“The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is the fear of the unknown” – H.P. Lovecraft
In Call of Cthulhu, you take on the role of an intrepid but fragile human investigator in 1920 America as you plunge into solving mysteries and uncover bizarre or terrifying truths about the cosmos and the horrors that inhabit it. Call of Cthulhu is THE horror and mystery roleplaying game. Every bit of its design is built to transport players into the mystic and horrific world of the Cthulhu Mythos, our world but with strange monsters and sinister cults. Fans of the horror genre or folks that enjoy H.P. Lovecraft’s writing and games inspired by it (such as Arkham Horror or the Mansion of Madness) will find much to love about exploring this world of fear and enigma.
About this Review
This review covers the contents of the Call of Cthulhu 40th Anniversary Starter Set. The game is published by Chaosium Inc. and is in its 7th installment of the rules. While this edition of the game was released in 2018, this Anniversary Set was published in 2021. This review will include details about what is included in the box, commentary on how the game’s systems work, how the adventures included in the box play, the usability of the rulebook provided, and how well the contents of the box mesh together to make a fun tabletop experience for you and your friends. There will also be a rating of the game on a scale from one to ten, ten being a perfect score.
Contents of the Box
The Call of Cthulhu 40th Anniversary Start Set contains:
- A one-page introduction worksheet outlines the order to read the box’s content;
- A 55-page staple-bound softcover solo adventure book: Alone Against the Flames;
- Five pre-generated investigator sheets;
- Four blank investigator sheets;
- A set of polyhedral dice to play the game;
- A 77-page staple-bound softcover Adventure Book, that includes three game scenarios:
- Paper Chase (1 Session for up to 3 participants)
- Edge of Darkness (3 Sessions for up to 6 participants)
- Dead Man Stomp ( 2 Sessions for up to 6 participants);
- A 25-page staple-bound softcover rulebook; and
- A dozen full-color handouts printed on glossy paper, including notes, maps, and other clues to give to your players during one of the three adventures above.
All the above items come packaged in a beautifully decorated and sturdy cardstock box. The entire set sells at retailers for the unbelievably low price of $25 USD. This is a fantastic value for your money, and thanks to the inclusion of a solo adventure, it is guaranteed to get playtime if you want it to! Moreover, the three-game scenarios included offering your table roughly a dozen hours of playtime. To add more to the value of the set, if you purchase it online from the publisher you are also provided a free PDF copy of all its contents. Additionally, there are many free scenarios available to you once you have completed the four contained in this starter set. Other free material, like quick start guides and blank investigator sheets can be accessed on the publisher’s website.
A large number of the adventures you’ll be playing in Call of Cthulhu take place in a setting inspired by the United States of America in the 1920s, a world where racism was vicious and ever-present. In an effort to acknowledge this, a small statement is included in the Dead Man Stomp investigation by Chris Spivey, the founder of Darker Hue Studios, giving readers context about racism and race in 1920s America. The inclusion of the statements feels like a good start, however, I realize that as a white reviewer I am not in a position to state if it is sufficient. For that reason, I’d like to direct readers to an episode of The Call of Cthulhu Mystery Program, entitled Exploring Harlem Unbound and Haunted West with Chris Spivey. Folks should also look into Harlem Unbound. It is an award-winning Call of Cthulhu sourcebook written by Chris Spivey that presents keepers with investigations set in Harlem. The Sourcebook also discusses racism and inclusion in the game and more broadly, in the roleplaying hobby.
Overview of Systems & Gameplay
In Call of Cthulhu players take on the role of regular people investigating bizarre and horrifying phenomena. The ordinary folk that you embody are called investigators. Instead of character classes, these investigators can take on one of over a hundred potential occupations ranging from private eye to acrobat to pilot to zookeeper and everything in between. In the starter set there are eight sample occupations for you to choose from:
- Doctor of Medicine;
- Police Detective;
- Private Investigator; and
These occupations each provide the investigators with an interesting combination of skill specialties. Call of Cthulhu has a very wide range of skills, most of which are very specific and circumstantial. There are a total of 45 standard skills and you may choose to add more if deemed appropriate for the setting or investigation you are running. When an investigator is in a dramatic situation they must roll against their skill score to determine the outcome of a challenge.
