Call of Cthulhu – Getting Started
"The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents."
- H.P. Lovecraft - The Call of Cthulhu (1928)
Welcome to the world of Call of Cthulhu the horror and mystery roleplaying game!
Created by Sandy Petersen, and first published in 1981, Call of Cthulhu has for over 35 years the game has defined the genre and is consistently regarded as being one of the best games available to play. For those brave enough to uncover its secrets, the rewards are beyond comprehension!
What is a Roleplaying Game?"SINCE THE EARLY DAYS of the hobby, if you were to ask virtually any role-player what other game should be on the ideal RPG shelf (other than the ubiquitous Dungeons & Dragons), it’s likely the answer would be Call of Cthulhu."
- Monte Cook on Call of Cthulhu, Hobby Games: The Best 100 (ed. James Lowder)
Roleplaying gaming (or RPG) is a social pastime. Together, you and your friends create and develop a story in which each of your characters plays a leading role. Everyone works together to attain a common goal – in Call of Cthulhu this may be uncovering and foiling some nefarious plot being perpetrated by the minions of a dark cult or secret society.
Each player takes on a role of a character, while one player is the referee- the Keeper of Arcane Lore (Keeper for short) who moderates the game and presents the plot and setting to the other players. Think of it a bit like acting in a drama, but where there isn’t a scrip.
Using dice and the rules of the game, you determine the success and failure for your character’s actions, while you are propelled into dramatic and engaging situations.
How do I play Call of Cthulhu?
In each game players take on one of two roles. Most take the part of characters (called “investigators” - as that’s exactly what they do) who attempt to solve a mystery or to resolve some dire situation. The plots encountered are designed to challenge the investigators, who may become injured, suffer sanity-shattering experiences, or even be eaten by a monster!
The investigators need not be anything at all like the people who play them. As the game progresses, investigators can gain power from arcane books of forgotten lore, knowledge of horrendous monsters, and advancement in their skills as they become more experienced.
One player takes on the role of the Keeper. He or she chooses a scenario or creates their own plot, sets the stage, describes the scene, and portrays the people whom the investigators meet. The Keeper also helps resolve the action and referees the game’s rules. Since the Keeper must make extra preparation, players often rotate the duty of Keeper.
Think of the Keeper’s role is a little like that of a director making a movie in which the actors don’t know how the story will develop. The players have the freedom to improvise their own scripts.
The game is an evolving interaction between players - in the guise of their characters unraveling a mystery - and the Keeper, who presents the world in which the mystery occurs.
There is no board to play on. Play is mostly talking: a situation is presented and outlined by the Keeper, and then the players say what they, in the guise of their investigators, intend to do. Using the rules to keep matters consistent and fair, the Keeper tells them if they can do what they proposed, and the steps they must follow, which often means rolling a dice to determine success. Dice help to resolve encounters and situations, and keep everybody honest, as well as adding drama and suspense – the outcome of a roll could mean a unforeseen surprise, a dismal defeats, or hair's breadth escape from death! Once an outcome is determined, the Keeper (with the players) narrates what happens.
The purpose of roleplaying is to have a good time. Right down to pounding hearts and sweating brows, it's part of human nature to find pleasure in being scared, as long as being scared is not for real. For some, the relaxation after the scare is the most important result. For others, it is the scare itself. Call of Cthulhu is a vehicle for alternately scaring and then reassuring players. Enjoyable fun for all concerned!
Who’s this Lovecraft fellow?
The game is based upon the stories of early twentieth century writer Howard Phillips Lovecraft (August 20, 1890 – March 15, 1937), whose dark philosophy of an uncaring cosmos in which, unbeknown to humanity, strange alien god-like beings rule.
Lovecraft's writing is somewhat dense, and uses archaic language, which unwinds like pages from one of those ancient books of magic he often describes in his tales. As wellas engaging with the horror, we also can find as much pleasure in lampooning his ideas and motifs as in taking them at face value, for Lovecraft laughed about himself and wrote stories which satirized his friends all the time.
Lovecraft, otherwise known as HPL, was an American author who achieved posthumous fame through his influential works of horror and weird fiction. He was virtually unknown and published only in pulp magazines before he died in poverty, but he is now regarded as one of the most significant 20th-century authors in his genre. Despite Lovecraft’s distasteful and archaic personal views, we can find inspiration for gaming in his creations.
Lovecraft's extraordinary imagination created what became known as The Cthulhu Mythos, a universe he shared and co-created with a circle of fellow writers. Chaosium has been publishing the Call of Cthulhu RPG based upon HPL's shared vision since 1981.
What’s the Cthulhu Mythos?
The term Cthulhu Mythos is generally attributed to August Derleth, a young writer and early fan of Lovecraft, who later founded Arkham House publishers, dedicated to keeping in print the collected works of H. P. Lovecraft.
Today, the term signifies a certain fictional cosmology of alien gods and monsters, arcane lore, and themes that represent “Lovecraftian Horror.”
Lovecraft wrote, “All my tales are based upon the fundamental premise that common human laws and interests and emotions have no validity or significance in the vast cosmos at-large.” He further imagined that the fundamental truths of the universe were so alien and horrifying that mere exposure to them might result in madness or suicide. While humanity might crave both comfort and the truth, only one or the other was possible. The human mind is an inflexible container. It cannot maintain cosmic truth and complete sanity—more of one poured in must spill out more of the other
In the Cthulhu Mythos, humans desperate for the power cloaked within truth might choose to forgo all remnants of sanity in exchange for becoming adept at manipulating the secrets of time and space. Their devil’s bargains made, these merciless sorcerers would whistle down devastation and doom to this world in exchange for more knowledge and power.
