Tabletop RPG Review: Pulp Cthulhu

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Pulp Cthulhu is an interesting development.  Though H.P. Lovecraft was writing for what were essentially Pulp magazines and occasionally works in some Pulp-type themes, I don’t really think of Cosmic Horror as being especially Pulpy.  No strong-jawed heroes punching Nazis.  No mystical adventurers working occult powers to fight mad scientists and giant robots.  However, from its very beginning the Call of Cthulhu tabletop RPG has oscillated between more Lovecraftian Cosmic Horror and Pulp Adventure.  Due in part to the nature of tabletop RPGs, the game often assumes multiple characters, some level of action and guns blazing, and big, dramatic conclusions.  Certainly the published campaigns like Masks of Nyarlathotep and Shadows of Yog-Sothoth lean much further into Pulp than into what you might expect from Lovecraft.  With this book, Chaosium has given Keepers and players the tools to lean fully into Pulp.

This is not a complete, stand-alone book.  You’ll need the Keeper Rulebook.  Maybe you could get away with just having the Starter Kit, but the Keeper Rulebook is probably best.  These are supplemental rules meant to build on or occasionally replace elements of the core 7th Edition rules.  The default era is the 1930s, as opposed to the usual 1920s, and of course it can be adapted to other times if it is so desired.

There are many reasons you might want to use the rules in this book.  Call of Cthulhu is legendarily deadly.  Basic Role-Playing (the core mechanic) is a game with a much more deadly combat system than some other games, like Dungeons & Dragons.  In BRP games, you’re always a lucky dagger stab away from death.  With Call of Cthulhu, the old adage (true or not) was if your characters aren’t dead or insane by the end of the night, you’re not doing it right.   Pulp Cthulhu lets you create characters with a bit more staying power.  They can take and give more punches, might have some stronger psyches, and could even have special ‘powers.’

There are suggestions for adventuring organizations, weird science, psychic powers, and more.  The tone of the game is more reminiscent of The Shadow or The Phantom than of The Color out of Space or The Repairer of Reputations.  The book also has a lot of info on the 1930s, which certainly have a different tone than the 1920s.  Not only is there a global depression, but the Dust Bowl rages and the winds of World War II are rising.

Pulp Cthulhu also contains four sample scenarios.  The Disintegrator reminds me of the old scenario The Auction, though it has some twists of its own.  I don’t really love it as written, but there are a lot of parts I like quite a bit, and I could see myself raiding this for parts.  The titular disintegrator could be a wonderful bit of weird tech to put into the hands of my heroes to see what they do with it and where it leads them.  I have similar feelings about Waiting for the Hurricane, which could certainly make a good one-shot, but also might be cool to weave elements of into an ongoing game.  Though I’d likely modify it heavily.  I found Pandora’s Box to be pretty intriguing.  It’s pretty convoluted and has a lot of moving pieces, so it might be a challenge to run, but it also seems like it could be a lot of fun.  It could be a great start to an ongoing game, especially if you want to mix in organized crime and such.  Also, the titular box could make for a very cool McGuffin in an ongoing story.  I might change a bit of its nature, making what it does more stable and consistent, but it’s got a lot of potential.  Likewise, A Slow Boat to China could be a great start to a campaign or even be woven into an ongoing story with a few tweaks.  If your PCs have some reason to be traveling to Asia, you might consider dropping this in to give them a nasty bump on the road.  My only real complaint here is that there aren’t pregenerated characters for the scenarios.  I think that anytime you produce a scenario that is potentially a one-shot, you should provide pregenerated characters that are appropriate for the scenario. 

The Cosmic Horror of classic Call of Cthulhu is more appropriate for one-shots and limited campaigns.  For something more open-ended or on the long side, Pulp Cthulhu might be just the thing.  I’m planning to run the Pulp Cthulhu campaign A Cold Fire Within soon.  But I’m also leaning very heavily toward the idea of running Masks of Nyarlathotep with the Pulp rules.  Not only because it’ll give the players a better chance of keeping their characters alive, but because the campaign itself has so many strong Pulp themes and ideas (that danged rocket, man).

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