Non-Euclidian Training Wheels

Chaosium’s new Starter Set for Call of Cthulhu, whilst attractively presented, doesn’t seem to have required an awful amount of work in terms of generating raw text. The individual components seem to have been drawn together from a range of existing products Chaosium had to hand, to an extent where those who already have an extensive Call of Cthulhu collection probably already own a lot of it. That said, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts – and, of course, anyone who already has an extensive Call of Cthulhu collection doesn’t need the Starter Set in the first place.

Along with a set of dice, some pregenerated player characters and some blank character sheets, and nice printouts of the player handouts for, the box comes with three handsome booklets. The first offers a brief introduction to the concept of the game and then follows the example of the classic “Red Box” Dungeons & Dragons Basic Set by Frank Mentzer by using a solo adventure to teach the basic concepts of the system. Specifically, the solo adventure in question is Alone Against the Flames, which is actually fairly substantial as far as such things go and is probably as decent an introduction to the system as could be offered in this format.

The next booklet offers a rundown of the basic rules of the game, and is essentially a rundown of the 7th Edition Quickstart Rules without The Haunting tacked on at the end and some minor textual revisions to take into account that the reader is probably newer to the RPG medium than most folk who’d grabbed the Quickstart probably were. An important upshot of this is that it includes a simplified character generation system, which is better value than many RPG starter sets offer.

The third booklet is a set of three classic Call of Cthulhu adventures, each of which have had their text jazzed up a bit with, at the very least, a little extra text to help beginning Keepers run them (and to explain any bits which would otherwise require reference to the full rules). The first of these is a real oldie – Paper Chase was one of the adventures from the old Cthulhu Companion. In that context it seemed a bit sparse, but Mike Mason and his team hit on an excellent idea here by explicitly recommending that it be run for one or two investigators. For most RPG groups that’s too few, but for a beginner Keeper for whom this is likely the very first RPG adventure they’ve refereed keeping the player numbers down might actually be very sensible as a confidence-building measure.

The rest of the adventures are for more conventional group sizes, and both of them are well-worn introductory Cthulhu pieces, having been included as starter adventures in the 5th-6th edition core books. Edge of Darkness is a solid intro adventure that I have a lot of affection for since it was the first Call of Cthulhu investigation I ever refereed, and it’s nice to see a spruced-up version of it here. Dead Man Stomp is set in Harlem and was notable in older editions for grasping the nettle of the racial issues of the 1920s.

Its inclusion is timely since Chaosium have reached a deal with Chris Spivey to do a second edition of his excellent Harlem Unbound supplement, so since a) the adventure is set in Harlem and b) one of the things Chris is really good at is clearly explaining the realities of racism from the perspective of a person of colour, they brought him in to help with the tune-up here, adding new sidebars on the racism of the era and on what Harlem was like at the time and generally giving the adventure the extra verisimilitude that Spivey’s research on 1920s Harlem allows.

On top of that, including an adventure dealing with contentious subject matter like this in a starter set is a ballsy move, but I think a shrewd one. It certainly sends the message that Lovecraftian material has its problematic aspects and the game is best served if you actually think about that and deal with it sensibly rather than trying to sweep it under the carpet. It also sends a loud and clear message that the RPG medium has the capacity to handle serious subject matter, which is a good concept to put in front of new participants.

Also, stirring up Dead Man Stomp is a nice rebuke to any reactionary griping which may emerge about Chaosium taking on Harlem Unbound. Gamergate types like to paint attempts to boost representation and diversity in games as being an unwelcome intrusion of a politically correct agenda into a sphere where it isn’t wanted, but Dead Man Stomp originally came out in the 1989 Keeper’s Kit and has therefore been part of Call of Cthulhu for over three-quarters of the game’s existence. The original treatment of the subject by the scenario wasn’t perfect, but it was an important bit of representation at the time – Spivey’s done a blog post on his Patreon where he speaks with his usual eloquence about what the original release of the scenario meant for him back in the day, and why he was so glad to be part of the team giving it a much-needed scrub-up for the new set.

