In case you haven’t noticed we are in something of a boxed set Renaissance. Sure, they call them Starter Sets these days, but a lot of companies are reviving the tradition of peeling off the plastics and cracking open a few evenings worth of roleplaying. One of the first boxed sets that really caught my eye was the one for Call of Cthulhu 7th Edition. Chaosium recently released a new edition as part of its 40th Anniversary celebration of the legendary horror game. For fans who have it, there’s not much difference outside of some graphic design upgrades, a green dice set and a gorgeous new box cover by Lin Hsiang. The review copy of the 40th Anniversary Call of Cthulhu Starter Set sent by Chaosium allowed me an opportunity to revisit the box and discuss what I like about the product. Does the starter set lead into deeper mysteries? Let’s play to find out.
The first book features a solo adventure entitled "Alone Against The Flames". Many boxed sets used these Choose Your Own Adventure style booklets as a way to introduce game concepts to whoever bought the box. The structure of the adventure reminded me of a video game tutorial level. Players build their characters and test their skills in the story of someone taking the worst bus ride ever to start their new life in Arkham, Massachusetts. Chaosium has a few solo adventures like this available, but the PDF for this one is free on their website for anyone that wants to take it for a spin. It’s a solid tale that amps up the creepy details the deeper your character gets into Lovecraft Country.
The introductory rules feature a light guide to basic concepts and making characters for the game. Call of Cthulhu has never been a mechanically heavy game but this guide highlights some of the workhorse stuff that might not be obvious to players coming in from previous editions, such as pushing rolls or prefiguring a skill’s half and fifth totals for quick difficulty adjustments. There are also pre-made characters for use, which is an option I enjoy the longer I teach games. Some of my players favorite characters have evolved from one-shot pre-gens and using them leaves that sad issue of making characters and then never playing behind. There are more character options and detail in the main game, but this box offers a good start (plus a way to replace any dead characters who might fall victim to the included adventures).
The last book contains three classic adventures. “Paper Chase” is a small one player one Keeper experience that feels more spooky than frightening as a toe dip into the world of cosmic horror. “Edge of Darkness” is much more of what one might expect of a typical case featuring some family secrets, dives into diaries and newspaper archives and a showdown at the end with an unnatural being. “Dead Man Stomp” is the third choice and remains my favorite introduction to the game. It blends the elements I love most about Call of Cthulhu perfectly: real history, pulp action and terrifying scenes. This version includes some more details on jazz and Harlem history from Chris Spivey, the author of the excellent Harlem Unbound. Some fans have lamented the lack of “The Haunting” in this box as it’s been used as a starting scenario for many editions but I think these are stronger choices. Besides, it’s available as part of the free quick-start PDF. Should owners of the boxed set wish to extend the value it’s a good fit between “Paper Chase” and “Edge of Darkness”.
The scenario book included props that can be scanned, photocopied or printed, but all of them are provided as individual handouts. I’m very happy to see Chaosium understand that documents are a strength of this game and even just a paper with a picture of the newspaper article on it elicit exciting feelings from the group. I would like to see their fruitful partnership with the H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society continues and offers a deluxe set of these props somewhere down the line, perhaps as a sampler to entice people to invest in their more robust offerings for Masks of Nyarlathotep or the Classic Cthulhu Kickstarter..
For fans looking to get into the Cthulhu Mythos or for old timers returning to the game to see what’s changed, this boxed set is an excellent choice to play through some classic cases and see if the new edition is worth exploring.