The inevitable question that comes up at least once a month on any Cthulhu message board and often on general RPG boards: How do I get started with Call of Cthulhu? What do I need to have and what’s good and optional? And after however many times of rewriting this time after time, I thought I’d write it up in an even more complete version and save it.
Beginners/Free: Call of Cthulhu Quickstart is a small booklet, available free as a PDF, that includes everything you need to run an adventure as well as the classic adventure The Haunting. If you just want to run a single Call game for Halloween or something, this is all you’re going to need. Even if you are planning on dropping a heap of money into the game, you should still download this as it’s also a great way to read and digest the basic rules in a short time and you don’t want to miss The Haunting.
Core Rules/Optional: Call of Cthulhu Starter Set. Much like starter sets for D&D or the Star Wars games, this is meant largely to get some space on brick and mortar shelves and hopefully attract new players, but is not the full set of rules. It consists of three booklets boxed, because how can it be a boxed set otherwise, along with pre-gen characters and a set of dice–two decader d10s for bonus/penalty rolls and no d12 as CoC doesn’t use it. The first book is a solo adventure designed to familiarize the purchaser with the game. The second is a rulebook with a larger subset of the rules than the Quickstart. The third book contains three very well thought of classic scenarios updated to 7th edition: The Paper Chase, Edge of Darkness, and Dead Man Stomp. This is a hard one because you could honestly run CoC for years with this set. It doesn’t include the magic, automatic weapons, or chase rules, but it has everything you need for the classic type of scenarios. On the other hand, almost anyone running more than a couple of games will want the full rules and if you only want to run only a couple of sessions, there’s the quickstart.
Core Rules/Required: Keeper’s Handbook. This is the core book. It’s the complete rules. It’s the one you’re going to have sitting open at the table and refer to regularly. It has all the monsters. It has everything you need. You probably want the hardcover. I have two, one of the shelf and one to actually use. I’d make a very strong suggestion to get it directly from Chaosium or from a store in the Bricks and Mortar program so you can get the PDF because there’s a lot of tables and flowcharts in the appendix that are useful if printed out.
Investigator’s Handbook. Sourcebook for players and the 1920s. First 122 pages are character creation rules restated and somewhat enlarged. Remaining 167 pages are information on the 1920s, suggestions of how to play an investigator, and other source material. I read this and haven’t touched it since. If players are unfamiliar with the whole concept of CoC or ignorant of the 1920s, it’d be a great read.
Pulp Cthulhu. Rules expansion toolkit for Pulp style games with more combat and heroic investigators. It is roughly one third new rules for creating more powerful “pulp hero” investigators, including rules for weird science and psychic powers, and modifications to the game system to create a more heroic feel. Second third is source material for pulp fiction and the 1930s. Final third is four scenarios. It is designed to be used as a sliding scale toolkit, so Pulp modifications can be anything from slightly more durable investigators who can survive a longer campaign to full on radio-serial heroes with psychic powers and weird science devices. Usefulness will depend on your particular opinions about what make a good CoC game. Some people like Pulp and others find it “not Lovecraftian.” I am very fond of it though and some of the more famous CoC campaigns would probably benefit from some of the additional rules to increase survivability.
Grand Grimoire. There’s a short section with additional magic description and rules, but the vast majority is simply a comprehensive spell list that includes not only the spells from the Keeper book, but a comprehensive collection taken from the past almost-40 years of adventures. To me, not a particularly useful book as I rarely let players near magic.
Keeper Screen Pack. If you want a screen, this is it. There’s also two scenarios, both getting solid reviews, and some maps and a reference booklet. This is probably a good time to mention the entire issue of “old Chaosium” vs. “new Chaosium.” Others have told it better, but the short brief is that Chaosium was in a long period of slow decline and over-promised on two kickstarters resulting in a near bankruptcy. New management took over and revamped the company, most importantly drastically increasing the production quality and editorial standards. This means that half the 7th Edition material is done with simplistic black and white layouts and the other half is full color hardbacks. The Keeper Screen is somewhere in the middle, but particularly if you’re buying the PDF, you might be a little surprised to find the booklet of adventures and reference materials in a simple black and white layout.
Petersen’s Field Guide to Lovecraftian Horrors. This is a truly lovely book, but it’s not actually a Call of Cthulhu rulebook. Rather, it’s a “coffee table book” featuring descriptions and art of some of the more prominent creatures from Call of Cthulhu.
There are several other Lovecraftian games out there. Any discussion of what to buy first will usually involve a fan of one or the other suggesting that their favorite should be the one you buy first. While I prefer Trail of Cthulhu to Call and love Delta Green as well, I would still advise CoC as the first Lovecraftian game you buy. It’s the classic. It’s going to have the most players and most support.
