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Playtest Review of the Call of Cthulhu Starter Set

The Call of Cthulhu Starter Set suggests learning the game by playing a solo adventure, then playing with just one player, and then playing with a full group. If you want to give Call of Cthulhu (CoC) a try but don’t want to spend a lot of money to start, consider trying the starter set.
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I decided to playtest the rules exactly as recommended. Spoilers ahead. If you plan to run the starter set you can play the solo adventure (free Alone Against the Flames PDF) before reading my review of that adventure.

Alone Against the Flames started off strong. I really felt like it was the 1920s and I was in the middle of nowhere. The village was really creepy. I liked the art and the map.

However, all the rituals you uncover as secrets kill you. As do some of the mundane secrets. The way to survive involves making a successful strength roll and finding a random bike, fighting some villagers or a bear, or sneaking away. It wasn’t satisfying to me as a player looking for investigation and using uncovered secrets to survive.

I saw enough promise in Alone Against the Flames to buy the PDF Alone Against the Frost. It looks to be more robust and maybe will give me a better play experience.

I also saw a glimmer of what Call of Cthulhu could be. If the village contained secrets my PC needed to find to survive I’d be spurred on to investigate. The secret the girl at the boarding house provides a bonus die to break my chains later. In the boarding house basement I find evidence not only of previous doomed travelers but also the bicycle which I later use to escape. An approach like that would have hooked me.

After surviving the solo adventure, I found Paper Chase to be cheerful and light hearted. There is no real risk. The adventure made no sense to me. The PC meets a book reading uncle turning into a ghoul so he can have more time to read (the art shows the ghoul in clothes while in the adventure it is naked).

Now if the ghoul uncle had eaten someone? And the PC knew? That would be horrific. Make the PC make a hard choice concerning the ghoul, to kill it or trust it to banish itself, and make the choice cost sanity. But the adventure is benign and a bit silly instead.

I did like all the investigating the PC does. The binary pass/fail nature of each clue was sometimes offset by the chance to push rolls. Some clues were staggered with better results yielding more uncovered secrets.

I did not like Edge of Darkness which is an on the rails dungeon crawl. A dying sage asks the PCs to stop a monster he and some fellow sages summoned years ago but never banished. The PCs must travel to an abandoned ruin of rooms and corridors, find magic that beats the monster, and use the magic while fighting off zombies and the monster to defeat it. There are no secrets for the investigators to investigate.

I was so stymied by this adventure that I simply couldn’t run it. It didn’t have any of the Call of Cthulhu tropes I wanted: secrets, mystery, slowly building threat, and a horrifying monster reveal. I purchased Dead Light to run instead.

I did end up running Edge of Darkness because Dead Light was so short. The PCs already knew the monster was in the attic so the whole description of what happened if they went up there was wasted information. The rules on running the ritual were buried in text so I missed the rule and had to wing it. The monster seemed weak and it appeared that few shotgun blasts would end it without the need for a ritual. I also didn’t know that a revised Dead Lights and Other Dark Tales was available which might have helped.

Overall, I was surprised to find running Call of Cthulhu to be exhausting. Rules were hard to find and parse, adventures ran short, and the overall vibe varied wildly. I think CoC would be a fine game to run if I had a few more hours a week to prep and wasn’t already tired from work and life when I show up to GM. Right now though, it is simply too much work for me. I am holding off on buying the main rulebooks for now. Not the outcome I wanted and I wish the game had worked better for me.

If you don’t need the dice, I don’t think the starter set is worth getting in print. PDFs would work fine. The pregenerated investigator sheets are corrected in PDF form. Nothing in the box besides the dice is something you can’t just print or run from a screen. I recommend the starter set for trying out Call of Cthulhu. See how it actually plays without sinking a large investment into finding out. I’m glad I did even if I didn’t get the result I was hoping for.
 
Charles Dunwoody

Comments

The Big BZ

Explorer
I have the starter set and have played Against the Flames run Edge of Darkness and found them great. Having not played CoC in 20 plus years, the combination of both pretty much retaught me the rules. I love starter sets and actually think this is one of the best. Not a very well written review this in my opinion. It doesn't really give an overview of the product and would only really be of use to someone who already owns it.
 
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JeffB

Legend
This review made me upset/sad.

I think the current Chaosium, like with the new version of RQ, is making CoC more complicated and harder to engage with than it needs to be by having multiple books, stressing pretty books over functionality and then feeling the need to produce a starter set such as this- like it was D&D or PF. It's not needed and detrimental IMO..

