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

Nebulous

Hero
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?
Charles, the CoC 7e book is core. The Investigators book is optional, it just has more options for players. It has some interesting tibits but not needed to sit down and play. All the skills and rules you need and careers are in the core book. The character creations rules are replicated in the Investigator's guide. It's got more guns, extra careers, etc, nothing essential to play the game. It's bonus fluff mostly.

So yes, you can completely play Call of Cthulhu both Keeper and Player with the 7e rulebook. All the rules for experience and skills and everything you need are there. One book. For $40 on Amazon.
 
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Nebulous

Hero
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?
All the skills are in the Keeper's Handbook. The IH adds many, many more occupations to the players. Sure, it is useful for some players to have but it's not necessary to play the game. And no, the Keeper does not need the IH to make NPCs. Here's the full list of occupations from the IH:

List of Occupations
Accountant
Acrobat
Actor
Agency Detective
Alienist [Classic]
Animal Trainer
Antiquarian [Lovecraftian]
Antique Dealer
Archaeologist [Lovecraftian]
Architect
Artist
Asylum Attendant
Assassin – see Criminal
Athlete
Author [Lovecraftian]
Aviator [Classic] – see Pilot
Bank Robber – see Criminal
Bartender
Big Game Hunter
Book Dealer
Bootlegger – see Criminal
Bounty Hunter
Boxer/Wrestler
Burglar – see Criminal
Butler/Valet/Maid
Chauffeur – see Driver
Clergy, Member of the
Computer Programmer/Technician/Hacker [Modern]
Conman – see Criminal
Cowboy/girl
Craftsperson
Criminal – also Gangster
Cult Leader
Deprogrammer [Modern]
Designer
Dilettante [Lovecraftian]
Diver

Doctor of Medicine [Lovecraftian] – also see Psychiatrist
Drifter
Driver
Editor
Elected Official
Engineer
Entertainer
Explorer [Classic]
Farmer
Federal Agent
Fence – see Criminal
Firefighter
Foreign Correspondent
Forensic Surgeon
Forger/Counterfeiter – see Criminal
Gambler
Gangster
Gun Moll [Classic] – see Criminal
Gentleman/Lady
Hacker – see Computer Programmer
Hobo
Hospital Orderly
Journalist [Lovecraftian]
Judge
Laboratory Assistant
Laborer
Lawyer
Librarian [Lovecraftian]
Lumberjack – see Laborer
Maid – see Butler
Mechanic (and Skilled Trades)
Military Officer
Miner – see Laborer
Missionary
Mountain Climber
Museum Curator
Musician
Nurse
Occultist [Lovecraftian]
Outdoorsman/Outdoorswoman
Parapsychologist
Pharmacist
Photographer
Photojournalist – see Photographer
Pilot – also see Aviator
Police Detective/Officer [Lovecraftian]
Private Investigator
Professor [Lovecraftian]
Prospector
Prostitute
Psychiatrist
Psychologist/Psychoanalyst
Reporter – see Journalist
Researcher
Sailor
Salesperson
Scientist
Secretary
Shopkeeper
Smuggler – see Criminal
Soldier/Marine
Spy
Street Punk – see Criminal
Student/Intern
Stuntman
Taxi Driver – see Driver
Thug – see Criminal
Tribe Member
Undertaker
Union Activist
Valet – see Butler
Waitress/Waiter
White-collar Worker
Zealot
Zookeeper

All the occupations do mostly is change up your skill package.

Smuggler
Occupation Skill Points: EDU × 2 + (APP × 2 or DEX × 2)
Credit Rating: 20–60
Suggested Contacts: Organized crime, Coast Guard,
U.S. Customs officials.
Skills: Firearms, Listen, Navigate, one interpersonal skill
(Charm, Fast Talk, Intimidate, or Persuade), Drive
Auto or Pilot (Aircraft or Boat), Psychology, Sleight
of Hand, Spot Hidden.
 

