You will find a wealth of information out there on the Internet about getting started in tabletop roleplaying games. Unfortunately for new players, the majority of this material focuses on running games with tons of articles and advice for Keepers and Dungeon Masters.
Most new players will be instructed not to sweat it, just show up and play the game. Don’t bring expectations to the table. Learn as you go and don’t overthink it. We believe all this advice will be invaluable to you, but we also understand that it helps to be armed with some more useful background intelligence before jumping into something new. Nobody likes to show up and appear clueless, particularly when you might sit at a table with veteran players and a seasoned Keeper. Maybe you have enjoyed D&D for some time, and you would like to try out Call of Cthulhu (CoC). It’s possible you’ve been reticent given the game’s reputation as a PC death machine and don’t want to get fed directly to the horrifying meat grinder.
With all these concerns in mind, we would like to offer some suggestions to make you more comfortable before you sit down at the table and jump in CoC. Feel free to ignore and discard any of these because showing up and jumping will likely be thoroughly enjoyable for you, as well.
We discuss the general CoC setting, as well as the Masks of Nyarlathotep, but we would like to emphasize a couple of key points for first-timers. Most importantly, you do not need to know anything about the Cthulhu Mythos to enjoy this game. The less you know, the better, as the character you will be playing in most games will be completely clueless about the others they face. Second, while combat occurs in CoC, you do not need to kill things to succeed in this game. A hasty retreat may be a completely reasonable and effective response to the terrors you face. Your Keeper may even reward your smart thinking in such situations.
We love CoC, in particular the 7th edition, because the game system aims for streamlined and simplified play. You do not need to worry about memorizing tables, understanding complex mechanics, or elaborate combat actions. If you would like to familiarize yourself with the rules before hitting the table, we highly recommend perusing the free Quick-Start Rules provided by Chaosium. Beyond these Quick-Start rules and a set of dice ( be sure to bring two d10s), you will be ready to go.
Chaosium offers an outstanding line of solo-play adventures for CoC, so you can immediately begin exploring the setting and rules on your own. You can start by downloading the acclaimed free scenario, Alone Against the Flames. We personally loved this adventure, and recommend it to all our new players. Even if you will be jumping right into playing with friends, the solo-play games allow you to get your CoC fix during campaign downtime.
Creating Your Character:
First, you may not even need to worry about this. If you’re playing a one-shot at an event, you can expect to be provided with a character. Similarly, if you’re joining a new table, your Keeper may have pre-generated characters specific to the scenario or campaign. In our latest Masks of Nyarlathotep campaign, we had three first-time CoC players. One of them opted for a pre-generated character, one modified a pre-generated character to suit their roleplaying interests, and a third generated their own Investigator. You cannot go wrong with any of these choices. Do not be afraid to select a pre-generated character that appeals to you while others have crafted their PCs. You will have plenty of opportunities to make this character your own and even reimagine their backstory. Chaosium offers a variety of blank Investigator sheets on their site. Several of our players like to use Dhole’s House for easy online character creation.
Pick an occupation that sounds fun, and do not spend excess time worrying about associated skills, power, or combat readiness, unless those aspects deepen your interest in the Investigator. If your Keeper has provided you with a clear setting, it may help to stay within bounds. On the other hand, creating a plausible reason why an English farmer got wrapped up in a Chicago mob-themed Investigation could be a lot of fun, which dovetails with our next suggestion. You will want to create a backstory for your character, but you need not write a full character biography. Bringing a bare-bones framework backstory to the table allows you to creatively fill in the details spontaneously with roleplay in response to situations at hand.
If you will be playing in a lengthy campaign, taking some time with your fellow players during Session Zero to discuss interests and preferred skills can help produce a well-rounded, cohesive team. Again, having a good idea of the campaign setting can help focus your character creation process.
Each Investigator will have a unique set of skills, which will allow them to interact with NPCs, seek out clues, and potentially best (or avoid) enemies during combat. We can place these skills into three broad categories, Interpersonal-Social, Investigative-Academic, and Combat-Physical. You will likely want to include some skills from each of these categories for your PC, and your occupation selection and backstory will guide these selections.
If you will be playing an Investigative game, you will want to ensure that you allocate some extra points to Spot Hidden and Listen. Otherwise, you should select skills that you will have fun using and roleplaying. If you prefer negotiating with NPCs and talking your team out of tough situations, you will enjoy Interpersonal-Social skills like Persuade, Fast Talk, and Charm. If you like to tackle your problems head-on and provide some muscle, bump up your Brawl, Handgun, and other various fighting skills.
You will also have default values in certain skills that you can attempt to employ if you lack a specialist in your group, such as Archaeology or History. In addition, everyone comes to the table with some skill in First Aid (30%), Brawl (25%), and Handgun (20%), as well as a Dodge percentile based on DEX, so you will have some potential for survival in a tight spot.
We like to frequently remind players that when you successfully use a skill, you earn the potential to improve it at some point in time determined by your Keeper. Don’t hesitate to go for those low-probability rolls, they can pay off in the game and on your character sheet!
Don’t worry about it. Seriously. Simply consider what your Investigator will have on hand related to their profession and run with it. Most CoC Keepers prefer to avoid bogging the game down with shopping expeditions, encumbrance rules, and detailed item inventories. You may be asked briefly before the game or a particular scene what your character would bring, but you need not worry about loading your duffle bag with rope, torches, spare ammunition, and rations. You can always double-check with your Keeper before starting a new game, and if you love in-game shopping and cataloging feel free to let them know.
Your Rewards and Treasure:
While you will not be building towards a complete set of synergistic magical armor or regularly trading out powerful weapons, large-scale CoC campaigns will still offer up some loot, as you may find tomes and artifacts along the way. While these items may inflict SAN costs, you can garner Mythos secrets, clues, magical spells, and special powers from recovered arcana. We encourage our players to attempt to extract as much information and roleplaying satisfaction from this CoC loot, and they frequently use artifacts and spells to solve dilemmas, as well as continually refer to acquired texts for leads and connections. Do not be afraid to concoct creative uses for your treasures rather than storing them in a musty trunk or incinerating them (it happens, more than you might imagine).
In CoC, your greatest reward will be the story and experience itself. We happily remember every scenario we have played at a convention because the game provides such awesome, memorable experiences. When playing Investigative style CoC games, such as Masks of Nyarlathotep, the revelations and secrets you unveil will be equally satisfying. Adventures in Call of Cthulhu may differ from other role-playing games in that the focus need not be winning or success, but revelation and story. We hope you will enjoy it as much as we do.