Thousands and thousands of CoC gamers have been made with the classic and excellent "The Haunting" which has been in every edition. That, some pre-gens and the basics of the system in one small booklet/PDF has been available as the free Quickstart for years. It doesn't take lots of prep time, and it's easy to run, play, and it's a FUN adventure. Then you are directed to a single volume book that is aesthetically pleasing , fun to read, and a useful at the table resource without a massive price tag. This has been the way up until 7th.

IOW- Don't try to fix what isn't broke- The new Chaosium is trying too hard. The game sells itself without all the "bling" and extraneous page counts. It's become intimidating (AND EXPENSIVE) for new people. I'm still not sure even which books I would need to buy to run the game. I have stuck with my 3rd edition hardcover. It's still gives off a creepier vibe than the 7th edition volumes and all the fancy art and layout. Same with the new Runequest- two (three if you include the cut down setting book they also released) massive expensive tomes that make it more difficult to get into RQ and Glorantha than ever before.

I highly suggest you go download one of the previous free PDF Quickstarts- I think the 6E version is still around as well as 7th is available on the Chaosium page, Give your friends the pre-gens, stick to the rules in the PDF and have at "The Haunting" like so many people have before.
 

teitan

Hero
Call of Cthulhu only requires the one book, the Keeper book. It has everything in it. The original plan didn’t call for that and for character generation to be in the Investigator’s Handbook but that’s no longer the case. The Investigator’s book still has the chargen rules and there are more options but the Keep guide is a complete game like the older editions.
 

JeffB

Legend
Call of Cthulhu only requires the one book, the Keeper book. It has everything in it. The original plan didn’t call for that and for character generation to be in the Investigator’s Handbook but that’s no longer the case. The Investigator’s book still has the chargen rules and there are more options but the Keep guide is a complete game like the older editions.
Thank you for the clarification- That confused the H-E double hockeysticks out of me because I kept seeing people talk about both as needed.
 

Reaper Steve

Explorer
Picking nits and petting peeves, but I find the rise of the use of the term 'playtesting' when one is just learning a system to be annoying.

Playtesting is done by game designers, developers, and play testers during the design and development of a game. It's meant to find and correct issues and balance before a game is published.

Trying a game out to learn the rules and see if it satisfies you is just that... just playing the game.

Yeah, I'm being a tool; no offense meant. Just been seeing this a lot lately and this forum gives me a chance to comment about it.

I'll show myself out.
 

Picking nits and petting peeves, but I find the rise of the use of the term 'playtesting' when one is just learning a system to be annoying.

Playtesting is done by game designers, developers, and play testers during the design and development of a game. It's meant to find and correct issues and balance before a game is published.

Trying a game out to learn the rules and see if it satisfies you is just that... just playing the game.

Yeah, I'm being a tool; no offense meant. Just been seeing this a lot lately and this forum gives me a chance to comment about it.

I'll show myself out.
The word has two meanings, the one you describe and: "The word 'playtest' is also commonly used in unofficial situations where a game is being tested by a group of players for their own private use."

Meant in this case that I didn't just read it (which is a fine way to review) but also played it for several hours.
 

Not a very well written review this in my opinion. It doesn't really give an overview of the product and would only really be of use to someone who already owns it.
The boxed set is several adventures to try out in order to learn the game. What else is there to review?
 
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This review made me upset/sad.

I think the current Chaosium, like with the new version of RQ, is making CoC more complicated and harder to engage with than it needs to be by having multiple books, stressing pretty books over functionality and then feeling the need to produce a starter set such as this- like it was D&D or PF. It's not needed and detrimental IMO..

Thousands and thousands of CoC gamers have been made with the classic and excellent "The Haunting" which has been in every edition. That, some pre-gens and the basics of the system in one small booklet/PDF has been available as the free Quickstart for years. It doesn't take lots of prep time, and it's easy to run, play, and it's a FUN adventure. Then you are directed to a single volume book that is aesthetically pleasing , fun to read, and a useful at the table resource without a massive price tag. This has been the way up until 7th.

IOW- Don't try to fix what isn't broke- The new Chaosium is trying too hard. The game sells itself without all the "bling" and extraneous page counts. It's become intimidating (AND EXPENSIVE) for new people. I'm still not sure even which books I would need to buy to run the game. I have stuck with my 3rd edition hardcover. It's still gives off a creepier vibe than the 7th edition volumes and all the fancy art and layout. Same with the new Runequest- two (three if you include the cut down setting book they also released) massive expensive tomes that make it more difficult to get into RQ and Glorantha than ever before.