It should be no surprise that Chaosium – particularly the new regime at Chaosium who’d settled in under Greg’s tutelage and who clearly have a keen idea of the company’s history and its significance – should be going this route. Chaosium, after all, put a badass warrior woman in reasonably sensible armour on the original cover of RuneQuest, and made sure a woman was among the investigators depicted on the original Call of Cthulhu box cover. Chaosium going for the diversity angle (to the extent that three of the five pregen characters are women and several of them are people of colour) doesn’t constitute some sort of “SJW takeover”; the original Chaosium were the SJWs of their time, and the present Chaosium are taking that attitude forwards into the future.

Actually, let’s talk about box cover art for the moment. There’s a fun little theme running through the booklet artwork in this one, as the investigators from the front cover are depicted in a range of other situations. The box cover is clearly depicting the diversity Chaosium are going for by incorporating a woman and a person of colour in the team, but it’s also a clever callback to the original Call of Cthulhu box cover as depicted below. Once again, we have a trio of investigators investigating a creepy house by a cemetery and being stalked by a tentacular monstrosity; as I noted in my comparison of the cover art of the 6th and 7th edition core books, the artwork has been made more immediate. (Whereas in the old art the investigators are not yet aware of the danger, here they’ve just spotted it and are reacting.)

This sly tribute to the original presentation of the game has further parallels with the offering here. The original rules only covered the 1920s time period, and only 1920s adventures are offered here. (Incorporating modern-day adventures in addition would add a further complication that beginners really don’t need.) In addition, the actual box is one of those cool inch-deep boxes that Chaosium tended to package their games in during the 1980s, and which I tend to think of as a classic-era Chaosium signature.

(I think the thing which is distinctive about those boxes is that they are thinner than the boxes usually used for RPG boxed sets; as well as being more convenient storage, this also means that there’s less dead space in the box, since it’s rare indeed that the deeper boxes were actually full whilst Chaosium’s boxes tended to be filled right to the brim. As well as giving a sense that you got better value for money, this probably had its advantages in shipping – greatly reducing the propensity for boxes to collapse due to weight being put on them.)

There’s a further subtlety to the cover art, though: whereas the original art could potentially be viewed as either showing the perspective of a detached observer or the owner of that tentacle sneaking into view, here the artwork is unambiguously from the perspective of the monster itself – in other words, it’s showing the point of view of one of the various entities under the referee’s control were this action taking place during a game.

This isn’t an irrelevancy: it’s entirely appropriate to the intentions behind the set. Mike Mason and his team have, perhaps, taken a leaf out of Wizards’ book; just as Lost Mine of Phandelver is conceived as a product that a receptive person could pick up and learn to become a D&D Dungeon Master from, this Starter Set is specifically designed to mint new Call of Cthulhu Keepers, taking them from footling around with solo scenarios in the beginning right through to running full-sized games with comparatively complex scenarios by the time they’re running Dead Man Stomp. As with Phandelver, a suitable array of options for what to buy next are presented: there’s the core 7th Edition rules and the Investigator’s Handbook, for instance, and also a canny plug for Doors to Darkness, a collection of 1920s adventures specifically designed for beginners to run and play.

Just like Wizards realised with Phandelver, Chaosium know that tabletop RPGs are basically an oral tradition, and like many oral traditions their primary means of spreading are via word of mouth. It’s easier than ever for potentially interested people to get some form of exposure to RPGs these days, but in terms of turning someone from being merely curious to actively playing a game, you need to put them in touch with a referee; the more new referees starter sets like this create, the more people are out there looking to recruit new people into the hobby.

On the whole, the Call of Cthulhu Starter Set is an excellent example of this variety of product, for a game line which could very easily benefit from one (Cthulhu is perennially hot, but the RPG core books can be intimidatingly big), and provides a great example of Chaosium opting to work smarter, not harder, polishing up already-extant material. As mentioned, long-time Cthulhu gamers likely already have a lot of this material already – then again, if you’re in the market for a 7th Edition update of the adventures in question and a hard copy of Alone Against the Flames, this is a pretty good deal.

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