Delta Green: The elevator pitch for Delta Green is X-Files meets Call of Cthulhu. Players are part of an off-the-books organization within the government to investigate and exterminate mythos threats to humanity, which provides them with adequate training, equipment, and motivation to adventure. Since it’s release, it’s evolved it’s own modern “conspiracy theory” background and mythos and gotten further from straight Lovecraftian. While it started in the 1990s as a sourcebook for Call of Cthulhu, it’s now its own system, also based on percentage skills and virtually 100% compatible with CoC. In many ways I prefer the system to that of 7th edition. It handles automatic weapons better and has consolidated some skills that were frequently ignored because they were too specific. If your taste runs to modern scenarios, one should very seriously consider whether to use the DG rules whether or not you’re going to use the full on Delta Green storyline.
Trail of Cthulhu: Trail is Cthulhu using the Gumshoe system, which is more narratively oriented. It’s best known for “not needing to roll for clues,” which is true, but more specifically it involves “spending” skill points to improve your chances of succeeding at activities rather than simply rolling against a higher skill. This gives players a bit more agency in how the plot proceeds. If they want to spend enough, they can virtually guarantee a success by simply spending enough points. It’s a very different and polarizing game system that people tend to either love or hate with very few in the middle. I’m personally a very large fan.
Often people want a suggestion for a campaign to run when they start out. This can be a little complicated because most of the really great “campaigns” for Call of Cthulhu such as Masks of Nyarlathotep are really complicated and benefit a great deal from a Keeper with some experience under their belt. Often, the best option is to create a campaign by stringing together a series of individual short adventures, until the Keeper and players are more familiar with the system.
Doors to Darkness. This is a set of short scenarios specifically designed for new Keepers. They have just a little bit more exposition about what to expect and they don’t go too complicated. They also include all the things one expects from a CoC scenario. While they’re generally one shots, it wouldn’t be hard to adjust the locations a little and turn them into a serial campaign or sprinkle them into an existing campaign. I highly recommend this one for people starting out.
Masks of Nyarlathotep. This is it: the grand world-spanning campaign for Call of Cthulhu which has been widely acclaimed as the best RPG campaign of all time. It’s now available in a huge new edition with two books and a package of handouts, all bound in a slipcase. Changes include updating the material to be a little more culturally literate and diverse as well as options to play with either the normal or Pulp versions of the rules. This should absolutely not be the first book you go out and try to play, but if you’re a serious CoC Keeper, you’re going to want to get it.
Horror on the Orient Express. This one is one of the two “great” campaigns of CoC and the only one available for 7th Edition. Horror was one of the kickstarters that almost drove Chaosium out of business and resulted in a large and very expensive (yet unprofitable) boxed set, with black and white booklets, and a bunch of handouts. The boxed set is now out of print, but the PDF is still available, and still quite pricey because the boxed set was even more expensive. While it’s not formally on the schedule, Chaosium recently let slip that it will be re-released as a two volume color hardcover in a few years and given the price of the PDF, honestly I’d wait.
The Two Headed Serpent. This is a pulp campaign done up in full 7th edition splendour. It really is a pulp campaign, so you can run it as a more mainstream investigation, but not sure why you would. If you’re at all interested in pulp, I’d get it. It’s also probably the best example of a grand global campaign with full “new Chaosium” production standards.
Petersen’s Abominations. Modern short scenarios from Sandy Petersen. These are mostly intended to be “one shot” adventures and some would be very difficult to shoehorn into an existing campaign. If you’re interested in modern and the one shot nature is appealing or at least not an issue, it’s probably a good buy.
Reign of Terror. Cthulhu horror set in the French Revolution. I haven’t played through it, but given the specific historical period, I’d give it a miss as a new Keeper.
Down Darker Trails. Old west horror. Like Reign, I’d probably give it a miss as a new Keeper because you’ll want to get your footing in the more classic genres.
Nameless Horrors. This is another “old Chaosium” effort. I read through it and nothing struck me as particularly great.
Dead Light. Relatively well thought of and $5 for a single adventure. It’s another B/W “old Chaosium” effort.
Ripples from Carcosa. Another B/W “old Chaosium” product. There are three scenarios dealing with the Robert Chambers “King in Yellow” mythos, which would ordinarily be a perfect thing to throw into a campaign that’s usually Cthulhu mythos based, but they’re all in historical periods: Roman Empire, Saxon England, and the far future. So like Reign and Darker Trails, I’d probably stick with 20s/30s or modern.
