Roleplaying in Call of Cthulhu Campaigns

Call of Cthulhu adventure campaigns can differ from other styles of play within the setting, notably one-shots or a campaign composed of multiple modules linked together. From our standpoint, adventure campaigns can shift the heavily story-centered focus to include more character-propelled narratives. The classic Call of Cthulhu adventure campaigns, most notably Masks of Nyarlathotep, but also Horror on the Orient Express and Beyond the Mountains of Madness, provide a longer format in which the players can become attached to their character. The Pulp Cthulhu ruleset now allows the replacement of squishy Investigators with durable, robust Heroes further lengthening character longevity. This allows players to potentially enjoy roleplaying a Call of Cthulhu character for an extended length of time. With this in mind, we offer some thoughts on how to thoroughly enjoy and embody your character in the game. 

Become Someone Fantastic

The Call of Cthulhu setting offers you the chance to play an ordinary human in an extraordinary and horrifying world. Although you may not possess superhuman skills or powers, you can still play an amazing and exciting character. After selecting your character’s occupation, create a credible backstory that explains their nature and values. A rich backstory does not require extensive details; in fact, you should try limiting your character’s personal history to 15-20 words. When playing in a pre-written adventure campaign, your Keeper does not have to rely on backstory hooks to drive the action, but you should freely use the past to justify your Investigator’s decision-making.

This young lady comes to her campaign with big dreams. While she survive to see them realized?

At the outset of the campaign, consider your Investigator’s relationship with their daily life. What pursuit and activities have the burgeoning adventure disrupted? Are they a deeply successful person, but unsatisfied with their career? Are they a hard-worker that’s been continually overlooked? Are they on the cusp of fulfilling a lifelong dream, but get swept up into this new adventure? Or maybe they are trying to escape from something? No matter what they leave behind, establish the great potential for growth in your character.  

While an interesting backstory can add some depth to your character, the more important aspects deal with who your character can become. Based on their occupation and past, select one to three personal goals for your character. Consider a mixture of the mundane and extravagant. These may even border on delusions of grandeur. Examples from our campaign include occult-fascinated librarian Irina wanting to open her own bookshop, ex-congressman Tip attempting looking for derring-do to obfuscate his past failings, and dilettante Great War veteran John simply seeking distracting excitement. Other possibilities include the pursuit of wealth, secret knowledge, research discoveries, or just a quiet, simple life. During your campaign, you can return to these goals to find motivation for your character. Ask yourself, how has the adventure facilitated the achievement or altered the pursuit of my Investigator’s goals.

The good doctor just wanted a South American escape, but he found much deadlier adventures.

In addition to dreams and goals, identify a source of fear or anxiety for your character before beginning the campaign. You can turn to this during episodes of Insanity (or Cosmic Horror) for inspiration. You can use this as a constraint or an obstacle to overcome. Facing down fears provides another opportunity for character growth. Maybe your Investigator replaces their mundane fear with a greater Mythos terror, or, perhaps, they can willfully suppress their worldly concerns to save humanity. 

By sharing your dreams, wishes, and fears with your fellow Investigators, they can help you pursue them. Working together as a team you can collaboratively develop each other’s characters and share in the enjoyment of each Investigator’s personal journey. 

Have Interesting Friends

Each investigator can bring interesting elements from their background into your campaign.

In our campaign, we allow and encourage our Investigators to draw from their backstories and occupations to supply potentially useful NPCs. This allows them to feel connected to the story and the world. If you intend to introduce NPCs as a player, you may wish to discuss this topic with your Keeper beforehand, either during your Session Zero or between sessions. Our players typically check in about potential NPC ideas over email. 

Some Keepers may attempt to hold Investigator-generated NPCs at arm’s length to avoid player dependence. We consider this a fair concern, and provide the following example of a problem NPC – “As I’m a renowned university professor, I know an expert in (insert field of knowledge), I will call him for the answer.” Fabricating a new character with a specific skill to solve a discrete problem short circuits the Investigative challenge. Some Keepers may respond to this narrow request with an unanswered phone call or a disappointing knowledge gap.

If you present your NPC friends and acquaintances as broad resources, though, the Keeper can more effectively link them to various parts of the plot without directly handing out clues or circumventing player dilemmas. A benevolent Keeper will allow them to help, but they may not deliver as you have envisioned it, as in the following example:

Collaborative creation of NPCs with your Keeper can be helpful & dangerous

Before our England chapter, Tip contacted us about meeting with the US Ambassador or another official while in London. En route to the American Embassy, he detailed his plan, which included the name of his fictional ambassador. Upon arrival, he discovered he was mistaken about the Ambassador and discovered a historically accurate political rival instead. Rather than denying the Embassy NPC connection, we supplied him with a cultural attaché (read spy), Sterling Rawson, who proved invaluable throughout the chapter. 

