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Review: Pulp Cthulhu

Posted: April 19, 2018 by pointyman2000 in Call of Cthulhu, Reviews, Roleplaying Games
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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 Pulps

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.

Pulp Organizations

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.)

Game Systems

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.

Scenarios

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

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Finally we’ve reached the half of the book dedicated to Keepers. At this point, I’ll be switching gears and going over a quick blurb of what to expect on each of the following chapters, rather than going deep into detail as most of it is refinement and advice specific to running the game.

Given that we’re 7 editions into Call of Cthulhu, it’s gotten quite expansive, and there’s a lot of good advice to go around, especially when running for this particular take on the horror genre.

Playing the Game

I happen to like the approach the Call of Cthulhu takes in this chapter, working with the assumption that there will be newbie Keepers trying to run this for the first time. There’s good, common-sense advice included here, from putting a group together, to dealing with unsavory historical elements and setting the mood for a proper horror game.

In addition there’s more specific advice for running Call of Cthulhu, imparting insight to how the system is used, how you can take advantage of Pushing a roll to build tension, and some great stuff on interpreting success and failure in a given skill roll.

The chapter then goes into the details and advice on how to handle Action and Magic, and how to make sure that you build that air of horror into your custom scenarios.

Tomes of Eldritch Lore

This chapter goes into the listing and details involved in the Mythos Tomes. There’s some snappy advice on how to describe Mythos Tomes and the experience of dabbling in their contents, followed by a list of Mythos books, and their attributes, such as the Sanity Loss incurred when studying them, and other details.

Grimoire

As a logical follow up, this chapter lists the various spells for Call of Cthulhu that can be learned through the Mythos Tomes. The spells are all very colorful and quite… disturbing, and you can easily see what kind of insane cultist would consider using (or learning) such powers.

Artifacts and Alien Devices

Being the Cthulhu Mythos, there’s room for both arcane artifacts and strange alien devices used by the various species outside of man. This chapter is full of interesting and flavorful entries of the various items that Investigators might stumble upon on their investigations, or be subject to if they’re ever so unfortunate.

Monsters, Beasts and Alien Gods

Perhaps the favorite chapter of any Keeper, this is the bestiary that gives the stats of all the Mythos beasties from the Mi-Go all the way to The Great Cthulhu himself. It’s also lovingly illustrated (definitely a plus!)

At a certain point the numbers on the various Deities of the Cthulhu Mythos are somewhat overwhelming as some stats hit 3(!) digits when it comes to their values. Needless to say when an Investigator comes up against The Great Cthulhu himself, you might as well give up on any hope of a direct confrontation.

Scenarios

The book ends with two scenarios that the Keeper can run right out of the box. A part of me laments the fact that The Haunting is no longer here (It’s now part of the Call of Cthulhu 7th Edition Quickstart) but it does introduce two new scenarios to try. Both of these are fairly extensive, and are set in the default 1920’s era.

Each is complete with the kind of thorough scenario data that CoC is famous for, from NPCs to maps and timelines, all of which help the investigators put the clues together.

Appendices

The book wraps up with helpful appendices from items and weapons lists, a glossary and even rules summaries of the key mechanics for the entire game. Finally there are two sets of character sheets one for the 1920’s and one for modern Call of Cthulhu scenarios.

Review

While my experience with Call of Cthulhu was initially as a player with the 6th Edition (and the amazing Masks of Nyarlathotep Campaign), the new 7th Edition was the one that I really bought into as a Keeper.

As I understand it, a lot of older Keepers might prefer the older version, but I find 7th Edition to be a great entry level product for a new Keeper. The book takes the time to walk you through each of their design choices and provides a lot of great advice on how to use each of the mechanics provided to deliver a genuine horror experience.

The art and layout of the book is flavorful, and easy enough to read. The full page and two-page spread color artwork is fantastic, and I deliberately avoided posting those here as to not spoil the surprise.

Call of Cthulhu is a veritable cultural institution in the hobby. While D&D might dominate the Fantasy RPG space, you would be doing yourself a disservice by not getting into Call of Cthulhu.

When done right, the payoff for well run Call of Cthulhu scenario is priceless.

You can pick up a PDF copy of the Call of Cthulhu Keeper’s Rulebook from DriveThruRPG for only $27.95


magic

Unlike many fantasy RPGs, magic is not something to be taken lightly in Call of Cthulhu. Most of the time, Investigators will find themselves on the receiving end of the weird and dangerous powers used by the cultists and minions they’ll encounter.

What is Magic?

Call of Cthulhu goes into surprisingly interesting detail on the nature of Mythos Magic, and how H.P. Lovecraft came to describe them. The “universal” nature of it is a sign of how it works on a greater reality than the feeble minds of mankind can ever truly understand.

Learning Magic

Often, Magic is learned through study of Mythos Tomes. While the study of such things is the province of the mad, often, Investigators find themselves having to resort to the study of Mythos Tomes out of sheer desperation.

Of course, nobody usually keeps such things in easily digestible formats. Often written by mad scribes and such, the tomes require a great deal of effort to obtain, preserve, translate and study.

