Disclosure: The PDF copy of Pulp Cthulhu that I’m reviewing today is a review copy that I was able to receive from the fine people of Chaosium Inc.
Now here’s a game that a lot of people have wanted for quite some time now. Pulp Cthulhu is a more heroic take on the classic Call of Cthulhu game, with Heroes possessed of more advantages and abilities that make them better than the normal Investigator, and yet still vulnerable when facing the horrors of the Cthulhu Mythos.
Along with it are a host of Pulp tropes common to the genre: Weird Science, Mesmerism and Daring Deeds… all of which add that delightfully weird pulp twist to the classic horror angle. Of course, the game is not without it’s terrifying antagonists, against the Heroes are villainous cults, alien horrors and outlandish monsters.
Pulp Cthulhu also pushes the setting towards the 1930’s and all the changes that go with it. As with any Call of Cthulhu Product, the research on this and the details they’re able to provide the Keeper with are remarkable and I can run a game with full confidence in the 30’s knowing that I have access to all that information. It’s a splendid reference for the era that can serve as a sturdy reference for any game set in the age.
The book opens up with a thorough discussion of the Pulps as literature. Its roots in the 1930’s and the various genres that were prominent in the era were highlighted. Of course, the chapter then zooms in to focus on the horror genre, which definitely left quite the impression as evidenced by the enduring love for the Lovecraftian horror to this day.
Creating Pulp Heroes
Pulp Cthulhu adds several new mechanics atop the standard Investigator character creation system to produce Heroes. Among them is choosing a Pulp Archetype, which bestows a Core Attribute that the character specializes in, additional Skill Points to distribute to skills that belong to the Archetype, and access to special Talents.
These Pulp Talents provide small mechanical advantages to a Hero beyond that of just simple increases to Attributes and Skills. These aren’t “super-powers” by any stretch of the imagination as much as edges that the Hero possesses. An example would be Night Vision, which reduces the difficulty of Spot Hidden rolls in the dark, and deducts a Penalty Die when firing a weapon in the dark.
Heroes also differ from Investigators in that they’re much hardier, with their Hit Points being double the number of Hit Points of a standard Investigator!
The character creation section also features a hearty selection of Pulp-themed Occupations that you can use including Gangster and Big Game Hunter.
This caught me quite by surprise. While it was a Pulp staple, the idea of having organizations in a Cthulhu game was a surprise to me. This is because of how I’ve associated Call of Cthulhu as a game of isolation and lack of resources. Helplessness was the order of the day.
Adding organizations that give a structure and backup for the Heroes do fit very well, and I believe I felt a little tingle in my World of Darkness heart at the thought of being part of a *cough* conspiracy that knows the truth.
Sample Heroic and villainous organizations are introduced in Pulp Cthulhu, and they’re very well written. Each one has a ton of plot hooks and can very well support a campaign on their own (something, I believe that is done with The Two-Headed Serpent campaign for Pulp Cthulhu.)
This is the meat and potatoes of Pulp Cthulhu. Included here are new ways to spend Luck in order to buy Pulp-style harm avoidance, or resisting Sanity Loss. In line with this, they also introduce rules that allow for Heroes to survive near impossible odds. Rules such as the Major Wound from Call of Cthulhu are ignored, resulting in characters capable of much more in combat.
Mook rules are also introduced, and are average statted thugs that go down when they take damage equal to half their hit points. Rounding this chapter off is a selection of Optional Rules such as dual wielding weapons (like twin pistols, just like the Pulps!) and other combat-related tweaks.
Pulp Sanity is also covered in it’s own chapter, and it looks like the Heroes are still vulnerable to being driven insane. The most interesting aspect introduced would be the optional Insane Talents, which become available once a character suffers sanity loss. These are high-risk, high-reward talents that are added to the hero after it is first revealed. It’s a neat mechanic, and I’m eager to see it in play.
Pulp Magic, Psychic Powers and Weird Science!
Among the chapters of the game this was perhaps the one I wanted to check out the most. In many ways, this was perhaps the part that would pretty much push Call of Cthulhu towards strange new vectors given what Heroes could do that Investigators could not.
I won’t go into too much detail here as to not spoil anything but the team did a great job in presenting tweaks to the magic system, and introducing psychic powers and gadgets that played up the mood of the Pulps without turning it into something like Deadlands.
While some of the Psychic Powers can certainly cut investigations short, the fact that you’re exposing your mind to potentially terrifying trauma is a very expensive trade-off.
Running Pulp Games, The 1930’s and Villains
Never one to let the Keepers run unprepared, Chaosium continues their excellent support for new Keepers with three chapters aimed solely to address their needs. As a non-US citizen and having never been to the US, this is a godsend, as it helps flesh out details that I wouldn’t have gleaned through watching period movies.
Finally the book wraps up with four solid scenarios that cleave to the Pulps that inspired them while still having that familiar weird horror sting of the Cthulhu Mythos. Each one is splendidly detailed (perhaps intimidatingly so) but with careful study, Keepers should be able to pull off some very memorable pulp games.
Review and Conclusion
Pulp Cthulhu is one of those products that could very easily have been done wrong. It’s a genre full of easy cop-outs and shortcuts, but Chaosium stuck to their guns and delivered on all fronts.
Players get to play Heroes rather than “ordinary” investigators, and there’s a boatload of optional rules to make the game interesting. But it never loses sight of the fact that you’re still up against the Cthulhu Mythos.
You might be able to confront the creatures of the mythos to some extent, but Pulp Cthulhu only promises that you can go down swinging rather than screaming and that’s not a bad thing.
You can order a hardcover copy of Pulp Cthulhu over at Chaosium for $44.95 (plus shipping)
DrivethruRPG also sells the PDF for $22.50