Tabletop RPG Review: Call of Cthulhu Starter Set

Call of Cthulhu Starter Set

Call of Cthulhu is possibly my all time favorite Tabletop RPG.  Who can really pick favorites, but… It’s definitely the game I tend toward if I’m bringing new people into the hobby, and it’s fantastically versatile.  In six previous editions, there have been few changes to the rules of the game. Mostly it’s been variations on the amount of content in the book or layout.  The 7th Edition represents the first major overhaul to the game, though to be honest, it isn’t as profound a difference as it might seem at first.

The core game mechanics, used in various forms for many games put out by Chaosium, are the Basic Role-Playing rules.  Games like Dungeons & Dragons are ‘level based,’ meaning your characters improve by building up enough experience points (typically through killing stuff), they reach a new level and are suddenly better at a lot of stuff, stronger, faster, etc.  Call of Cthulhu, however, is ‘skill based,’ meaning your character gets better at the skills they actually use.  Want to get better at climbing? You’ve got to climb. Want to get better at shooting? You’ve got to shoot.  Works for me.

The biggest change in the new edition is in basic statistics (Strength, Intelligence, etc.).  In previous editions, your stats were on a 3 to 18 scale, with 3 being almost subhuman and 18 being height of human achievement.  A 3 strength means you likely can’t support your own weight, while an 18 means you’re The Rock after pounding a bovine steroid laced protein shake.  The 3 to 18 range was pretty common in a lot of early games, because everyone was using six sided dice (D6) in various ways. However, it did always seem a bit weird for Call of Cthulhu, since nearly everything else used percentile dice (D100), and in fact, many things needed you to multiply your stat by 5 to achieve proper percentile targets.  7th Ed. has done away with the old 3D6 range and replaced it with a D100 range instead, cutting out some clunky steps. The only other major changes I noticed were the addition of Luck as a more active, player controlled way of effecting outcomes and the addition of half & fifth values to characteristics.  The latter is something I think a lot of Keepers (Game Masters) already used in some way or another. I used to give PCs slight modifications to their skills in certain circumstances. Like, “roll Spot Hidden, but take off 10% because of the drug’s effects,” or something.

As far as the Starter Set itself, it’s a nice box, though it’s slightly too tall, making it an awkward fit on some shelves.  It comes with a set of dice, so that’s cool (and partly why the box is taller). It contains three books.  Book One: Alone Against the Flame is something I’d love to see more games have.  It’s a solo adventure, kind of like the old Choose Your Own Adventure books, that not only gives you a taste of the setting, but also teaches you the basic rules of the game, and helps you build a character.  It’s a fantastic idea for an introductory box set, and I really think it should be an industry standard. I did a quick play-through of the adventure, and it seemed pretty good, though there was one point where I felt like I was stuck in a feedback loop, but I finally found my way out.  Book Two: Introductory Rules is pretty self explanatory.  It’s a clear breakdown of the mechanics of 7th edition.  At 23 pages, including art and charts, it’s a nice reminder that one of the reasons I’ve always loved Basic Role-Playing and its various incarnations is that the rules are just not that complicated.  Book Three: Paper Chase and Other Adventures is the final book, and contains three adventures intended for new Keepers.  Though the book mentions several times that the adventures could be played through with the same characters and if they are, should be played in order, I really don’t see it.  Each is fairly separate in terms of geography and themes, and while I’m not saying you couldn’t link them, I don’t think it would be easy or natural to do so. The first one is Paper Chase, and it’s meant to be run with a Keeper and a single player.  Playing one-on-one can be really wonderful, with some intense role-playing.  And honestly, it probably feels more like a Lovecraft story, as social and physical isolation is often a major feature.  I think this probably works best as a one-off, though I could see this as an alternative to Alone Against the Flames for a first time player, or for bringing in a new PC to an existing campaign.  Maybe give Alone Against the Flames to one player and run Paper Chase for another?  It might also work as an intro to a Dreamlands focused game.  Mr. Kimball could definitely be used to introduce the concepts of the Dreamlands, if a Keeper were so inclined (not to mention feature as a recurring NPC in such a game).  Up next is Edge of Darkness, probably the most traditional of the three scenarios.  It involves a lot of investigation, a bunch of NPCs to talk to, some limited travel, and a dangerous location to explore.  I could see it being a good ‘getting the gang together’ type of adventure, taking disparate player characters and forging them into a unit, or a first assignment from the occult organization the PCs have all joined.  Finally, there’s Dead Man Stomp, the most complicated of the adventures.  This one feels like it would be difficult to juggle all of the moving parts, but might make for a really exciting game if everyone is on board.  It deals with some hot-button issues, being set in Harlem during the 1920s, and I think there could be some excellent role-playing and investigation.  My only complaint with this one is that I don’t like the monster(s) the scenario focuses on. While not really out of place in Call of Cthulhu, it’s not something I like to use when I run the game.  I might be more likely to run this scenario as an All Flesh Must Be Eaten adventure, or change the effects of the horn…though changing the effect would substantially change other aspects…anyway.  That’s me. That’s my taste in Call of Cthulhu storytelling.  It doesn’t lessen the quality of the adventure.  Throughout the third book there are paragraphs of advice to new Keepers on how to do various scenes or work in various concepts.  This advice is one of the best parts of the Starter Set, as being a new Keeper is a challenge, and practical advice can be hard to come by.

There are also several blank character sheets, some pre-generated character sheets, and a booklet reproducing various handouts from the adventures, so you can easily make photocopies for your players.  That’s a really nice touch, and I wish that was more common, too. I love handouts, and far too often getting a photocopy of one from inside the book is fraught with danger of snapping spines or pulling out pages.

My only serious complaint with the box set is the quality of the three books.  Visually they’re excellent, with great layout, lots of art, etc. But the outside covers are so flimsy I was worried they wouldn’t survive my first reading of them, much less future use during sessions, being handed around to players, etc.  I’m sure that part of how the box was kept at a very value-friendly price was the lesser-grade paper, so maybe I shouldn’t complain. But seriously, I felt like I should be wearing gloves when handling them, and I suspect it won’t be long before I have to tape them together, or even go get them re-bound myself.

I really can not recommend the Call of Cthulhu Starter Set highly enough.  You could get this box and play for years.  I guess you might want a creature book or something.  But honestly, with the Mythos, I often don’t stat a lot of creatures, because why bother?  They’re so far beyond the abilities of Humans to hurt that if you don’t investigate & role-play your way out of situations, you’re probably gonna die anyway, so who cares what X monster’s Dexterity is?  Often cultists are the only threat my PCs stand a chance against, and you make them just like a PC, so again, this box set has you covered. So, seriously. Get this box set. Give this box set to friends you think might like Tabletop RPGs.  Do it.

 

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