Review in Summary
The Call of Cthulhu Starter Set is meant to be an easy introduction to the sometimes impenetrable and arcane system of the H.P. Lovecraft-inspired tabletop roleplaying system, and Chaosium is publishing an updated version to celebrate the game’s 40th anniversary. Despite a few minor flaws, the starter set may be one of the very best I’ve seen.
Chaosium had a big hurdle to get over when it came to introducing new players to its system. There are a lot of things to love about Call of Cthulhu, but its lack of approachability for new players interested in the system has been a long-standing challenge. Regardless of past impressions, Chaosium has knocked it out of the park with this one. The three books included in the starter set are designed to be read in sequence to slowly introduce both Keepers (Cthulhu’s name for Game Masters) and players to the rules they need to start playing relatively quickly.
The Best Intro for a Keeper
Learning a new tabletop system, especially for DMs, Keepers, Storytellers, etc can be an overwhelming experience, especially when it comes to a game as complex as Call of Cthulhu. It’s hard to know which rules are crucial to understand, which are peripheral, and where to start. The starter set simplifies this process elegantly, offering aspiring Keepers an adventure they can play by themselves to get better acquainted with the system before they even start looking at the rules.
The starter set contains three main books: a solo adventure for new Keepers called “Alone Against the Flames”; “Introductory Rules”, a short 23-page book that introduces the basic rules of the system; and a collection of small intro scenarios that increase in scope and complexity as you move further. Each of the books are meant to be played in the listed order and by the end both Keepers and players new to the system will come away with a solid understanding of how it works.
“Alone Against the Flames” is a “Pick a Path”-style adventure that plunges you into a scenario with little explanation of the rules of the game other than an intro to the style and feeling of Call of Cthulhu in general. As you play through the adventure, the book slowly introduces you to the concept of character creation, attributes, skills, professions, etc. It only introduces these systems as they become relevant to the scenario, rather than assaulting you with a huge wall of text.
You are given instruction on how to allocate your attributes right before you deal with an encounter that tests them. The man driving your bus asks you your name and why you are headed to the town of Arkham, presenting you with the option to give yourself a name and a profession. All of this is done elegantly and is a masterclass in how to do tutorials for games properly.
Overall, “Alone Against the Flames” is a fantastic way to introduce new Keepers to the system without overwhelming them.
Play By The Rules
It’s only after Keepers play through the solo scenario that they are encouraged to read the rules intro. Call of Cthulhu is a massive book with a ton of interacting rules, but the starter set keeps it simple with just the basic rules players need to get started. Character creation is simplified into a series of three steps that only go on for about two pages. The dice system (Cthulhu uses a d100 system) is introduced, skills and sample professions are explained, as is Cthulhu’s infamous and all-important sanity system. While the rules presented are barebones, they are enough to help players start their first adventures before they delve into the more complicated mechanics.
Once players and Keepers familiarize themselves with the system, they are presented with three beginning scenarios that they are encouraged to play in sequence with the same or different characters (called “Investigators”). The kit additionally comes with five pre-generated characters for players to start out quickly, as well as handouts for the various scenarios such as letters, diary entries, and telegrams.
Each scenario builds in scope and complexity, helping guide both player and Keeper. The first scenario, “Paper Chase”, is meant for a Keeper and one player, though two investigators can play, if desired. It concerns a missing persons case and a mysterious robbery. The second scenario, “Edge of Darkness” involves 2-5 players and revolves around the last wish of a dying man who accidentally summoned an eldritch entity into an old farmhouse with his friends when he was young. The final scenario, “Dead Man Stomp” involves 3-5 players and takes place in Harlem where racial tensions, a cursed trumpet, and a herald of the Old Gods threaten to boil over.
The scenarios themselves are gripping and exciting in addition to helping players and Keepers become more comfortable in the system. In the first scenario, the book continues to guide the Keeper’s hand, having asides to explain certain rules or exceptions and how to deal with the unexpected, while also keeping the stakes low and less challenging for the player(s). The other two scenarios begin to let the Keeper have the reins more and adjudicate their own sessions while also upping the danger for the players. It’s a fantastic way to get acquainted with the system.
I cannot sing the praises of “Alone Against the Flames” enough. It’s a brilliant introduction to the system that should be the gold standard for RPG starter sets going forward. Not only does it present its rules in an easy-to-digest fashion, it tells a compelling story that kept me at the edge of my seat. It demonstrates what makes Call of Cthulhu so special among the catalog of other TTRPGs. There is a distinct lack of combat, having only about three or four possible combat encounters in a 56 page booklet, all of which can be missed or entirely avoided depending on the choices you make. The combat encounters also don’t last more than a minute or two. The focus is instead on atmosphere, investigation, puzzle solving and social interaction.
The rules intro book pleasantly surprised me with its simplified presentation and easy-to-follow jargon. It’s also a small touch, but I appreciate how Chaosium gave us a graph at the end for calculating the various levels of skills and attributes at a glance. One of the most tedious parts of Cthulhu is dividing your skills and attributes (1-100) into hard (½ of skill level) and extreme levels (⅕ of skill level) and this simplifies that process significantly.
I want to applaud Chaosium for their delicate handling of racism in the 1920s. This was always going to be a minefield and I feel Chaosium did it credit in the “Dead Man Stomp” scenario. The scenario itself encourages Keepers and players to play minority characters in order to educate themselves on the harsh truths of living in the 1920s. But it also encourages players to know their own limits and for Keepers to adjust things for the sake of fun above all else and to make their players feel comfortable.
The beginning of the scenario also offers a sidebar that explains the complex topic of institutionalized racism. It doesn’t try to sugar coat things or blame individuals for racism, and tries to explain the challenges that still face minority groups in the modern day in addition to the Jim Crow laws prevalent at the time the game takes place. Call of Cthulhu has faced push back in the past due to its time period and the personal ideology of the writer who created the universe it is based on. While I don’t think it completely solves the issue, I applaud Chaosium for bravely trying to address it, rather than simply ignore it.
“Alone Against the Flames” , while great, feels rather limiting. Some of the choices felt more like flavor than actual decisions. I played through the scenario multiple times and at various points it felt like choosing a different option didn’t change the ultimate outcome, or only changed it superficially. I also wish they explored the awesome chase rules more in the scenario as well as introduced more variety of skills. It felt like there was one specific type of character (one good at investigating) that would succeed in this scenario while other builds would struggle.
Also, while I appreciate Chaosium’s delicate handling of race in the scenario, as I said before I don’t think it does enough. It’s a hard issue and not something that can be easily addressed with a disclaimer that fits on one page. I think if Chaosium really wants to address this issue it should be addressed in every facet of their game design going forward. Racism is not an easy subject to discuss, especially when we are talking about the setting Cthulhu takes place in. Rather than just one scenario here or there involving racism as a theme, those themes should at least be acknowledged in all of their adventures and scenarios. At that point it becomes the players’ choice as to whether or not to engage in those themes rather than the developers’.
The Call of Cthulhu Starter Set is an excellent introduction to one of the best TTRPG systems out there. It offers a gold standard on how to introduce players to a system and helps ease new Keepers into it with a simple and exciting scenario. I feel the bar has been set and future starter kits should be measured against this.
Call of Cthulhu is an incredible and deep system and I am hopeful and excited that this new starter set will introduce many more players to a game I truly love. If you have ever had an interest in picking this game up, there has never been a better time.