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Sunday, 30 December 2018

The Call of Cthulhu II Starter Box

In all of its thirty-seven years and seven editions, what the premier roleplaying game of Lovecraftian investigative horror has never had is a starter set. Now the most recent edition of the rules—Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition does have the Call of Cthulhu 7th Edition Quick-Start Rules, which provides an introduction to the rules and setting as well as giving the most recent version of ‘The Haunting’, the classic scenario which graced the pages of every edition of the roleplaying game prior to its current edition. Further, there is also Doors to Darkness: Five Scenarios for Beginning Keepers, an anthology of scenarios designed to help both Keeper and her players learn both how to run and play the game. At the end of 2018, the publisher of Call of Cthulhu, Chaosium, Inc., rectified this lack by releasing the Call of Cthulhu Starter Set.

The Call of Cthulhu Starter Set is designed to do three things. First, provide everything a player needs to start playing Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition. Second, provide everything a Keeper needs to start running a game of Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition. Third, take a player on a step by step process that will begin with a single player roleplaying a single player character—or investigator—in a solo adventure, then involve a Keeper running a scenario for a single player and his investigator, then have a Keeper run a scenario for two players and their investigators, and finally, have the Keeper run a scenario in traditional sense of having three or four or more player characters. It does with a richly appointed box of bits and pieces that echoes the roleplaying games of times past—there are dice and character sheets and pre-generated investigators and books and handouts! The starting point though, is ‘What’s in this Box?’.

A classic mainstay of roleplaying games past which came as boxed sets, ‘What’s in this Box?’ is the first thing that the reader sees upon opening the box. The single sheet explains what is in the box and what the reader should look at next and in what order, for the contents of the Call of Cthulhu Starter Set are packed in the order they are meant to be used. Before that at the top of the box is a set of dice, a full set of the dice commonly used in Call of Cthulhu. Notably though, it includes not one percentile ten-sided die, but two! Now in Call of Cthulhu, two ten-sided dice are rolled for most situations and actions, whether skill checks or Sanity checks, but sometimes there are situations where an investigator is at an advantage or disadvantage. In either case, his player gets to roll an extra die, an extra ten-sided die so that two are rolled as well as the units die. When the investigator rolls with advantage, the player rolls the two dice and keeps the best, but rolls the two dice and keeps the worst wen at a disadvantage. The inclusion of the extra die enables a player to roll these dice without having to roll any of them twice. It not only supports the roleplaying game’s mechanics, but it makes them easier to play by taking away the obviously minor inconvenience of having to roll dice again. It is a small touch, but it helps.

Immediately below the ‘What’s in this Box?’ sheet is an advert for MetaArcade’s Cthulhu Chronicles and below that is a sheaf of ten investigator sheets. Five of these are blank, but the other five are filled out as pre-generated investigators. The five are all illustrated with a full-colour portrait and consist of a female African American history student, a female Japanese American science student, a female engineering student, a male archaeology professor, and a male languages professor. Putting aside the groanworthy name of the archaeology professor—Nevada Jones—this is a good mix and a good balance of characters in terms of gender and race. All five are ready to play and all come with their back stories all filled out as roleplaying hooks.

Under all of that paper is the first of the three books in the Call of Cthulhu Starter Set. Book One—Alone Against the Flames. As the title suggests, this is a reprint of Alone Against the Flames, the first designed to be played by the one player for Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition. It sees the player character travelling to make a new life in the New England town of Arkham when circumstances force him to make an overnight stop in the village of Emberhead and there events threaten everything he understands and in the process, transforms him into an investigator. Mechanically, it also takes the reader through the process of creating a character ready to play and shows him how the rules work.

The most obvious changes to Alone Against the Flames are cosmetic. It is presented in full colour where the previous version was not and comes with more illustrations. The major difference is that where the original version of Alone Against the Flames referenced the Call of Cthulhu 7th Edition Quick-Start Rules for an explanation of its mechanics, this version instead references Book Two—Introductory Rules of the Call of Cthulhu Starter Set.

Book Two—Introductory Rules is not only the second book in the Call of Cthulhu Starter Set, but also the shortest. It covers the key points of the Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition rules in just twenty pages, from core concepts, creating an investigator, skills, and Occupations to the mechanics of skill rolls, Sanity, and combat. Only a few Occupations are listed, but only a few are needed for the contents of the Call of Cthulhu Starter Set and a player is always free to create his own. A nice touch is that it comes up to date by referencing the modern explanations of the roleplaying game by Seth Skorkowsky and Paul Fricker. The rules are clearly and simply explained and decently supported by some examples of play. Rounding out the booklet is a guide to the reader’s next steps, the first of which is Book Three—Paper Chase and Other Adventures. The others are, of course, the Investigator Handbook, the Keeper Rulebook, the Keeper Screen Pack, and Doors to Darkness.

The last and thickest booklet in the Call of Cthulhu Starter Set is Book Three—Paper Chase and Other Adventures. It contains three adventures designed to be run by the Keeper with first one, then two or three, and then more investigators, growing in depth and detail as more players and their investigators are required. It also sets up an organisation for the investigators to belong to and gain support from, this being the SEU or ‘The Society for the Exploration of the Unexplained’, as well as giving a reason why the investigators know each other. The SEU is an extra-curricular club based at Miskatonic University in Arkham and all five of the pre-generated investigators in the Call of Cthulhu Starter Set are members. The first of the three scenarios is ‘Paper Chase’, originally published in the Cthulhu Companion from 1983. It is a short, one session affair in which the investigator is hired by Thomas Kimball of Michigan to look into the theft of some books from his late uncle’s books. Clues point towards the uncle’s favourite reading spot, a nearby cemetery, which it turns out, has been the site of some odd happenings over the years. ‘Paper Chase’ is fairly benign scenario, really only deadly depending upon what the investigator decides to do. Of course, there is the sanity-sapping realisation that the truth of the world is not as the investigator knows it be, but this is a gentle introduction to Lovecraftian investigative horror and shows how although the Mythos is antithetical to mankind, aspects of it are not necessarily actively working against mankind. The upgrade of ‘Paper Chase’ to Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition is nicely done and provides support for the Keeper with advice and clear explanation of the rules as they arise. Another pleasing touch, is the new, full-colour artwork which includes new depictions of the scenario’s antagonist.

