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I know from experience that crafting a good campaign in Call of Cthulhu is so difficult. If you’re a horror fan like me, you take your horror seriously, which only serves to put more pressure on you.
Even if you’re not feeling the pressure of an imaginary HP Lovecraft watching you from his grave while you write each session, it’s still nerve-wracking. Any time you agree to run a campaign in a tabletop RPG, your players are counting on you to guide them through an entertaining story.
You suddenly become a judge, author, storyteller, and ventriloquist all at once. That’s why I’ve decided to write out a compilation of Call of Cthulhu Keeper tips, so some of that pressure is taken off your shoulders.
What is Call of Cthulhu?
In the event you’re not sure what I’m talking about, let me pause to give you the standard intro. Throughout this post, when I refer to Call of Cthulhu (or CoC for short), I’m referring to a tabletop RPG, not any of the video game iterations, such as Call of Cthulhu or Dark Corners of the Earth.
So anyway, the Call of Cthulhu I’m referencing is a tabletop role-playing game that was published by a company called Chaosium. It’s based on the works of HP Lovecraft, a prominent horror author from the early 1900’s.
As a tabletop RPG, the game requires two or more players. One must assume the role of the Keeper of the Lore (called Keeper for short), who crafts a world and story for the other players to explore.
The other players build their own characters. They mark their character’s traits on character sheets, then use dice rolls to indicate whether they succeed or fail at difficult tasks in the game.
Unlike many other tabletop RPGs, the world of Call of Cthulhu is not there to make you feel heroic. It is a dark and grim place where players must keep their wits about them in order to survive. Oftentimes, fighting is not the answer.
Call of Cthulhu Keeper Tips
All right, now that you know a bit more about the game, let’s dig into those Keeper tips I promised you. I’ll explain each one further (with links to any mentioned resources), but in brief, here’s what I think will help you:
- Learning Lovecraftian lore
- Trying free solo campaigns
- Starting with the final encounter and working backwards during writing
- Practicing making characters
- Making use of random character generators for inspiration
- Using a Keeper sheet or screen
- Crafting a suitably ominous atmosphere
- Communicating with your players
- Using Chaosium’s pre-built campaigns if necessary
Familiarize yourself with Lovecraftian lore.
Since the world in CoC is based entirely on the works of the author HP Lovecraft, a great starting point is learning more about his writing. I’d like to give a bit of a content warning for some people, though; HP Lovecraft isn’t exactly known for being a great person. He was simultaneously racist and elitist, eschewing POCs and those financially less fortunate.
Nevertheless, his unique brand of cosmic horror has contributed much to the broader genre of horror as a whole. You’ll see references to his intellectual property everywhere these days. Just keep in mind as you dive into his works that he was a product of his time (the 1910’s-1920’s), and his stories often contain terrible and outdated commentary.
The good news is, his stories are so old, you can find most of them online these days. Reading a few of them will give you a better idea of the mood you can incorporate in your sessions, as well as potential monsters and villains. Here are some of my favorite Lovecraft stories, as well as where you can find them:
- The Colour Out of Space
- The Outsider
- At the Mountains of Madness
- The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath
- The Haunter of the Dark
- Pickman’s Model
- The Whisperer in Darkness
- The Cats of Ulthar
If you want to go all-out and get a book that will look impressive on your shelf, I suggest going with something like The Complete Tales of HP Lovecraft. It’s affordable, looks great, and will give you a comprehensive dive into the writings of HP Lovecraft.
If you’re a beginner, try the free solo campaigns to get a feel for the system.
Chaosium is wonderful at easing people into the world of CoC. Every so often, they release these bite-sized stories that kind of play out like choose-your-own adventure novels including gameplay from the tabletop RPG.
If you’re unfamiliar with Call of Cthulhu, I highly recommend trying out these solo campaigns as an introduction. They’ll give you a taste of how the system works, as well as potentially give you story ideas.
You can find two different solo scenarios to play through below:
When writing each story arc, start with the final encounter and work your way backwards.
Now for a useful story-writing tip that forever changed the way I write sessions (whenever I get around to it): starting backwards, with the final encounter first. This might seem counter-intuitive, but it makes a lot of sense if you think about it.
One of the hardest things sometimes is coming up with a good villain or answer to a mystery. Come up with that part of it first, and many of the other pieces fall into place.
For example, if you decide you want your villain to be a nefarious Deep One priest, you know from the get-go that Innsmouth is probably a good location. That means you need to figure out how to get your players to Innsmouth, and how they end up meeting this evil priest.
If you’re struggling to start with the final encounter, try to narrow it down to five basic questions:
- Who are they?
- What is their goal?
- How are they trying to achieve their goal?
- Where are they active?
- Why are they doing it? (In other words, what do they stand to gain from achieving their goal?)
Answer these questions, and you’ll have patched together a basic picture of a villain.
Practice making characters over and over again…
As the Keeper, you need to get good at making characters at the drop of a hat. You’ll have to make tons more than your players, after all, in order to populate your campaign.
The first step is having the core rulebook. The one I personally have is the Call of Cthulhu – Seventh Edition Keeper Rulebook.
It’s a gorgeous book that even includes some information on and writing from HP Lovecraft. One thing to keep in mind, in case you’re confused by the title, is that it functions as the core rulebook and a reference for Keepers.
