So, a while back I had this other blog (about five or six years ago) and I wrote this blog post which still remains semi-popular, definitely the one driving the most traffic to the site. It’s about how to begin running the Call of Cthulhu role-playing game, and I’ve often felt like it wasn’t good enough, to the extent where I’d feel a mild twinge of guilt at seeing so many hits directed at advice which could definitely be improved upon.
So, this post will be an attempt to provide a better version, so that I can feel less guilty (and also get more traffic here – my insidious plan) while also providing a better service to people who’d like to get into running Call of Cthulhu, which is a pretty fun system.
Tips for a Beginning Keeper!
1. The Set-Up
The Call of Cthulhu RPG (Click the link for a free PDF with the Quick-Start Rules for 7th Edition!) can be many things: bleak, depressing, filled with dark humour, pulpy, light, a tale of bumbling idiots and square-jawed upholders of justice who are either richly rewarded or bitterly punished for their traversal into the hidden corners of society and the world, where monsters, dead gods and their followers lie.
Scenarios generally involve some kind of mystery going on that the players’ characters are probably better off staying out of altogether, but as the title pushes, there is a call to this mystery, indeed perhaps to all mysteries, which shall lead the protagonists to wade knee-deep and beyond from their comforting shores and into the drowning depths of the bizarre, the terrible and the very, very dangerous. Possibly holding a shotgun, possibly holding the notes of some victim’s dead-uncle-who-might’ve-been-a-wizard-but-was-probably-just-a-writer-or-was-he and oh goodness that’s a lot of eyes you’ve got there.
Ultimately, the tone will be down to you and your players, so it’s worth talking to them about what you’d all like to get out of the game and trying to reach some kind of compromise. There’s a huge amount of pre-made scenario content available for free online (Cthulhu Reborn has some gorgeous PDFs), so chances are you’ll be able to find something that you can adapt to your needs, or take inspiration from when forming your own scenario. There’s also a lot of paid content, but when you’re just starting out with any system I’d avoid buying too much until you’ve got more of an idea of what you think you’d like. Especially with so much free content, it’s just better to give that a look over before committing to anything.
A warning I’d give here is that a lot of the content can be kind of sketchy or nonexistent with its depictions of women, minority groups, pretty much anyone that isn’t a cisgender, heterosexual able-bodied white male, and can be pretty weird and limited in their depictions of a lot of cultures, and mental health. This is something that kind of comes from both H.P. Lovecraft’s original stories (he had a pretty terrible worldview, and a lot of the horror is an extension of that, which is worth examining), as well as the classic adventure stories with which the RPG fills, frog-like, the rest of its DNA. As a result, people who are willing to dedicate their time, talent and in some cases real money towards writing and hosting or publishing scenarios based around these works for free (or very little money) can tend to stick closely to the trappings of that inspiration in a way which can feel… Misguided, at best (Here’s an article which goes a bit into how that can be alienating and lead to a less welcoming environment, and less interesting stories being told).
For that reason, as a Keeper or a player, you might not want to be exposed to that, which is definitely worth talking with your group about. If you or a player don’t feel comfortable with a part of a scenario, absolutely change it – in fact I’d encourage trying to create a more representative world in your storytelling from the beginning as it can lead to better, more varied stories and hooks. Take inspiration from varied sources: movies, videos and books by people who aren’t just straight white men! Your world doesn’t have to be constrained by adherence to an edited, myopic “historical accuracy” from the pages of men like Lovecraft.
This image of Frida Kahlo (centre) is from 1924, for example. It’s maybe not the best example, but it’s been going around lately and it’s very good.
Okay, so now you have a reasonable knowledge of the rules (with this Quick-Start 7th Edition PDF), character sheets and a few good scenarios (via Cthulhu Reborn or elsewhere online, or have a go at writing something yourself) and some dice (Wizards of the Coast’s D&D Dice Roller is a classic if you don’t have any). What next? Well, you’ll need players – anywhere from one to four is good, especially to start out with. Either recruit your willing/curious friends, or try looking online for comics/board game shops that host roleplaying events you might feel welcome at, or other RPG meetup stuff, forums etc. I’ve seen people play RPGs in pubs, bookshop coffee areas, or there’s obviously stuff like Skype, Discord etc.
Regardless, you have your setting and/or story idea, you’ve spoken with your players about what you’d all like to get out of the experience and you’re pretty sure everybody’s characters make sense with that. Everyone has their character sheets filled out, you have your notes, there’s dice (or the dice roller website). So where do you start now?
2. The Actual Game
Since Call of Cthulhu is a storytelling game, what you and your players find interesting in stories will probably be different to me, so I’ll leave that side of things up to you. However, there are a few things that I think will help to keep the engine running, and keep the play interesting. Some of the ideology expressed here with regards to improvisation is going to be half-remembered borrowing from Graham Walmsley’s book Play Unsafe, which talks about incorporating some of the foundations of improv into roleplaying to create a collaborative story with your players. It’s quite good and you might be able to find it cheaper on Amazon or somewhere, or alternatively/for further reading this site offers a good run-down on the foundations of improv for free and is well worth checking out.
