Getting Started with Call of Cthulhu

How to quickly get started with a Call of Cthulhu, what rules you need, and what books to get.

Call of Cthulhu, first published in 1981 by Chaosium, is one of the classic roleplaying games. Call of Cthulhu is a game that rewards cowardice and missed perception checks. It is brilliant.

Nowadays, it seems that H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos is creeping into mainstream entertainment more than ever before. Perhaps this game is something you want to explore? How do you get started?

Here’s how I finally started my own Cthulhu game after thinking about it for years.

The Starter Set

Sometimes I feel that RPG publishers rely on Dungeons and Dragons to teach people how to play roleplaying games. Which makes sense, in a way, as D&D is the juggernaut in the room. The market has allowed D&D to largely define how the hobby is perceived from the beginning. This is not necessarily the publishers’ fault, it is just how it is, and I do not blame anyone for profiting, or at least saving some money. Creating attractive starter games is probably expensive and risky.

Call of Cthulhu does better, as it should. Call of Cthulhu is a classic game, almost as old as that dragon game. I would argue it is easier to learn, features imagery and tropes instantly recognizable to anyone with the remotest interest in history and crime stories. Not knowing anything about the mythos may even be an advantage as you start out with this game.

The First Stories

Starting out with a new game, I wanted to step away from my standard setup of fantasy sandbox investigation and intrigue for several reasons. Instead, I wanted to run a series of episodic short adventures, which fits Call of Cthulhu well. I also wanted to root the game in European history, so the recent Berlin: The Wicked City (2019) was perfect.

Me being me, I went shopping and soon had a nice stack of Call of Cthulhu books. As always, my desire to read is greater than time allows, and we ended up creating investigators with me reading only the quick-start rules, the Paper Chase one shot from the Call of Cthulhu Starter Set (2018), and only a fraction of the Berlin: The Wicked City book.

The Call of Cthulhu Starter Game comes in a sturdy box with all you need to get started. My grognard fanboy heart leaps with joy!

I have previously gushed about how good I think this starter set is, and I stand by my words. It is excellent. The only reference I made to the actual rulebook during character generation was checking up on a couple of weapons. I had to figure out how bursts work. Well, I handwaved it and checked the rules between sessions, but you get my point.

After very little fuzz, we were ready to go. The two players unable to meet for session zero easily made their characters using the fast-play rules, with me piping in on Discord.

Episodic investigations are something Call of Cthulhu does well and is supported by Chaosium. For example, Doors to Darkness (2016) and Mansions of Madness (1990) are anthologies of short adventures, and Berlin: The Wicked City is equal parts sourcebook and a collection of three adventures. Each of these short adventures can be completed in a couple of nights with a focused group or a few more at a more sluggis pace. Our group finished The Devil Eats Flies, the first adventure of Berlin: The Wicked City, in approximately seven sessions, although I made some additional content.

This is also a story about how the best-laid plans fail as stories have a life of their own, particularly in collective storytelling. Scope and scale grew, and soon I was facing an epic campaign regardless of my modest intentions. Or perhaps I wanted this epic campaign, as this is the way I am wired, and I made the hints of a larger world irresistible.

Feel free to roll a Psychology check.

An Epic Campaign

While Call of Cthulhu does episodic adventures very well, the other style of Call of Cthulhu games is the sweeping epic, sometimes spanning continents.

Lovecraft’s writing is a bit on the nihilistic side, while this other mode leans towards a more pulpy approach if you like to don a fedora and perhaps a bullwhip. One of the characters in my game favored a combat umbrella, but that is a story for another day.

The blueprint of this mode is Shadows of Yog-Sothoth (1982) and later perfected in Masks of Nyarlathotep (1984). Masks have been revised and reprinted multiple times. Other offerings include Horror on the Orient Express (1991) and Children of Fear (2020).

A bug-eyed view of the 2010 Mask of Nyarlathotep cover. Such a great cover! Image by Lee Gibbons, copyright probably Chaosium.

So, Do You Need the Call of Cthulhu Keeper Rulebook?

I realize I have made the argument you can run Call of Cthulhu with only the starter set, which is not entirely true for my game. The Call of Cthulhu Keeper Rulebook (2015) is the game’s core rulebook, and more accurately, the only book you are supposed to need. The Keeper is the person running the game, in Call of Cthulhu terms.

Fifteen sessions into the campaign, I have only looked up more details on combat (particularly healing and how automatic weapons work), a couple of grimoires, two monsters, and how magic is supposed to work.

That’s it.

Checking these rules certainly enhanced my game. As Keeper I made better judgment calls, but the group could have agreed to just wing it instead. The starter set and the Keeper screen have seen far more use, which is a testament to how easy this game is to play (if not master).

You Can Do This

The bottom line, if your want to ease into roleplaying games and don’t want to deal with action fantasy tropes of slaying monsters and grabbing gold, Call of Cthulhu is right there to entertain you and your friends.

It is cheap and easy to get started, your initial investment goes a long way in terms of entertainment, the rules you learn remain relevant throughout the campaign, and you may learn something about yourself and your friends. Running a roleplaying game is great way to stay in touch with friends.

Future Posts?

Watch this space for future posts, as I will write at least one more post about how my Berlin: The Wicked City story morphed into Masks of Nyarlathotep, and some of my homebrew content may end up here as well. We’ll see.

Tell Us About Your Game!

Do you play Call of Cthulhu? What are your highlights as an investigator? Tell us below!

Reading List

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The stories of H.P. Lovecraft is, of course, a must-read if you’re into this sort of thing, or perhaps a must-listen, as I found an audiobook as much more enjoyable experience.

There are two caveats: first, Lovecraft’s style of writing is a special case. Old-fashioned is perhaps misleading. I have no idea if this style ever was in fashion. For me, the listening experience was much better once the reader got into the rhythm of the prose. It worked very well in a hypnotic way.
Second, Lovecraft was a racist. Just how bad is difficult for me to say, but it is certainly there.

So your mileage will vary.

That said, my favorite stories includes The Call of Cthulhu, Nyarlathotep, Under the Pyramids, and The History of the Necronomicon.

Lovecraft Country (2016) by Matt Ruff is the basis of the TV series. I have yet to read the book, but presumably, it stands very well on its own.

Must-haves for anyone just wanting to play the game must check out Call of Cthulhu is the Call of Cthulhu Starter Set (2018). That’s it. The 20-page rules booklet is a complete game, and you get three short adventures to run for your group.

The complete rules are covered in the Call of Cthulhu Keeper Rulebook (7th edition, 2015). Of course, “complete” is a fluid term for roleplaying games, but I would argue this comes close.

The benchmark for the bullwhip-and-fedora appropriate globetrotting Cthulhu campaign is Masks of Nyarlathotep (1984). Note that there are two versions available, what appears to be the 2010 version and the lavish 7th edition, so your mileage may vary, and please note the two very different price points.

I have not fully read either (like that will stop me from starting the campaign), but I have enjoyed both so far.

The 2010 version appears to deadlier and refers to an older version of the rules set. The cast of characters is less diverse, the handouts are simpler, the layout is not as gorgeous (thus more printer-friendly), and the background is sparser.

All that said, I think I prefer the 2010 version. The leaner format makes it more manageable and makes more room for my own content, should I feel inspired. I just have to remember to pull punches, as the old Masks is reputed to be a meat grinder.

And finally, the Masks of Nyarlathotep audio play is brilliant. It is first-rate entertainment and a great way to memorize the critical plot points of the story.

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