Nebulous

Hero
I just noticed that a full 19 pages of the Investigator's Handbook is taken up by a reprint of The Dunwich Horror. Again, while useful and a very pretty book, it's not necessary. The core book removed any stories and replaced it with the rules you need to play the game.
 

Nebulous

Hero
Now, I personally am a fan of PULP CTHULHU, which is pulp fiction in the 1930s with weird science, snakemen from the core of the earth, and laser guns. There's a supplement called Pulp Cthulhu and you DO need that in conjunction with the core 7e book. There's even several adventures such as the Two Headed Serpent which take your heroes across the globe in an adventure even more action packed than Masks of Nyarlathotep. Pulp Heroes get extra hit points and what amount to Feats/Talents so they have an added "oomph" over core CoC characters. They also use the Luck score much more to their advantage and can escape death if they have enough points. Luck becomes a resource management skill that ebbs and flows.

Pulp Cthulhu also adds in a whole new fun category to your character, the Archetypes, which are used in conjunction with your occupation. Such as this one:

Beefcake
Physical, muscular, and capable of handling themselves when
the chips are down. Born that way or has worked hard in the
pursuit of physical perfection. You won’t find these guys and
gals in the library, but you might see their faces on a billboard.
Beefcakes come in two varieties: the caring, silent type, or the
brazen loud-mouth.
Adjustments
• Core characteristic: STR.
• Add 100 bonus points divided among any of the following
skills: Climb, Fighting (Brawl), Intimidate, Listen,
Mechanical Repair, Psychology, Swim, Throw.
• Suggested occupations: Athlete, Beat Cop, Bounty Hunter,
Boxer, Entertainer, Gangster, Hired Muscle, Hobo, Itinerant
Worker, Laborer, Mechanic, Sailor, Soldier, Street Punk,
Tribe Member.
• Talents: any two.
• Suggested traits: domineering
 
That is really confusing about the Keeper/Investigator Handbooks. I wonder why they have a bundle with both books? Either way, the starter set was cheaper and I didn't have to make my own pre-gens.

I know about Pulp Cthulhu. I like the idea quite a bit. I've run Basic Roleplaying with double hit points and some powers. PC reminds me of that. Much more expensive to buy into of course. I also like the idea of Down Darker Trails.
 

TrippyHippy

Adventurer
Now, I personally am a fan of PULP CTHULHU, which is pulp fiction in the 1930s with weird science, snakemen from the core of the earth, and laser guns. There's a supplement called Pulp Cthulhu and you DO need that in conjunction with the core 7e book. There's even several adventures such as the Two Headed Serpent which take your heroes across the globe in an adventure even more action packed than Masks of Nyarlathotep. Pulp Heroes get extra hit points and what amount to Feats/Talents so they have an added "oomph" over core CoC characters. They also use the Luck score much more to their advantage and can escape death if they have enough points. Luck becomes a resource management skill that ebbs and flows.
Having been playing Masks of Nyalathotep with Pulp Cthulhu rules this past year, it must be noted that the context of the game is changed substantially from previous, and the Luck points tend to dominate proceedings. While some like the spending resource as a mechanic, it has made the game feel quite meta-gamey in practice.

It’s notable that the Delta Green game, which used to be one of the most popular supplements for Call of Cthulhu in the 5th/6th editions, went an entirely different direction. It has no meta-game mechanics aside from a very mild inclusion of Willpower points, and the tone of the game is much more like a thriller. Luck, if ever referred to when no other skill or stat will do, is simply a 50/50 roll.

People’s views on the matter will differ, but it probably ought to be noted that the original 7E play-test ended up with declaring the Luck rules to be ‘optional’ (because of the outcry). Most 7E players tend to ignore this though, and certainly, if you play Pulp rules, Luck is the central mechanic of the game.
 

Nebulous

Hero
That is really confusing about the Keeper/Investigator Handbooks. I wonder why they have a bundle with both books? Either way, the starter set was cheaper and I didn't have to make my own pre-gens.