Over the years, hundreds of writers, both professional and amateur, have continued to write Mythos-inspired stories expanding upon Lovecraft's original concepts while also developing their own. All of which build on Lovecraft’s stories and take them in new and exciting directions. The Call of Cthulhu game takes inspiration from these fictional stories.
What do I need to play?
When first starting, you can download the free Call of Cthulhu Quick-Start Rules (or purchase a printed copy here). These are the basic introductory rules, which present the concept of the game, how to create investigator characters, and an starter scenario called “The Haunting”. In addition, you’ll find the full story of HPL’s “The Call of Cthulhu.”
Alongside the Quick-Start Rules, you can download the free introductory adventure Alone Against The Flames (printed copy on sale here). This is a solo play scenario, a “choose your path” format, that you can play through straight away without first reading the Quick-Start Rules, as the scenario guides you through the rules and creating a investigator character.
You’ll also need a set of roleplaying die – these are used to determine the outcomes of the different tasks and challenges faced by the investigators in the game. Ideally, to keep things moving along, players and Keeper should each have their own set of dice. A variety of them can be found at most hobby game stores and online.
However, if you want to dive right in, or if you have already played Call of Cthulhu with some friends and want to give it a go yourself, then the essential book is the Call of Cthulhu Keeper’s Rulebook – this contains everything you need to play and is the full rules of the game.
Oh! And don't forget to download some character sheets! You and your players will need them.
These Chaosium books are the core books and rules for playing Call of Cthulhu:
Call of Cthulhu Keeper’s Rulebook – contains everything you need to play and create player characters for mystery and horror roleplaying. The full game rules, packed with lots of examples and advice - also comes with two starter scenarios.
Investigator Handbook – aimed at players who will be taking on the roles of investigators, the Handbook contains in-depth player character creation rules, a range of investigator organizations, tips and advice for uncovering clues, equipment lists, and lots of information about the Roaring Twenties.
Keeper Screen Pack – a utility for those running Call of Cthulhu, and includes a special sturdy 3-panel Keeper’s Screen detailing key rules for when running games, a resource booklet of key tables for quick reference, two exciting and mysterious scenarios with a cast of ready to play investigators, and a set of three poster maps.
Doors to Darkness – a collection of five introductory adventures for beginning Keepers and players, each designed to help guide those new to the game, as well as a special chapter of advice and tips.
Want More Action?
Pulp Cthulhu – a follow-on supplement to the Call of Cthulhu Keeper’s Rulebook, this presents new rules and advice for those seeking a more action-packed style of game, with tougher player characters, wild and crazy plots, and a rogue’s gallery of nefarious villains - all in the pulp vein. Comes with four ready to play pulp scenarios, 1930s historical information, and a history of the Pulps.
The Two-Headed-Serpent – a world-spanning campaign of multiple scenarios designed specifically for Pulp Cthulhu (although, with some adjustment, can be played with standard Call of Cthulhu too). Absolutely action-packed, with dastardly and deadly villains, dark cults, and a mission to save the world! An essential purchase for those who like two-fisted gaming.
These books go deeper, providing alternative settings, immersive scenarios, or epic multi-session campaigns. Many provide hours of gameplay for you and your group to continue the fun of Call of Cthulhu Roleplaying. Here are a few of our favorite scenarios and supplements.
The Grand Grimoire of Cthulhu Mythos Magic – over 550 spells for Call of Cthulhu collected together for the Keeper’s reference. Chapters discuss magical practice and spells in the game, as well as lay lines and flawed spells.
Dead Light – a short scenario playable in a single session. A dark and stormy night. An unexpected event draws the investigators into a mystery with horrific implications. A great scenario in its own right, or can be used to provide a bridge between other adventures.
Nameless Horrors – six scenarios, set in different time periods – two in the Victorian Gaslight era, two in the 1920-1930s period, and two set in the modern-day. Each deals with strange and cosmic forces, presenting puzzling mysteries, dangerous adversaries, and mature themes. Each scenario comes with a set of specially designed player characters.
Cthulhu Through The Ages – a special primer for playing Call of Cthulhu in settings other than the 1920s or modern-day. Each chapter includes guidance for creating player characters appropriate the historical era, as well as an overview of the setting, and special combat rules for early history eras. Settings include Roman Empire, Dark Ages, Viking Iceland, The Dreamlands, Gaslight Victorian, the Far Future, and Reaping – a ‘end times’ setting for then the alien gods of the Cthulhu Mythos take back Earth!
Horror on the Orient Express – a truly premium and gigantic campaign in a box, taking the investigators across Europe in the 1920s in style onboard the Orient Express. An intriguing series of murders leads the investigators to uncover a dire conspiracy. Over a year’s worth of gaming material, the box is packed full with scenarios, premium player aids, maps, and more!
And There’s More!
Call of Cthulhu has a rich heritage – on this site you’ll find 35+ years’ worth of gaming material, from scenarios and campaigns to setting guides and resources. While many were written for older versions, the good news is that everything is compatible with the newer 7th edition of the game – in fact, the 7th edition Call of Cthulhu Keeper’s Rulebook comes with a special appendix advising on how simple and easy it is to convert older material to the current edition of the game. You can find a lot of these adventures in the Cthulhu Classics section.