Call of Cthulhu uses percentile dice (two 10-sided dice to randomize rolling numbers from one to 100). In addition, each skill has a score associated with it, from 0 to 100, representing your characters’ abilities in the given skill. The eight or so skills associated with your occupation will have high values, but otherwise, skills have default values indicated on the character sheet. These default values are quite low, ranging from 0 to 25. To succeed at a skill check you will be required to roll under the skill value. This mechanic and the large swath of skills at your disposal make failure common. This is compounded by the game’s “level of success” mechanic. When a challenge is hard to overcome, or extremely hard to overcome, players must roll equal to or below half their skill level and a fifth of their skill level respectively. Meaning there are often instances when you have very low odds of success in a given situation, even if you account for your occupational stat boosts.
Being faced with the horrors of the Cthulhu Mythos (things like ghouls, zombies, or deep ones) or learning about the truth of the cosmos will test the mental fortitude of your investigators. To systematize this, the game has robust sanity mechanics. Characters have a sanity score alongside their hit points and whenever confronted with shocking, horrifying, or mind-melding obstacles they will lose some of that sanity. As the game progresses, characters will lose more and more of their sanity. In fact, characters can even become scarred with phobias, manias, or bouts of madness.
The level of difficulty might come as a bit of a culture shock to some players. Especially for players coming from systems where you play the nearly invincible protagonists of your narrative. Basking in your failures and going along for the ride is part of what makes Call of Cthulhu unique. These more punishing systems create visceral and intriguing scenes. Additionally, these systems do a wonderful job replicating the tone and themes of Lovecraftian Horror, where you stand alone against the darkness, and sometimes become consumed by it.
How do the investigations run?
There are a total of four investigations included in the Call of Cthulhu 40th Anniversary starter set. They are all equally enjoyable and play their role in introducing the game and its mechanics to the players and Keeper (Game Master).
The first adventure included is the Alone Against the Flame solo investigation. The adventure plays out as a kind of “choose your own adventure” book, but with skill roles, combat, etc. The investigation is cleverly designed to teach you the game as you play, including character creation. It walks you through a story of a young traveler stranded in a mysterious town and problems ensue. The investigation is a very enjoyable way to spend a few hours learning the game in an interactive way.
Following this, the other three investigations slowly ramp up in complexity. They are standard prewritten investigations that require a Keeper. The adventures vary in length and are filled with intrigue and secrets for the party to uncover. They are on the shorter and simpler side but will do a good job initiating you and your table of friends to the Cthulhu Mythos.
Included in the box are a dozen or so handouts that the Game Master can use to add immersion and ambiance to the investigations. There are maps and “handwritten” notes you can give to your table which feel like a nice touch and add an interactive element to the sleuthing. No player ever turns down a handout!
Despite enjoying the investigations, I do have three complaints. My first is that the character stat blocks are only included at the end of each investigation. I presume this is for ease of access, but it would be my preference for these character details to also be included when they become relevant in the text. Flipping back and forth is cumbersome and in the heat of the moment, it can be easy to fumble through the book looking for those details. My second complaint is that the investigations include very little read-aloud text. While these texts can be cumbersome to certain Game Masters, they are a boon to others and their exclusion is to the detriment of the latter group. Lastly, my third complaint is that the core secrets to be uncovered in each location aren’t as easy to pick out from the adventure as I would have liked. For the smoothest playing experience, Keepers ought to annotate or highlight these bits of the mystery in the module for ease of access during play.
Contained in the starter set is a short, perhaps I should say very short, 23-page rule book designed to help new players and Keepers learn the basics of Call of Cthulhu’s core mechanics. This abridged version of the rules covers investigator creation, skill and skill rolls, added details about the percentile dice system, the sanity mechanics, combat, and “level up” mechanics. These rules are plenty to get you through the game in either role. There are, however, some components that are missing, notably the vast occupation list and monster and NPC stats. In addition, there is a lot of context and flavor that has been trimmed out, leaving it to the investigations included in the box to speak to the tone of the game and the mythos.
The content of the Call of Cthulhu starter set is a well-designed and well-executed introduction to roleplaying in the horrific and mysterious Cthulhu Mythos. It presents a curated experience that walks you through all the tools you need to understand the system and it provides you with fun mysteries to solve with a table of friends once you have. While the games’ contents and systems might feel a little jarring and punishing to some, they facilitate the act of playing a frail investigator in a familiar, yet altered world. Few other games I’ve come across enable this kind of play, and fewer still do it so well. It should, however, be noted that the game has its blind spots with regard to addressing racism and making all players feel comfortable playing in its setting. All in all, the Call of Cthulhu roleplaying game is unique and enjoyable, and all role-players should strive to experience it at least once. It’s not every day that you get to foil the plans of a Great Old One after all! I rate the game a 9 out of 10 for excellent.