I know about Pulp Cthulhu. I like the idea quite a bit. I've run Basic Roleplaying with double hit points and some powers. PC reminds me of that. Much more expensive to buy into of course. I also like the idea of Down Darker Trails.
Having pre-gens is very nice. They bundle it to sell books, I'm sure it's a marketing thing, and some players really like having their own book, and the core Keeper book becomes the coveted "Dungeon Master's Guide" for his eyes only.

The Pulp Cthulhu book is really awesome and turns your game into Indiana Jones vs. The Mythos if that's the kind of thing you want. Indiana with disintegration guns and telekinesis.
 

TrippyHippy

Adventurer
That is really confusing about the Keeper/Investigator Handbooks. I wonder why they have a bundle with both books? Either way, the starter set was cheaper and I didn't have to make my own pre-gens.
The original plan was to split the core game into two separate core books - one for the players, one for the Keepers. In play-testing, however, there was an outcry about having this approach, and the plan was changed so that the game could be played from one book alone, as in previous editions. This is now the Keeper’s Book - and the Investigator’s book is really just an expansion on the character generation options. However, Chaosium appear to be aiming for the high end of the market in terms of games they sell, so the big slipcase editions is what they really want you to buy. Of course, if you then want to provide a less costly intro to the game, then this is where the Starter Set comes in, I guess.
 

TrippyHippy

Adventurer
The Pulp Cthulhu book is really awesome and turns your game into Indiana Jones vs. The Mythos if that's the kind of thing you want. Indiana with disintegration guns and telekinesis.
Notably, there is a Supers supplement in the works for the Pulp Cthulhu line - which gives most people the clue for the direction it takes.
 

Nebulous

Hero
Having been playing Masks of Nyalathotep with Pulp Cthulhu rules this past year, it must be noted that the context of the game is changed substantially from previous, and the Luck points tend to dominate proceedings. While some like the spending resource as a mechanic, it has made the game feel quite meta-gamey in practice.

It’s notable that the Delta Green game, which used to be one of the most popular supplements for Call of Cthulhu in the 5th/6th editions, went an entirely different direction. It has no meta-game mechanics aside from a very mild inclusion of Willpower points, and the tone of the game is much more like a thriller. Luck, if ever referred to when no other skill or stat will do, is simply a 50/50 roll.

People’s views on the matter will differ, but it probably ought to be noted that the original 7E play-test ended up with declaring the Luck rules to be ‘optional’ (because of the outcry). Most 7E players tend to ignore this though, and certainly, if you play Pulp rules, Luck is the central mechanic of the game.
Yes, Luck can be very meta-gamey. The rules are aware of that though and give lots of granularity for the Keeper to run the kind of game he/she wants, and restricting how Luck is used is part of that.

The following optional rules are suggested for those wishing
further granularity within Pulp Cthulhu. These optional rules
can add further complexity to the game, so Keepers should
carefully consider their inclusion before committing to using
them in play.

OPTIONAL: FINE-TUNING LUCK
Some groups may prefer a lower level of pulp, wishing to
restrict Luck expenditure. Some options are suggested below
for Keepers wishing to fine-tune their games and lessen the
role of Luck spending in the game to some extent.
• Restrict the amount of Luck points that can be spent to
adjust a skill or characteristic roll. Where normally there
is no limit, Keepers may prefer setting a maximum limit
of 10 or 25 points to affect any one roll (decreasing the
margin of success).
• Don’t allow Luck spending to avoid weapon fumbles or
malfunctions, or increase the cost to 25 Luck points.
• Don’t allow Sanity losses to be decreased through Luck
spends, leave only the Resilient talent to afford such mental
invulnerability.
• If outlandish escapes from certain death don’t appeal to
you or your group, forgo the Avoiding Certain Death rule
 

Nebulous

Hero
Having been playing Masks of Nyalathotep with Pulp Cthulhu rules this past year, it must be noted that the context of the game is changed substantially from previous, and the Luck points tend to dominate proceedings. While some like the spending resource as a mechanic, it has made the game feel quite meta-gamey in practice.
About 15 years ago I ran Masks of Nyarlathotep with Cthulhu d20 melded with some Modern 20. I had never played CoC before so it was my first introduction. I went and bought all the Chaosium stuff after that, so for them it was a good move to buddy with WotC. Anyway, it was Pulp Cthulhu all the way. Players were tougher of course in d20, but that's the kind of game I wanted to run, and there was still death and insanity, just less of it. Not much Library Use, more dynamite chucking and the infamous Gas Camel.