Reading Mythos Books

Reading (and studying) Mythos Books is a tricky process, and Call of Cthulhu offers an option to do an Initial Reading of the text, and a Full Study. Initial Readings are faster but not without risk, a successful reading roll gives an idea of the contents of the book but still incurs Sanity loss! Success also means gaining greater insight to the Mythos.

A Full Reading is a process that takes months as it involves careful research and study. No roll is usually necessary for this, but again, Sanity Loss is inevitable. This study grants much more insight to the Mythos, and may occasionally impart additional skills.

Spells

Mythos Tomes also contain spells that the Investigators may choose to study and learn. Once learned through the books, they can actually go teach each other how to cast it. Learning Mythos Spells doesn’t incur Sanity Loss. That happens when casting them.

Casting Spells

As mentioned above, casting spells takes a toll on the caster’s sanity. However, it doesn’t rely on Sanity as a cost. Instead, the spell consumes Magic Points, a resource determined by an Investigator’s POW stat.

This is on top of all the other requirements of the spell such as strange reagents and long-winded chanting and ceremonies necessary to enact them.

Call of Cthulhu continues it’s trend of making everything risky and dangerous, players should always feel like their Investigators are on the edge of peril, and the magic system ties in wonderfully into it. The Mythos Tomes are a source of possible salvation or damnation, with spells that could save their lives, or drive them to madness.

Few games have ever managed to pull off that moment where the player is cursing himself for having to learn magic, knowing full well that he’ll probably get shafted, but does it anyway because anything is better than nothing when dealing with the Mythos!


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Today we’ll be taking a look at the mechanic that pretty much made Call of Cthulhu unique: Sanity and Sanity Loss.

But before that, it’s important to note that Sanity as it is portrayed in Call of Cthulhu is not meant to simulate real-world psychological trauma. Instead, it helps to view it as an approximation of how H.P. Lovecraft’s protagonists react in the face of horrifying sights and terrible creatures.

Sanity as Mental Resilience

Mechanics-wise, sanity is your “mental HP” as your Investigator is hammered with encounters involving the horrifying and alien, they are often called to make Sanity Rolls. These checks determine if the character is able to lessen the blow of the Sanity Loss, or takes a bigger hit.

Taking Sanity Loss is a dicey proposition at best, with successively more dire consequences depending on the amount lost and in how short an amount of time. The effects range from involuntary actions, to temporary insanity to being reduced to a permanently insane individual.

Effects of Insanity

As described above, there are a LOT of different things that can happen to an Investigator. Some of these might even mean temporarily surrendering control of an Investigator to a Keeper, or altering background details of an Investigator with irrational entries.

After a bout of madness, the player regains control of the Investigator but now usually has some sort of underlying madness still present. This means that the Investigator may yet slip into more outward manifestations of it should their fragile psyche be bombarded with another mind-blasting encounter.

Recovery

Thankfully, there are ways to arrest Sanity Loss. Temporary Insanity is resolved with some peace and quiet and decent rest. More… persistent forms of Insanity require Institutionalization.

The Sanity Mechanic is perhaps one of the greatest claims to fame of Call of Cthulhu as a system. While other games have different takes on sanity these days, Call of Cthulhu’s system is elegant in play, and the random nature of how much sanity you lose in an encounter keeps things unpredictable.

In many ways, Call of Cthulhu’s ruleset may be a bit old, but the 7th Edition retains much of what made it interesting in the first place. The mechanics enforce the classic elements of horror: Helplessness, Lack of Knowledge about the Enemy and Fragility, which make it very potent in play.

If you’d like to read along, you can pick up a PDF copy of the Call of Cthulhu Keeper’s Rulebook from DriveThruRPG for only $27.95


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One of the more interesting details I’ve come to realize about Call of Cthulhu is that running away is a completely valid means of managing a situation. It stands to reason then that Call of Cthulhu should have mechanical backbone to support it.

I don’t think I’ve seen this much mechanical emphasis on chases in another game outside of Spycraft, which is another genre that highlights the value of a well run chase scene as a source of conflict and tension.

Mechanically, Chases are handled with a more involved turn-by-turn system that works by establishing relative speeds, relative positions, obstacles and rules governing actions taken during the chase scene that could result in injury or capture.

Tracking is handled on a linear track, as opposed to a grid map. I actually prefer this method as it saves on table space while still being able to keep track of where everyone is.

Beyond this is a large number of optional rules that cover everything from passengers, collisions and sudden hazards and obstacles. It’s extensive, and I’m glad that there’s a lot of them there in case you’ll need something that you didn’t expect like air and sea chases, or even mixed chases.

Few things capture the nature of primal terror better than watching someone try to outrun near-certain death. Horror movie moments aren’t made from the protagonist kicking ass, but pulling off narrow escapes. Call of Cthulhu acknowledges this by giving systems that cover this conflict with the kind of attention it deserves.

If you’d like to read along, you can pick up a PDF copy of the Call of Cthulhu Keeper’s Rulebook from DriveThruRPG for only $27.95