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 that’s how Gygax did it, along with pre-gen characters and a set of dice that includes extra “decader” d10s for bonus/penalty rolls and omits the 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 slightly 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. So if you want to run maybe one or two sessions a year as fillers, this would probably be a good purchase. Or maybe last Halloween you ran the quickstart and you want a few more scenarios? Otherwise, I’d probably just get the Keeper book and maybe grab the PDF of the starter set for the adventures.
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 monsters. It has spells. It has player occupations. It has everything you need. While it’s occasionally available in softcover, you probably want the hardcover as it’s quite well constructed and should last for years. I have two, one of the shelf and one to actually use. There’s also a 40th anniversary one with a different cover that adds in the classic adventure The Haunting from the quickstart, which is probably only of interest to collectors. I’d make a very strong suggestion to get this any any other Cthulhu products directly from Chaosium or from a store in the Bricks and Mortar program so you can get the PDF for free because there’s a lot of tables and flowcharts in the appendix that are useful if printed out.
Investigator’s Handbook. For D&D, the Players Handbook is the rules. This is different. The rules are entirely in the Keeper book and the Investigator’s is a 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, but it’s really not something that’s essential.
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 long CoC campaigns are well known as meatgrinders and in my opinion greatly benefit from some of the additional rules to increase survivability. It really limits your attachment to the game if you’re in a long campaign and you’ve had multiple investigators die.
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. I’m really of two feelings. I find myself turning to this book a lot because it means I don’t have to figure out if something is in the Keeper book or the appendices of a scenario. On the other hand, the only time I ever use it is looking up spells in published scenarios.
Malleus Monstrorum. While the Keeper’s book contains most of the “Cthulhu’s Greatest Hits” monsters, there are so many more that have been featured in scenarios along the years, not to mention expansions. This is a two volume Beast. I am of two thoughts. First it’s a great piece of work. But second, I’m getting tired of the “official” Cthulhu critters and I feel like we’re all better off as Keepers coming up with our own horrors because even the obscure ones are pretty well known by our players.
Keeper Screen Pack. If you want a screen, this is it. The key references are also available in easy to print formats in the back of the Keeper guide if you want to use another screen. 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 some early 7th Edition material is done with simplistic black and white layouts and later publications are 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. I prefer some of its systems to those 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. There’s a free starter set available in PDF format.
Cthulhu Eternal: Cthulhu Eternal is an Open Game License d100 based Mythos game based on the Delta Green rules. There are three slightly different versions for Gaslight, Jazz Age, and Modern and like Delta Green, you could run any scenario for Call of Cthulhu with Cthulhu Eternal as well as any adapted Delta Green scenario.
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. As of this revision (October 2023), Pelgrane Press has announced a 2nd edition of Trail to be Kickstarted sometime soon.
Rivers of London. This isn’t really a “horror” game as such. It’s a police procedural in a world with magic, but it has its roots in the same system as Call of Cthulhu and is primarily about investigating spooky things. It’s based on the novels by Ben Aaronovitch, himself a gamer, who describes the game as “Call of Cthulhu with Hope.” If you’re looking for something lighter, this might be a good option.
Vaesen. This is Free League’s horror game set in the late Victorian period with the primary foes being the creatures of dark folklore. No end of the world and human existence cosmic horror, but more the faery of the lake has suddenly started drowning people in the village and needs to be put to rest. It’s a fantastic concept and plays great at the table. The books themselves are also incredibly beautiful productions.
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 extremely complicated, can take a year or longer to run, 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.
Mansions of Madness: Haunted House scenarios, some of them considered classics of the genre. This was originally a single book of scenarios for an earlier edition, but it’s being re-released as a series of volumes. Very well worth it. Mr. Corbitt and The Crack’d and Crook’d Manse are classics and all the scenarios are excellent.
Gateways To Terror. I haven’t played any of these scenarios, but they are one shots designed for a Keeper to run in a single short session of 1 to 2 hours. If you’re one of the many people looking for a couple of one shots for Halloween, but not making CoC your primary game, I think they’d be a good buy.
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.
Harlem Unbound. This is possibly the best Call of Cthulhu sourcebook I’ve ever read. Hands down. It covers 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. There are two versions of Harlem Unbound, the first was published by Darker Hue Studios and includes a Gumshoe ruleset as well as Call of Cthulhu. The second edition was published by Chaosium and is somewhat expanded, but uses Chaosium’s house style, which is really a shame as the original layout and art of Harlem Unbound were very tightly integrated and a great example of how graphic design should be done.
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 original boxed set is now out of print, but Chaosium has released a hardcover edition that combines the original 6 small booklets and various handouts into two volumes. It’s an interesting campaign, but as a work of “old Chaosium” it will require a bit more keeper work and the standards are just not up to the current level of professional production.
The Two Headed Serpent. This is a pulp campaign done up in full 7th edition splendor. 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.
Dead Light And Other Dark Turns. Originally released as one of the “old Chaosium” early 7th edition releases, this has been redone with updated production values. Dead Light is very highly thought of and this is a pretty good value.
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, Regency Cthulhu, and Down Darker Trails. As a new keeper I’d give all of these a miss. They are period specific rulesets for the French Revolution, Regency-era England, and the American Old West. Nothing wrong with any of them, but I’d stick with the 1920s to get your feet wet.
A Time to Harvest. I was part of the “Cult of Chaos” organized play/playtest of this as a player and it was not a scenario I particularly enjoyed. It’s a little bit pulpy. A little bit quaint New England. And I felt like it was hard to mesh the two sides and it would be even more difficult for a new Keeper.
Nameless Horrors. There are two versions of this, one from Old Chaosium in black and white and a new release from New Chaosium using their full color standardized layout.
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
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.Â 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.
New Tales of the Miskatonic Valley. Yes, it’s another Stygian Fox book, though this is a reprint of an older publication, originally from Miskatonic Valley Press. It features a variety of shorter scenarios set in the Northern Massachusetts area commonly known as Lovecraft County. Some of these are particularly well done and it would be a great set of classic feeling scenarios for a new Keeper to get started with.
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. It’s written for 5th/6th edition, but has been rereleased in a hardback and PDF.
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.
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 mummies and vampires. You have islands of dinosaurs. This is all the good stuff from Creature Double Feature on Channel 56 with a 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 or just want to have some laughs with your group. Uncle Timothy’s Will, which riffs on the “stay the night in a haunted house to inherit the family fortune” trope is a classic.
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 own everything on this page because I’m old and boring and have a career job and the costs of my gaming purchases are trivial compared to having a child, a car, and a mortgage payment. (Note that since writing this, we have paid off our mortgage!) 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 and Malleus I’d say are for completists. They’re reference guides for things you can find elsewhere.
So a couple of really specific plans:
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.
$25: Call of Cthulhu Starter Set — but unless you only want to do a few one-shots as a secondary game, it is probably better to get the Keeper Book, then grab this in PDF for the adventures.
$50: Keeper’s Book Hardcover. You can play CoC for the rest of your life with this. It’s all you need.
$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 Darkness
- 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.