Another fantastic resource is the Investigator’s Handbook. It describes the character creation process in much more detail, providing way more ideas for anyone who’s feeling a little uninspired.
If you’re a visual learner, consider watching instructional videos about character-building, too. One of my favorites is an introductory video that goes over creating characters by Youtuber Don’t Stop Thinking, which I’ve included above.
…but don’t be afraid to use random character generators to help you come up with NPCs.
If there’s anything that can be said about running a campaign, it’s surely that you can’t prepare for every possibility. Your players are always going to go where you don’t want them to, search out NPCs you haven’t created yet, and find solutions you didn’t anticipate.
For situations when you need to quickly draw up an NPC or monster, there are random character generators you can use. I use this Call of Cthulhu monster generator to help me plan out monsters. It’s for an older version, though, so I believe you need to multiply the stats by five to get numbers that fit with seventh edition.
As far as humans go, you can use the aforementioned creature generator, but it’s a little too impersonal, I think. You can borrow character concepts from this library if you need inspiration for an NPC.
If you want something randomized, you can use this character generator, too, but it doesn’t make stats for you – you’ll need do that on your own, if you absolutely need stats. I just like to use it because it helps inspire me when it comes to making personality types and quirks.
Consider getting a Keeper sheet or printing one of your own.
Until you’ve learned the system, remembering all the rules is all but impossible. You’d have to memorize combat interactions, types of rolls players can make, and not to mention a million other things.
Leafing through the thick rulebook every time you have a question, though, can take a really long time. A Keeper sheet or screen is the solution to this problem.
A Keeper sheet is just a paper with some of the most important rules, like how combat works. If you want, rather than printing out sheets, you can consider purchasing a Keeper screen like this screen to prop up around yourself during sessions.
Keeper screens are essentially foldable walls you can put up in front of yourself with some kind of picture on the outside facing your players, and then various interactions and rules printed on the inside for you to review. You could easily make one yourself, if you wanted, but some prefer to buy screens like the aforementioned one.
If you’re playing online through software like Discord, the screen may not be as important, since you won’t need to hide behind it to make rolls or anything. Regardless, it can be nice to have the rules you find yourself asking about most posted somewhere for your quick reference.
Set an ominous atmosphere.
Although a CoC game can be anything you make of it, it’s traditionally a horror-based experience. Players should feel suitably creeped out (and morbidly curious) about the story you’re weaving.
A huge part of that will be storytelling elements. Slowly building a horrific story with creepy elements here and there (a bloody footprint, a feeling of being watched, a forbidden tome, etc.) will certainly help.
But there are other things you can do, too, to enhance the atmosphere. One thing I recommend doing is playing unnerving music or even ambiences in the background. An ambience is a mostly instrumental soundtrack that uses sound elements to create some kind of backdrop, like a cave or a medieval castle.
I really got a lot of use out of this creepy mushroom cave video for one session. There are plenty of other soundscapes to explore, though, based on whatever kind of scene you’re looking for. You could easily find haunted house, graveyard, abandoned town, or library soundscapes.
If you’re playing in person, lighting could certainly help. Playing by candlelight (with enough to see by, of course!) or dimmed lights could immerse your players.
Get feedback from your players and be responsive to it.
Running a campaign in any system is a lot of pressure. You feel like you have to put on a good show for your players, or else they’ll get bored and stop showing up for sessions.
Because it’s such a test of your storytelling skills, being Keeper is something you might be self-conscious about. Asking for feedback might seem awkward and embarrassing.
However, you’re not the only person weaving this story. Your players are, too. It’s important that you work together, rather than thinking you’re on separate teams.
I once played with a DM who used to ask us for feedback at the end of every session. She had a moment at the end of each session where she’d ask each player one by one what their favorite part of the session was, as well as one thing they wished for the campaign in the future.
I think this could be a great system to implement as a Keeper. You’ll learn what your players are enjoying and get ideas for how to improve sessions down the road. You may even get some inspiration for possible story ideas from them.
When all else fails, use Chaosium’s pre-built campaigns to help you run the game until you feel more comfortable.
Still feeling a little overwhelmed about writing your campaign? That’s totally okay! If you’re a brand-new Keeper and you feel completely lost, there are pre-built campaigns you can use.
Imagine them as training wheels. Pre-built campaigns include stories, already-made NPCs, and encounters for you to run for your players. They take all of the struggle out of writing a scenario.
Chaosium has tons for you to choose from. Some are even already included in the rulebook at no additional cost.
If you need more, you can consider purchasing Doors to Darkness, Shadows of Yog-Sothoth, or Dead Light & Other Dark Turns. There are also plenty more available on the Chaosium site.
Being the Keeper in a Call of Cthulhu campaign can definitely be stressful, but it’s a fun game and once you get into it, it will be much easier. Remember, there are so many resources out there for you to utilize if you have any questions or need further help.
One place I turn to for actual demonstrations is YouTube. Don’t Stop Thinking has an amazing introductory series to Call of Cthulhu, which I included a video from earlier. If you’d like to watch the whole series, you can click here for the rest of the CoC introductory videos.
I hope this post helped you out, and I hope your exploration of the dark Lovecraftian mythos is both terrifying and addictive enough to keep your campaign going for as long as you want it to.