find knowing these stories does not take away the fun I have playing this game. I also know some people who play this game and have never read Lovecraft but still have a great time playing.
More important than knowing what cosmic horror is would be understanding what you’re comfortable playing with in a horror game. Call of Cthulhu is generally considered to be equivalent to a PG-13 rating as far as horror goes. I don’t know about you but I have seen some disturbing things in PG-13 movies I might not be comfortable role playing so knowing your limits is good before you get into this game.
In a future post I’ll have some advice on how to know your limits and if you are the Keeper, know how to stick to the limits of the group so everyone has a good time.
While the broad theme here is cosmic horror, there are all kinds of scenarios, time periods and different ways to play this game so you won’t necessarily be fighting against some horrific alien god. It just depends on what your group wants out of the game.
The Cthulhu mythos was invented by H.P. Lovecraft but tons of other writers have added to and re-interpreted these stories. So, while the mythos is the basis of the game, it’s not the only aspect of it out there. Don’t let the theme of cosmic horror limit your fun. Just know it is a horror game with horror elements so make sure you can handle that before you start.
H.P. Lovecraft was an America pulp fiction writer in the 1920’s. He wrote stories such as The Dunwitch Horror, The Shadow Over Innsmouth, At the Mountains of Madness, and of course, The Call of Cthulhu. His stories sparked a legion of horror fans imaginations although he didn’t get much credit at the time. Notable authors from Stephen King to Clive Barker, Neil Gaiman and Matt Ruff were all inspired by his works in one way or another.
While it would be nice if we could believe all H.P. Lovecraft gave us were scary stories that are fun to read in the night, we have to address the racist in the room. Lovecraft, as a person, was a bigoted, xenophobic, racist person who wrote some truly awful things. If you don’t want to play this game on the basis of that alone, I cannot blame you. You would be justified in that decision.
However, one thing to keep in mind here is that the game is not the same as the man. Lovecraft did not come up with the role playing game and the makers of this game have repeatedly acknowledged the racism Lovecraft showed in his life. Even the Lovecraft Society who tries to keep his stories alive in the public disavows all of the racist history of the man.
I think one of the best shows to take on who Lovecraft was and show how his creations could be used while not ignoring his racism has to be Lovecraft Country. It’s a great show, full of cosmic horror and you can watch it on HBO Max. Do be warned though it’s graphic and violent and very bloody.
While some people might say you should read a lot of Lovecraft before playing this game, my recommendation would be just to read cosmic horror written by any author you enjoy. One I can recommend is Gunmetal Gods written by Zamil Akhtar. You absolutely do not have to have read H.P. Lovecraft to know what cosmic horror is.
All of this is just to say that while Lovecraft’s works clearly inspired this game, you do not have to agree with his view of the world to enjoy it. This is a diverse game that can be enjoyed by a diverse audience whether or not you know anything about H.P. Lovecraft. And in fact some of the best cosmic horror is set in Lovecraft’s mythos but written by diverse voices with interesting things to say about what might be found out there.
What You Need to Play
There are several ways to play Call of Cthulhu and as I mentioned there are versions of the game that are set in different time periods, some that are more action oriented, and even games you can play where you don’t need anything but yourself, a pencil, and a scenario to follow along with. For the purposes of these posts I am going to focus on the traditional version of Call of Cthulhu which usually takes place in the 1920’s in America. I should also mention this is for the 7th edition of the game which is the most current edition.
I’m going to list out everything you need to get started so let’s get right into it. You only need 4 things to get started.
To play this version of the game there are some things you need. First and foremost you need the rules. The quickstart rules are free on drivthrurpg.com or you can get them on the Chaosium website but you may have to pay for them there. Quickstart rules are the bare minimum of what you need to play but there are other books you can purchase if you know you are going to really get into this game.
Just to make it clear, you don’t need to buy either the Keeper’s Rulebook or Investigator’s Handbook in order to start playing. They’re nice to have and they are great books but test out the quickstart rules prior to paying for any hardcover or PDF books.
If you know already you plan to play this game longterm you will want the Keeper’s Rulebook. The Investigator’s Handbook adds a lot of value for players but it is not required to play the game. For that book I would recommend one person in your group have it and it be shared around with people at the table.
This game involves dice roles so you need some dice in order to play. While any standard set of gaming dice which includes a d4, d6, d8, d10, d12, d20 and percentile die will do, for this game the most important dice are the d10 and percentile dice. A d10 is a ten sided die with numbers 0-9 on it. The percentile die is also a ten sided die but it usually has the tens places on it so 00-90. If you don’t have a percentile die you can simply use two d10’s as long as you are always consistent with which one is the ones place and which one is the tens place.
Another secret here is that while the set of 7 gaming dice will do, you actually do not need a d12 because Call of Cthulhu does not actually use that die for anything. If you play other role playing games it can be good to have though so I’d go for the set of seven dice.
3. Pencils and paper
You’ll need something to write with and to write on. Most likely you are going to want character sheets for your investigators. This is another free resource you can get on Drivethrurpg.com. You’ll probably want some extra paper as well just to jot down notes of what is happening during the session. It may not seem significant in the moment but if you end up playing long term this can be key to remembering what happened previously.
As far as what to write with I recommend pencils with erasers but if you want to live on the edge and use a pen, you do you.
You are going to need at least one person to play Call of Cthulhu. And by one person, I mean yourself. You can actually find several single player scenarios for this game if you don’t have other people to play with. I recommend starting with Alone Against the Flames. It not only has a compelling story, it also teaches you how to play and fill out the character sheet. If you are going to be the Keeper, I recommend playing this at least once on your own before playing with a group. And if you like it, there are several follow ups which are equally as fun but you will have to pay for those.
If you want to play with friends you can have as few as one other person to up to 4 other people play. Beyond that the groups can get a bit unwieldy to manage and with more people it does become harder to convey a horror feel. Some of the most intense games can be 1 on 1 where you just have a Keeper and an Investigator.
So find some likeminded people who are into role playing games and horror and you will be ready to get started. But, I have one more tip for you before you start. There is one great way to start with this game and while it isn’t completely free, it’s very reasonably priced.
The Starter Set
As far as everything I talked about that you need to start this game, there is one way I think is the best way to get going. You get the most bang for your buck with the starter set. If you already have dice then your best bet is getting it on drivethrurpg. And right now you can get it for $4.19. That’s a very good price to pay for hours of role playing. That will only get you the PDF’s however. If you want the full set with everything you see below get it on the Chaosium website. That will run you a little more at $24.99 but it’s cheaper than buying any of the hardcover books.
This set is my favorite way to get new players involved in this game and it’s tons of fun. I’ve never regretted spending on this set and if you take nothing else from this post, this is my number one top recommendation of how to get started. Just find some friends and buy the starter set and you will be able to get going.
Hopefully this post helped you to know where to start with playing Call of Cthulhu. As for whether or not this game is for you, that’s for you to decide. But if you do decide to play and want a more in-depth look at the game, keep your eye on this space as I walk us through the game.
Next time, I’ll take a much closer look at the character sheets and show you how to create an Investigator to play in your own scenario at home. In the meantime, if you’ve played this game, I’d love to hear how it went for you and what some of your top tips are for playing. Feel free to let me know in the comments.
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