Third Party Publishers
Harlem Unbound. This is possibly the best Call of Cthulhu sourcebook I’ve ever read covering the Harlem renaissance as a backdrop for Lovecraftian horror. If you’re a group of people with a literary, historical, or artistic interest in the Harlem Renaissance or generally of a progressive nature and interested in exploring the race dynamics of the 20s, it’s a great buy. If you’re not, I’d still recommend it very very highly, but not necessarily as a first thing to get as a newcomer to CoC.
The Things We Leave Behind. This one gets brought up a lot when people talk about books to get started with. It’s an ennie award winning book of modern scenarios with a darker edge. These can make good one shots or could with a bit of work be woven into a campaign. I highly recommend it, but it is dark and features mature scenarios based on religious extremism, child kidnapping, and so on. If you want to go modern, rather than 20s/30s, this would be my suggestion as a first adventure book. While it’s black and white, the layout is modern, readable, and very well done.
Fear’s Sharp Little Needles. This is another Stygian Fox book, this time specializing in very short scenarios suitable for one or two session games. They’re for modern play and many Delta Green players are fond of them as well as CoC players.
There’s an absolutely ludicrous number of scenarios available for older editions and they are farcically easy to convert. It’s something you can just do in your head. A few come to mind immediately.
Beyond the Mountains of Madness. This is another “grand campaign” and very well thought of. It’s limiting in that it is a single planned expedition, so it can feel a little railroadey. I guess to me, it feels a little non-standard because the expedition nature of it is sort of like an “adventure,” but that same feature may make it more accessible for people new to Cthulhu.
Shadows of Yog-Sothoth. This is the original grand world-spanning campaign for Call of Cthulhu and the original booklet from 1982 sits on my shelf to this day. If you’re looking for a big campaign, it’s an option, but it’s dated and hasn’t aged particularly well. On the other hand, it’s not bad, it can fit well into a campaign with other one shots, and it’s not very expensive in PDF.
Mansions of Madness: Haunted House scenarios, some of them considered classics of the genre. Despite being for an earlier edition, this is an excellent book for a new Keeper to pick up.
Blood Brothers: Every once in a while, you need to have some fun. These are campy one shots based on popular movie/fiction tropes. You have your spend the night in a haunted house to inherit the family fortune. You have your mummies and vampires. You have islands of dinosaurs. This is all the good stuff from Creature Double Feature on Channel 56 with a somewhat light hearted spin and a dusting of the mythos. It’s not really a beginner scenario, but it can fit in pretty well if you are running a one shot and don’t favor the dark atmosphere of straight CoC.
Ok, that’s all nice, but you still haven’t told me. What do I need to buy?
What should you get is always dependent on how much you can comfortably spend. I have everything on this page because I’m old and boring and have a real job and the cost was trivial compared to having a child and a mortgage payment. I’d say a hardcover of the Keeper is mandatory–buy it from Chaosium and you get the PDF and it’s worth having the PDF. Everything else really is optional. As a second purchase, I’d grab Doors to Darkness. It’s a great set of scenarios and the small (but not patronizing) additional material designed for new Keepers is worth it. If you play live and want a screen, buy the screen, if you play online or you’re ok without a screen, you can contemplate a PDF of the pack for the adventures, but you are probably better off putting the $ to a different adventure. Investigator’s handbook is good to have, but if you’re skint, you can live with this in PDF because it’s more a read once at home rather than a at the table reference. Same for Pulp, though unlike many people I’d put pulp ahead of the Investigator guide. Grimoire I’d say is for completists. It’s a reference guide for something rarely referenced.
So a couple of suggestions about how to get started.
Broke: The quick start will get you going for free and includes a great scenario. Given how easy the CoC system is in general, you could take what’s here, read a bunch of Lovecraft, and riff on it for quite a while.
$50: Keeper’s Book Hardcover
$100 Classic: Keeper’s Book Hardcover, Investigator’s Book PDF, Doors to Darkness PDF, Mansions of Madness PDF
$100 Pulp: Keeper’s Book Hardcover, Pulp Cthulhu PDF, Two Headed Serpent PDF
$100 Modern: Keeper’s Book Hardcover, Things We Leave Behind PDF, Petersens Abominations PDF, um, I dunno after that.
Order In Which I’d Buy Stuff
- Keeper Book
- Doors to Darkess
- Pulp Cthulhu
- Investigator’s Handbook
And really, the last two could flip. If you don’t know the 20s and aren’t interested in Pulp, get the Investigator Handbook. I put Pulp ahead of the Investigator book only because it has actual new rules where the Investigator book is more of a pure sourcebook.