 

TrippyHippy

Adventurer
About 15 years ago I ran Masks of Nyarlathotep with Cthulhu d20 melded with some Modern 20. I had never played CoC before so it was my first introduction. I went and bought all the Chaosium stuff after that, so for them it was a good move to buddy with WotC. Anyway, it was Pulp Cthulhu all the way. Players were tougher of course in d20, but that's the kind of game I wanted to run, and there was still death and insanity, just less of it. Not much Library Use, more dynamite chucking and the infamous Gas Camel.

Chaosium were pretty reluctant buddies with WotC, truth be told, and it was Wizards who did most of the pushing to get a D20 version of the game made. Chaosium were more skeptical and felt D20 was targeted at a younger audience than they usually catered for. The Pulp Cthulhu supplement was originally intended to be written for D20 CoC, and it took them 15 years to get round to it for 7E instead. Sorta shows how they prioritized it!
 
However, Chaosium appear to be aiming for the high end of the market in terms of games they sell, so the big slipcase editions is what they really want you to buy. Of course, if you then want to provide a less costly intro to the game, then this is where the Starter Set comes in, I guess.
Masks of Nyarlathotep is not cheap, but it does weight eight pounds, contains over 666 pages of material plus additional handouts and maps, and more, and will keep a gaming group occupied for many, many sessions of play. The equally epic Horror on the Orient Express (currently out-of-print) is also likely to return as a high-end slipcase in due course.

But there are Call of Cthulhu 7e releases at various price points, including the very affordable, including these (price = PDF/physical):
Most of the standard hardback releases for Call of Cthulhu (128 pages to 300 pages) retail for similar prices to what you'd pay for D&D, Pathfinder, and other similar RPG lines.

Chaosium uses a sales model where if you buy the PDF of a book directly from the Chaosium website, you the get full price of the PDF off the physical version if you choose to buy it later.

So yes, you can completely play Call of Cthulhu both Keeper and Player with the 7e rulebook. All the rules for experience and skills and everything you need are there. One book. For $40 on Amazon.
The rules in the Starter Set's Introductory Rules booklet are probably enough to go on too. Unlike some Starter Sets, the Call of Cthulhu Starter Set includes character generation so you create your own or use the pregens that are also provided.
 
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Andrea Rocci

Villager
My experience with the CoC7 starter set as an long time CoC player new to the 7th edition.

Alone against the Flames. Played it two times, barely surviving. It is short but very atmospheric. Liked it a lot. A great way to learn how the new edition work.

I have run Paper Chase for my son and he had a lot of fun. His policeman went temporarily insane (two times), while insane he shot at the "monster" killing it with a 04, and run away without saying goodbye or giving an explanation to his employer. He found that it was a great way to learn that CoC is not D&D: even in a low-threat adventure like this one your character is brittle and can have a nervous breakdown. As a Keeper, I did appreciate how this classic adventure had been rewritten to teach how investigation and skill rolls work in CoC7.

Edge of Darkness looks like a great adventure and I look forward to run it. Relatively simple, yet very scary. Yes, the "quest" structure may be simple, as the reviewer says, but the scenario has enough horrific surprises under its sleeve and novice CoC players would be very mistaken to approach it like a D&D adventure.
I have not yet fully read Dead Man Stomp, which is a bit more complex scenario, in what seems a nice progression (BTW the review does not even mention it).

The rules are those of the Quickstart. And they are clearly written and complete enough, with the possibility of creating new investigators. I have the Keeper's book for CoC7, but I'm not a huge fan of how it's written. I missed the more terse and concise style of earlier editions. The Starter Set reconciled me with the 7th edition and showed me that the changes to the rules play very smoothly.

So, I'm very happy of this product.
 

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