The seminal roleplaying game of cosmic horrors and plucky investigators has been terrifying and amusing players for years. With the arrival of a new quickstart kit, it seemed prudent to round up a few players at this year’s Lavecon and play it ’till the wheels fell off.
The first thing worth commenting on is the cover art. In an attempt to make the game more accessible for new players, the publisher seems to have gone with cartoon imagery — a sort of Scooby-Doo aesthetic: a group of misfits looking terrified, outside a mansion with all the glowing green bits you’d expect.
There’s nothing wrong with the cover on a technical level, but tonally it doesn’t do the game justice. Contrast it with the art for the Keeper’s Screen, with the investigators tiny and frail in the light of their lanterns as the cliffs tower overhead. Totally different in terms of aesthetic.
I’m a pulp man through and through, I’ll admit — except for Call of Cthulhu (CoC), where I try to aim for a gritty noir feel cut through with slashes of gruesome horror. Tonally, the quickstart kit isn’t this at all.
A further disappointment was the pregenerated characters. They do, admittedly, represent a nice range of potential investigators in the 1920s, and all seem to be realistically portrayed — but not Nevada Jones.
Yeah, they made the reference. Azathoth help me. I know it’s supposed to be accessible, and I suppose pop-culture references help. But the real frustration I have is the inconsistency: why make only one pregen character a thinly-veiled reference, and the rest perfectly original?
It’s easy to imagine the Nevada player hogging the spotlight, a common problem with new roleplaying game groups. If the other characters are the sort of regular investigator fodder, how could they fill the spotlight better than a famous whip-toting professor with a slight name tweak?
So the tone of the pregens feels confused and the box art fails to inspire. On to the materials within.
Preparing the adventure
I am not a prep-heavy Game Master. I think that trying to predict everything the players do is a waste of time, and it’s much better and more time-effective to sketch a situation and let the players make the plot. If I get down more than ten bullet points for a location, I’ve done something wrong.
Unfortunately, the adventure booklet takes a very different approach to my usual style. The information for each case is presented in thick, indigestible paragraphs that demand close attention lest the would-be GM miss a sentence that holds some vital information. For a beginner, this is obtuse; and even with some experience, I struggled to parse the information into usable chunks. The writing itself is of good quality and would provide an enjoyable read in other circumstances. Unfortunately, all of the five cases in the quickstart kit proved to be too verbose. Actually opening the box and running the system for the first time would be a nightmare for new GMs and players.
As a GM with some experience, I found myself having to pull all the most relevant pieces of information from the cases and turn them into a sort of cheat sheet for running the game. Surely the casebook itself should fulfill this purpose?
To sum up, the cases occupy a strange place on the spectrum. A nightmare for new GMs and a chore for experienced ones, their target audience is unclear. It seems that the sweet spot for the prep materials would be GMs of intermediate experience — but surely at that point, they’d want to write their own content? I struggle to recommend the quickstart based on the cases alone, and I feel that they present an obstacle to satisfying play.
One thing the quickstart doesn’t lack is handouts. Glossy maps, letters for the premade adventures — there’s enough to fill a tabletop. But it feels soulless. All of the maps, such as the Arkham one, seem to have been made digitally with absolutely no consideration being given to the aesthetics of the time. Buildings are airbrushed brown blocks, everything feels like it was done in an older version of Photoshop. It’s dreary, and unlikely to catch the eye of new players. Maps from the roaring twenties and earlier should be crosshatched, archaic and characterful. There should be scribbled notes in the margins and strange symbols peeking from hidden corners. There should be character. Unfortunately, the quickstart maps hold none at all.
Playing the game
My game with the quickstart kit was unfortunately cut short, but I was fortunate enough to get three players at different ends of the roleplaying spectrum. One had been playing CoC for nigh on thirty years, another was a relative newbie but had played tabletop roleplaying games before, and the third had no experience whatsoever. After a bit of prep and questions to gauge their opinions of the box itself, we began the session.
The mechanics are absolutely sound and seem to follow the same general principles as previous editions. Roll 1d100 (a 100-sided die, commonly in the form of two ten-sided dice) to perform basic skill checks, deduct sanity when encountering the mythos, and so on. The premade adventure did a good job of setting the tense, mist-shrouded tone of Arkham and surrounds, but I feel this came more from the good group chemistry than any spectacular writing within the module itself.
Another strange design choice struck me as we went through the adventure. The box cover, as discussed, has an almost comedic tone. But none of the featured adventures veer very far from the classic cosmic terror of the original stories. This pleased me as a returning CoC Keeper and player, but newbies will surely struggle with the subversion of their expectations. The pendulum-swing of tone and style is enough to throw off any beginner GM, and I’d advise anyone buying the product to either take elements from the premade adventures to make their own, or take judicious notes in advance.
For this GM and the players he tried it with, at least, the quickstart kit fails to get the game rolling from the moment the box is opened.