What’s Old is New Again – A Review of Call of Cthulhu Classic

Call of Cthulhu Classic

Author: Sandy Peterson & Friends
Publisher: Chaosium
Available Formats: PDF & Print
Print – Not Available Yet

My first Chaosium RPG was the boxed set of Elfquest, followed shortly by Stormbringer and Ringworld. Coming from the TSR side of the hobby, I was used to learning some very mechanically different systems— Dungeons & Dragons, Top Secret, Star Frontiers, Gangbusters, and Marvel Superheroes were all very different games. Chaosium’s Basic RolePlaying or BRP system made for an exciting and interesting transition. All of their games had their own little wrinkles, but the core engine for all of them was the same. A Chaosium boxed set was a treat. Unlike the TSR sets of the time, all the Chaosium boxes I had were thin but packed to the brim. You’d have lots of books, foldouts, character sheets, dice, and the obligatory “what’s in this box” sheet. Now that I think of it, I always lost those sheets.

It took me a while to discover Call of Cthulhu, and by the time I did, it was no longer available as a boxed set. My first version of Call of Cthulhu was the joint Chaosium/Games Workshop hardcover published in 1986. It was an absolutely amazing book but alas, a single book. Fast forward to summer 2021, and with October being the 40th anniversary of the game, Chaosium launched a Kickstarter to reprint some classic early material. How could I not support their endeavor? With all the enthusiasm of my younger self, I supported Chaosium’s Call of Cthulhu Classic Kickstarter campaign, whose aim was to reprint the Call of Cthulhu 2nd Edition Box set. Backers at physical levels had to choose between the 1″ thin box and the thicker 2″ box. The campaign also included reprints of five classic early supplements. To date, I’ve not received my boxed set, but I have received the digital rewards.

So what’s it like? First of all, it is close to identical to the contents in the 3rd edition hardcover book I have. That’s not all that surprising—Call of Cthulhu has evolved very gradually. The 6th to 7th edition transition was probably the most significant jump in terms of rules evolution. In all honesty, it is relatively easy to convert 1st through 6th edition scenarios for use with 7th edition rules—I’ve done so many times, typically converting on the fly.

In this review, I will only focus on the reprinted boxed set, not the supplemental materials (which were available at higher Kickstarter tiers). The digital boxed set consists of the following files:

  • What’s in this box (updated for 2021)
  • Call of Cthulhu 2nd Edition Rulebook (98 pages)
  • A Sourcebook for the 1920s (38 pages)
  • Basic Role-Playing – An Introductory Guide (16 pages – I don’t believe this was part of the original 1980s boxed, set but I could be mistaken). Basic Role-Playing is the engine behind most Chaosium games like Call of Cthulhu and RuneQuest, with Pendragon being a very close cousin. This guide serves as a simple introduction to that system.
  • Chaosium Catalog, Winter 1981 (upcoming products include “King Arthur’s Knights” and “Privateers and Gentlemen.” I assume the former became Pendragon, but I don’t think Chaosium ever developed the latter, though there is a Fantasy Games Unlimited RPG with the same name—now I want it from Chaosium).
  • Arkham Map – A bit more basic than later Arkham maps developed by Chaosium
  • Character Sheet
  • Character Figures – A set of standup counters for gaming. Black silhouettes on a  white background represent all characters (there’s an awful lot of silhouettes in the boxed set—many of the creatures in the books are illustrated similarly).
  • New Character Figures –  An additional sheet of silhouettes is included as a result of the Kickstarter.
  • Size Comparison – Compares an investigator’s size to many Mythos monsters in a 2-page spread of silhouettes in a revised and expanded version. I sometimes forget just how big Cthulhu is—this drives it home.
  • World Map – A 2-page 1920s map of the world, with both mundane and Mythos destinations. It’s worth noting this doesn’t seem to be of a very high resolution – as you zoom in, it gets fuzzy very fast.
  • Color Keeper Screen – Remastered specifically for this Kickstarter
  • Chaosium Postcard – Little survey Chaosium liked you to out – though you’d need to send it back in time to reach their old Albany, CA address. I filled out a bunch of these back in the day. I think I always checked off the “cosmic vibrations” answer for “where did you first hear of this game.”

If this is a product you’re interested in, you’re likely familiar with one or more incarnations of Call of Cthulhu. If so, you’ll recognize an awful lot—there are classic scenarios, the sample character remains the omnipresent Harvey Walters, etc. The adventure that most people started with, “The Haunting” (here with its original title, “The Haunted House” is present. While it lacks the glossy polish of the 7th edition, the layout is easy to follow (as it was back in the 1980s), and it is a clean set of books with consistent art and layout. What are some of the significant differences if you’re most familiar with the 7th edition?

  • While skills are still based on a 1-100 range, characteristics are in the 3-18 range (you’d multiply by 5 to get their 7th edition values).
  • There is no Luck.
  • Task resolution and combat are much looser – the Keeper (GM) will have to make a lot of judgment calls, with no concepts of difficulties, and we all kind of winged how multiple dodges in combat worked.
  • The only era covered is the 1920s; an included sourcebook provides many details and insight into the period. Not that it would be difficult to set the game in different eras.
  • Several essays on playing the game; some highlight the evolution of Investigator Organizations later seen in the 7th edition (i.e., the need for a millionaire sponsor). There are also several essays by the authors regarding their intents and one new essay regarding converting the 2nd edition into this “classic edition.” For the curious, 2nd edition was chosen over the 1st edition because it incorporated copious amounts of errata that were detected shortly after the initial release of the 1st edition.

From a purely practical perspective, you will find some interesting material that, as far as I’m aware, isn’t in the 7th edition. While “The Haunting” is a classic (not found in the main 7e rules but rather in the free Quickstart), the other scenarios are less familiar. They include:

  • The Madman – The Fungi from Yuggoth hanging out in their favorite place, New England
  • The Rockford House – A vacation home off the coast of Maine with some… problems…
  • A Beginning Scenario for a Campaign – A tour bus in Vermont leads to a cultist encounter
  • Wail of the Witch – A witch out of time in the city of Salem

The scenarios in the classic game are definitely a bit rougher around the edges than more modern scenarios. Still, they each have the potential for a great evening of play (or even a morning of play if that’s how you roll…)

Much of the material in the 1920s sourcebook can be found in the 7th edition, but it also has material not found in the current edition. This is especially true of the many maps in the book—maps of interesting ancient places (Teotihuacán, Moundsville, Luxor, etc.) and of railway cars and zeppelins.

As I read over this review, in some ways, it sounds as if I’m describing a treasure hunt or the research of ancient mysteries. There is a lot of material in this set, focusing on breadth instead of depth. I was pleasantly surprised by the quality of the Keeper advice, both for campaign play and individual scenarios.

Should you get this? If you’re reading this review, the odds are likely yes. If you’re running a 7th edition game and are perfectly happy, there’s no need to, though as discussed above, there is undoubtedly some unique material here that is worth owning. But it makes for a fascinating artifact, helping the understanding of where the game came from.

~ Daniel Stack

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