The second scenario is ‘Edge of Darkness’, which is set in and around Arkham. This has been the mainstay of many a past edition of Call of Cthulhu—though not the current one—and after the ‘The Haunting’, is perhaps of one the most played scenarios for the roleplaying game. Thus, it is regarded as a classic. The investigators are asked to fulfil one last request by an acquaintance, Rupert Merriweather, who is on his deathbed. In his youth, he and friends dabbled with magic and foolishly brought into the world an evil force that could unleash horror upon the nearby surrounds if not dealt with. Being near death, he cannot and so asks the investigators to help. They are given some clues and a key to the farm house Ross’s Corners where the thing is currently contained and allowed to begin their investigation from there. ‘Edge of Darkness’ introduces wider possibilities of the mainstay to Call of Cthulhu game play—investigation. This is not say that there was no investigation in ‘Paper Chase’, but here there many more clues to follow up and enquiries to be conducted. Ultimately, the events of ‘Edge of Darkness’ will play out at the farm house itself, the investigators trapped within its confines by threats from within and without. There is also option to add a rival to the investigators’ investigative efforts in the form of Merriweather’s son, which gives the Keeper a good NPC to roleplay and possibly serve as a replacement investigator should one of their number die or lose their mind. ‘Edge of Darkness’ is locked room scenario which showcases the monstrous side of the Mythos and the dangers of mankind playing around with things—that is, the Mythos and magic—best left untouched.

If ‘Paper Chase’ showed the ‘benign’ aspect of the Mythos and ‘Edge of Darkness’, its deadly and dangerous nature, then the third scenario in Book Three—Paper Chase and Other Adventures brings out its malignity in all of its glory. ‘Dead Man Stomp’, like ‘Edge of Darkness’ a mainstay of many a past edition of Call of Cthulhu, also ups the ante, the action, and the threat, but is set on a wider stage that acknowledges the social issues of the Jazz Age. In fact, it involves the Jazz Age itself in the form of an African American trumpet player who suddenly acquires the powers of resurrection—and not a good way! Set in New York, the investigators’ decision to visit a Harlem hotspot accidently lands them in a racy mix of the Mafia and crime gangs, Prohibition, and the undead. If ‘Paper Chase’ and ‘Edge of Darkness’ are a bit dry, then ‘Dead man Stomp’ is the perfect tonic, fast-paced and action-orientated with a period sense of the exotic. That said, the scenario does not ignore the racism of the period and shows how it help or hinder the efforts of the investigators. The scenario also includes a guide to the Harlem of the period, which is where the scenario primarily takes place. Overall, ‘Dead Man Stomp’ brings an exciting and energetic conclusion to the three scenarios in the Call of Cthulhu Starter Set.

Lastly, beneath Book Three—Paper Chase and Other Adventures, is a booklet of Player Handouts. This collects and reprints all of the clues and handouts which the investigators can discover in the course of playing through the three scenrios in the Call of Cthulhu Starter Set. It also includes maps too, for easy reference by the Keeper.

Physically, the Call of Cthulhu Starter Set is very well presented with everything in colour and with great new art. The new colour cartography is also nicely done. Likewise, the writing is also good. Overall, it is difficult to find fault with the Call of Cthulhu Starter Set, but there two points to be said against it. One is that the dice are rather plain and it would have been nice if some Call of Cthulhu-themed dice had been included instead given that this is the Call of Cthulhu Starter Set. Of course, that might have increased the price and so it is understandable that they are not. The other is more of an issue and a complaint. Simply that the three booklets could have had better, sturdier covers. The three booklets are going to be handled quite a lot and card covers would have afforded them the protection they currently lack.

The Call of Cthulhu Starter Set has an audience it is specifically designed for and aimed at. It is not designed for the veteran Call of Cthulhu Keeper, especially if she has any experience running previous editions of Call of Cthulhu. The likelihood is that she already owns the classic scenarios that appear in Book Three—Paper Chase and Other Adventures and to be honest, updating from the previous editions of the roleplaying game to current one is not at all difficult. That said, there is nothing to stop an experienced Call of Cthulhu Keeper from purchasing the Call of Cthulhu Starter Set, especially if she wants to have those scenarios ready to run using Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition, as they are, after all, classic well-regarded scenarios for the game.

It goes without saying that the Call of Cthulhu Starter Set has everything that the potential player has to get started and whilst none of its content is necessarily new, the designers have clearly chosen that content because they know it works and they know that placed in the right order, it can teach the potential player to play and then run Call of Cthulhu. It does this right from the start before expanding and showcasing the scope of roleplaying game step by step, all in readiness to be able run and play the other adventures and campaigns available. Before that though, there is a lot of game play to be got of the high quality contents of the Call of Cthulhu Starter Set, making it not only the best value for money starter set available, but also the best introduction to Call of Cthulhu and best starter set for any roleplaying game currently available.

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