In this case, our player supplied Keeper with an inspirational source, which we molded to best fit his and our use in the Chapter. Tip has also provided us with numerous bartenders to act as sources of rumor and gossip during our campaign. 

Have a Voice for Your Character

You do not need to speak in a perfected accent, but speaking in character can enhance the table’s roleplaying energy. Consider altering your tone, timber, and body language to achieve this effect. This allows you to physically inhabit your character, which will facilitate immersion for the other players at the table. Speaking in character separates in-game from meta-discussion. We encourage you to shed your fear of judgment and criticism and dive into the role. You need not be a skilled thespian or voice actor to elevate everyone’s roleplaying experience at the table. 

A sullen & moody voice for Jude makes resolving in-game conflicts more entertaining.

 Resolve Conflict in Character

Having established that voice, use it. Disagreements will occur at every game table, be it between team members or with your Keeper about rules and situations. By arguing in character, you keep the focus centered on the game and away from personal conflict. It can add levity to an otherwise tense situation. These frustrating situations may later become delightful memories Investigators can recall as the campaign moves forward. My players have gone so far as to send in-character email notes apologizing for in-game disputes. 

 Take Chances

Call of Cthulhu has a reputation as a brutal game, but the rules offer players the opportunity to take interesting chances. First, in low-stakes situations, do not hesitate to attempt a roll with a relevant low-percentage skill. In the unlikely event, you succeed, you have earned the chance for your Investigators skill to increase at the end of a Chapter. This feeds further into our prior discussion about player growth. Roleplay the confidence associated with the improved ability. 

Get into the action by taking big risks by rolling those dice and burning luck points!

Second, push your rolls. If you fail an important skill check, present a new approach to the challenge and roll the dice again. You may suffer consequences, but your friendly Keeper may mitigate the damage if you roleplay it to the hilt. Pushed rolls bring excitement to the table and help maintain the high-stakes Call of Cthulhu environment. 

Finally, be willing to spend your Luck. Use those Luck points for dramatic moments where you can relish the sweetness of your success. If you have a trove of unused Luck, consider gambling on some high-impact rolls before running away from a problem or monster. 

 Develop Your Investigator Away from The Table

If time allows, you can collaborate with Keeper to continue role-playing and developing your character. As mentioned above, our players will contact us between sessions to discuss possible NPC connections or reach out to prior chapter NPCs. Our players have corresponded with each other and NPCs between sessions to further establish relationships. 

You can also reach out to your Keeper to plan your Investigator’s demise. As your character’s Sanity winds down you and your Keeper can discuss how this significant event could potentially manifest and how your Investigator may respond. This allows both you and the Keeper to have a hand in an incredibly important event, and you may be much more satisfied with this outcome. Perhaps you have an upcoming chapter or campaign climax and your Investigator feels prepared to make a great sacrifice, you can discuss this in advance with your Keeper to maximize the effect. 

Finally, you bring useful feedback to your Keeper away from the game table. In particular, let them know if you struggle to find motivation for your Investigator or you have lost a sense of agency. We appreciate it when our players let us know how we can help them deepen their roleplaying experience and enjoy their Investigators. 


Original art above by Owen Roach

1 thought on “Roleplaying in Call of Cthulhu Campaigns

  1. Owen says:

    Many thanks for featuring our campaign art!

    Much of this is pertinent to our homebrew campaign ‘A Great Big Nothing Within’ we’re currently running as things have taken a more player-character driven focus.

    Game one was essentially a sandbox where investigators only had tenuous connections to the world, however this was also the perfect chance for them to develop and for new threads to emerge organically. Thanks to the enthusiasm and creativity of our players the goals and anxieties of each character became strongly apparent by the final session.

    NPCs like the pictured Mary and Jude have evolved largely thanks to player interation, being initially invisioned as being quite simplistic and fleeting before taking on more promenant rolls in the second game reflecting investment in their fates. In a sense I consider them collaborative creations thanks to players taking interest in their lives and well-being long after they served their purpose within the main narrative.

    Our between-campaigns session is also worth a mention in relation to this. Originally I’d conceived it as basic job decisions and rolls for skill development. However, as I corresponded with players outside of the session about their character’s plans, I quickly realised it would be better as a character driven episode in itself. It ended up being much more substantial and emotionally resonant than I could have anticipated.

    I imagine this approach is not for everyone, but going with the flow of character development and building on player interests has (so far) resulted in a game that is involving not just for them but also for myself.

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