In fact, read that webpage. Get your players to read that webpage. It’s a great way to learn the basics of interacting with other characters and your environment to create a story. Whether it’s a confrontation between an NPC (a character you control, as the Keeper) and the players, or engineering a way for two or more player characters to interact together, there’s some great stuff to keep in mind from there as we go on.
To start off the game, you’ll want to establish who the player characters are, and what they want (your story). Clearly establishing your player characters’ place in the world, and their relationships with one another early on will help your players get invested and give you something to use to build your story. In Dungeons & Dragons, and typical fantasy settings, there’s a reason why taverns are popular: they get all the player characters together, introducing themselves, and getting just slightly drunk enough so that when an old warrior with a battleaxe comes up and says they’ve heard of a cave with treasure in it, the characters say “alright, I’ll check that out.”
For your players’ characters, think of a place where they might meet and talk about something (discuss this with your players). This might be a bar, an exhibition, a lecture or somewhere else where it fits for the characters, setting and story. It might help to give the player characters a chance to recount their day and how they’re feeling as they meet each other, if this is the first time the characters are meeting. This should help introduce the players’ characters to each other before the story begins (and so giving it more weight when you start putting them in danger), as well as fixing them in the minds of the players themselves. A little bit of description about the types of room, weather, environment at this stage helps to set the scene for the story going forward as well.
An important step here is to listen to your players’ characters, and try to find ways in which they might work together. All of this is a skill that might require practice, but ultimately you’ll be trying to create a custom-built metaphorical baseball bat to whack these characters in the head with, so it’s important to know their wants (so they may be tempted with them), strengths (so they can work together, and get further into the -really- nasty trouble) and weaknesses (which is typically going to be done for you in the form of horrible dice rolls). Player characters that bond and work well together (even if they’re a little antagonistic, buddy-cop style) will reward you, if you listen. This also doesn’t mean neglecting players whose characters don’t fit yet, as finding a way to make it all fit together is how you get the engine running, that will pay off with a better story.
It also might turn out that all this player interaction and engagement is giving you -a- story, but not necessarily one that the scenario you prepared accounts for or expects in any way. This is normal. Many role-playing game sessions can play out like Skyrim, in which the main plot is theoretically there, but the players are actually just wandering around shouting at bears. You -can- have one of the bears drop a note about how it read a book about dragons, or whatever, if you’d really like to tell the dragon story, but it’s also okay to just have your story be about bears for a while if you’re all enjoying it.
I’m going to use Skyrim as a way to say how to do combat now, and I’m going to tell you that you -don’t- have to just have the player character and their opponent standing very close to each other not moving doing attacks over and over again until one is dead. That’s actually not a great way of doing combat, in real life or in games of Call of Cthulhu. Instead, if a combat situation occurs, after determining combat order, think of it like a movie scene, cutting to each character in turn doing something interesting, punctuated by a skill check. Is your villain human? Great! They can monologue, talk to player characters, beat their chests, reload, hide, run to better cover, run away (your players can do all of this too). Is your villain not human? Even better! They can potentially do all of the above -and more-, if they can dig, or fly, or wrap their tongue around a ceiling bar and lift up into the air. Just -please- don’t have the impact of combat on the story as purely numbers going up and down: bullets hurt, getting sliced open by a tentacle hurts, and combat where the villain almost got away, but the doors slammed shut from one player character on one side, while another player character crept up behind and held up a pistol to the back of the villain’s head, I mean, it’s better than when a 6 happened, and then a 2 happened, and so on.
This doesn’t have to be every combat, in fact a whole bunch of this is being familiar enough with the rules to know when to not follow them, but combat is one of the things I least enjoy in Call of Cthulhu, because so often it stops the story and just becomes a bunch of dice rolls. If you can get the combat to -continue- the story, then you’ve got it made. But there is a part of the system that -does- involve dice rolls, which -is- a pretty good way of making a story: scary stuff might drive your players’ characters insane.
Following a story in Call of Cthulhu is, ultimately, unwise for the player characters. At best, they’ll see things that utterly change their view about how reality works, and they’re very likely to wind up dead. A tool for illustrating the toll which investigating the terrible things lurking unseen in the player characters’ world can take, in addition to physical damage, is the sanity scale. This (while not reflecting how mental health works at -all-) is essentially the slow reminder of mortality. Physical health recovers -reasonably- quickly in Call of Cthulhu, but the sanity scale is -very- hard to recover, by design. As such, it’s used to mark how far a player character has come from their previous life, and what awaits them as they continue to investigate (zero sanity, essentially removing the character from the game). Dice rolls at moments of particular revelation should reflect that, and not be forgotten. If you’re playing a longer scenario over multiple sessions, these moments might come a little further apart, but for one session games: go hog wild.
3. After The Game
So, I hope you and your players enjoyed the session! It’s maybe worth it to ask them how they felt it went, and what kind of things they enjoyed or didn’t enjoy. If you kinda liked the whole “roleplaying” thing but maybe didn’t necessarily get on with the setting or the system, that’s cool! There’s a pretty good resource for cheap/free games and a little bit of free RPG stuff over on this Shut Up & Sit Down page, which is a very good website.
And, that’s it! I’ve written over 2000 words here, so, I’m going to wrap up. I guess this is ultimately maybe more of a supplemental piece to the first one, so, if there’s anything I’ve missed you can check that older one out, or leave a comment here and I’ll try and get around to it. Thanks!