I highly suggest you go download one of the previous free PDF Quickstarts- I think the 6E version is still around as well as 7th is available on the Chaosium page, Give your friends the pre-gens, stick to the rules in the PDF and have at "The Haunting" like so many people have before.
I have looked at 6th edition and the quickstart, thanks. In this case, the starter set saved me lots of money that could have been spent on the rulebook. So no harm, no foul. I can't love every game I run.
 

Nebulous

Legend
This review made me upset/sad.

I think the current Chaosium, like with the new version of RQ, is making CoC more complicated and harder to engage with than it needs to be by having multiple books, stressing pretty books over functionality and then feeling the need to produce a starter set such as this- like it was D&D or PF. It's not needed and detrimental IMO..

Thousands and thousands of CoC gamers have been made with the classic and excellent "The Haunting" which has been in every edition. That, some pre-gens and the basics of the system in one small booklet/PDF has been available as the free Quickstart for years. It doesn't take lots of prep time, and it's easy to run, play, and it's a FUN adventure. Then you are directed to a single volume book that is aesthetically pleasing , fun to read, and a useful at the table resource without a massive price tag. This has been the way up until 7th.

IOW- Don't try to fix what isn't broke- The new Chaosium is trying too hard. The game sells itself without all the "bling" and extraneous page counts. It's become intimidating (AND EXPENSIVE) for new people. I'm still not sure even which books I would need to buy to run the game. I have stuck with my 3rd edition hardcover. It's still gives off a creepier vibe than the 7th edition volumes and all the fancy art and layout. Same with the new Runequest- two (three if you include the cut down setting book they also released) massive expensive tomes that make it more difficult to get into RQ and Glorantha than ever before.

I highly suggest you go download one of the previous free PDF Quickstarts- I think the 6E version is still around as well as 7th is available on the Chaosium page, Give your friends the pre-gens, stick to the rules in the PDF and have at "The Haunting" like so many people have before.
Like someone else mentioned, all you need for 7e is the core book. The investigator book is optional and give some more details for players. I prefer to run my CoC as Pulp Cthulhu, so that's an additional book that you do require.

I don't know why the 7e rules don't have The Haunting. They have two other scenarios, I haven't played or read them, but they looked ok.

The 7e rules themselves though are quite solid and not really that different from past editions. I do like the bonus dice mechanic which seems straight from Advantage/Disadvantage but with percentile dice.
 





TrippyHippy

Adventurer
There is nothing unreasonable in this review at all. I do think the product works for newbies pretty well though still.

However, I do feel that the game-as-it-was, previous to 7E, actually offered more easy-to run, quality adventures in the core rules alone, that a starter set was probably never needed. 6E had The Haunting, Edge of Darkness, The Madman, and Dead Man Stomp (my favourite) all included. They were all squeezed out of the current edition, along with original short story in order to make space for expanded rules discussion.

Call of Cthulhu is not the only game that has done this, but I do wonder why people doubt that they best way of encouraging good storytelling in games is to simply provide more quality scenarios in each core book. Rules discussion, including how to make a game more ’narrative’, is no substitute for actual, well-penned adventures.
 


ShadowDenizen

Explorer
The review was fine, very useful. Truth be told, I think the 7E QuickStart rules does a better job of selling the game than the Starter Set, for precisely the reasons @JeffB mentioned.

Agreed with this sentiment.
As a long-time COC fan...
  1. The Starter Set is a great value, and contains some excellent material. (The adventures are generally pretty well-known/liked, an Pre-Gen characters are always nice to have to hand.
  2. BUT, for completely new players/Keepers, I would also have recommended the 7E QUickstart rules (which are available in print for a modest price, or Free for the digital version.
  3. 7E (the latest edition) has been generally well received; while compatible with previous editions, it does have a bit more granularity to it that has offput some older fans, as well as more “Rules-Related” sourcebooks. (The tone has also shifted somewhat from the original more “Purist-Lovecraftian” approach, to be a bit more “Pulpy”, but that’s a subject for another post..
 

JeffB

Legend
Like someone else mentioned, all you need for 7e is the core book. The investigator book is optional and give some more details for players. I prefer to run my CoC as Pulp Cthulhu, so that's an additional book that you do require.

I don't know why the 7e rules don't have The Haunting. They have two other scenarios, I haven't played or read them, but they looked ok.

The 7e rules themselves though are quite solid and not really that different from past editions. I do like the bonus dice mechanic which seems straight from Advantage/Disadvantage but with percentile dice.
I'm fine with the 7th edition rules- at least as presented in the Quick Start- I've run the "The Haunting" using that quickstart and we had a blast. My "issue" *, is the way the new Chaosium is presenting these classics. A fresh coat of paint is one thing, but IMO they are doing a disservice by making the games less accessible with these massive expensive, overly verbose tomes while ( as mentioned in the thread) cutting out some REALLY good stuff- like the great classic scenarios and the fiction. I'm well aware of the business realities these days of getting "shelf space" at the FLGS, etc. but substance is suffering for it. Mr Dunwoody is an experienced gamer- his review/playtest of this Starter Set is disheartening as historically CoC has been an easy prep/run at the table game for nearly 40 years.

*Seriously, I don't lose any sleep over this stuff, it's just a game of make believe talking ducks and monsters- I'm not that kind of "fan".
 
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Nebulous

Legend
I'm fine with the 7th edition rules- at least as presented in the Quick Start- I've run the "The Haunting" using that quickstart and we had a blast. My "issue" *, is the way the new Chaosium is presenting these classics. A fresh coat of paint is one thing, but IMO they are doing a disservice by making the games less accessible with these massive expensive, overly verbose tomes while ( as mentioned in the thread) cutting out some REALLY good stuff- like the great classic scenarios and the fiction. I'm well aware of the business realities these days of getting "shelf space" at the FLGS, etc. but substance is suffering for it. Mr Dunwoody is an experienced gamer- his review/playtest of this Starter Set is disheartening as historically CoC has been an easy prep/run at the table game for nearly 40 years.

*Seriously, I don't lose any sleep over this stuff, it's just a game of make believe talking ducks and monsters- I'm not that kind of "fan".
The core 7e book is $40 on Amazon, I don't think it's any more expensive really than other full color hardback roleplaying games. The CoC starter set is $22.49. I really don't think the price is making them less accessible.

For a DM to run 5e he needs to buy 3 books, and that's an even bigger investment, around $90. Sure, you can play for free with the Basic Rules, and you can play CoC for free too.

The core 7e book comes with two scenarios, neither of which I have run, so I can't vouch for them, but the first, "Amidst the Ancient Trees" is an 18 page adventure with color handouts and artwork. The second, "Crimson Letters" is a 20 page full color adventure with handouts and art.

The daughter of a local industrialist has been kidnapped. The ransom payoff went horribly wrong, ending in a gunfight on the edge of the Green Mountain National Forest. The kidnappers have escaped the scene with both the girl and the ransom money, and fled back into the forest. The investigators must rescue the girl, hunt the criminals down, and bring them to justice. However, there’s more to be discovered in the forest than anyone ever guessed…

That sounds like an extremely intriguing mystery to set up a Cthulhu one-shot.

The classic "The Haunting" in the quick start is 16 pages and offered completely for free.
 

The core 7e book is $40 on Amazon, I don't think it's any more expensive really than other full color hardback roleplaying games. The CoC starter set is $22.49. I really don't think the price is making them less accessible.

For a DM to run 5e he needs to buy 3 books, and that's an even bigger investment, around $90. Sure, you can play for free with the Basic Rules, and you can play CoC for free too.

The core 7e book comes with two scenarios, neither of which I have run, so I can't vouch for them, but the first, "Amidst the Ancient Trees" is an 18 page adventure with color handouts and artwork. The second, "Crimson Letters" is a 20 page full color adventure with handouts and art.

The daughter of a local industrialist has been kidnapped. The ransom payoff went horribly wrong, ending in a gunfight on the edge of the Green Mountain National Forest. The kidnappers have escaped the scene with both the girl and the ransom money, and fled back into the forest. The investigators must rescue the girl, hunt the criminals down, and bring them to justice. However, there’s more to be discovered in the forest than anyone ever guessed…

That sounds like an extremely intriguing mystery to set up a Cthulhu one-shot.

The classic "The Haunting" in the quick start is 16 pages and offered completely for free.
Hold on, there isn't a core CoC 7E book. The Starter Set is 24.99, the Keeper Handbook is 54.95, and the Investigator Handbook is 44.95. Less on Amazon.

Can you really GM CoC with just the Keeper Handbook? I find it hard to believe that there are many Keepers without the Investigator's Handbook. Aren't skill descriptions in the IH? How would you run CoC without the skill info as a Keeper? Where is in the info on experience? Does the Keeper need the IH to make NPCs? What about NPC gear? Does the Keeper need the maps of Arkham and Lovecraft County? Why do the players need those?
 
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