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Sunday, 12 March 2017

Pulp Cthulhu II

Fifteen years after it was first announced and released as part of the successful, if protracted, Kickstarter campaign for Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition, Pulp Cthulhu: Two-fisted Action and Adventure Against the Mythos finally saw print and was in our hands in 2016. Although two previous roleplaying games stole the march on it—Trail of Cthulhu in 2008 from Pelgrane Press with its Pulp mode and the 2009 Realms of Cthulhu from Reality Blurs with its use of the inherently Pulpy Savage Worlds mechanics—Pulp Cthulhu is the first supplement to really give rules and guidance for running Pulp actions games for Call of Cthulhu, even if for Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition instead of the original Call of Cthulhu, Fifth Edition. It is also the first supplement for Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition, following on from the two scenario anthologies, Doors to Darkness: Five Scenarios for Beginning Keepers and Nameless Horrors: Six Reasons to Fear the Unknown.

Pulp Cthulhu is a supplement designed to bring the action and the tone of the Pulps to Lovecraftian investigative roleplaying. It provides rules and mechanics for enhanced investigators and gives both them and the villains they face access to psychic powers, weird science, and even magic in their dealings with the eldritch horror of the Cthulhu Mythos. It also gives a guide to the Pulps and the means for the Keeper to set the degree of Pulp that he wants in his game. Notably, it moves Call of Cthulhu out of its traditional setting of the Jazz Age of the 1920s and into the Desperate Decade of the 1930s. Besides all this, Pulp Cthulhu includes four scenarios ready to drop the Pulp investigators into the action (and the investigation)!

The starting point for Pulp Cthulhu is of course, the Pulps, the cheap magazines of the 1920s and 1930s that contained fast and spicy tales of adventure and mystery involving bigger-than-life heroes, pretty girls and femme fatales, far away exotic places, and strange and mysterious villains who could cheat death as often as the heroes. Such heroes, whether adventurers, detectives, cowboys, explorers, guns-for-hire, or spacemen were at least stalwart men and women, if not out and out gifted with strange powers that would give them the edge necessary to defeat their foes. They at least had to be able to take a punch or two, be able to survive the odd death-trap, and have their fair share of luck… Which is very much a challenge in Call of Cthulhu—even in Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition where an optional rule allows investigators to spend Luck points to succeed and push their skill rolls and attempt an action again with possible consequences shifts the game towards a Pulp sensibility and enhances the possibility of investigator success (and potentially, the possibility of their survival). Despite this, Call of Cthulhu is still very much an RPG in which the investigators are ordinary men and women confronting the true nature of the universe and perhaps holding it at bay—if only temporarily.

Throughout Pulp Cthulhu, the Keeper is given option after option to adjust just how much Pulp he wants in his game. By turning up or down the ‘Pulp-o-meter’, the Keeper can determine if the investigators are heroes, have access to Talents, how much a player can spend in terms of his investigator’s Luck points—and on what. The ‘Pulp-o-meter’ has three basic settings—Low, Mid, and High Pulp. The Low Pulp setting is on par with the default mechanics in Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition (thus confirming its slight Pulp leanings with the addition of the optional Luck spend rule); the Mid Pulp setting is the default setting for Pulp Cthulhu; and High Pulp turns on every option in Pulp Cthulhu for high drama and action.

The starting point for the players is of course their characters or investigators. Below is what an investigator looks like in standard Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition. In fact, this is my last investigator. Designed as dilettante, he is not intended to be a particularly good at anything, oblivious, and well-mannered. Essentially, he wandered into the scenario because it seemed rude to say no.

Bartholomew ‘Chudders’ Herman Chudwell,
age 28, Dilettante (Something in the City)

STR 65 SIZ 70 CON 65 DEX 75
APP 75 INT 50 POW 75 EDU 90
SAN 68 Luck 75 Damage Bonus +1d4 Build 1
Move 7 HP 13

Firearms (Rifle/Shotgun) 45%
Brawl 45% (22/11), damage 1D3+db, or by weapon type
Dodge 47% (23/11)
Skills: Art/Craft (Dancing) 25%, Charm 65%, Climb 30%, Credit Rating 80%, Drive Auto 60%, Fast Talk 55%, First Aid 40%, History 45%, Mechanical Repair 30%, Navigate 20%, Ride 15%, Stealth 30%, Swim 25%, Throw 40%
Languages: Other Language (German) 41%, Other Language (Latin) 41%, Own Language (English) 90%

Investigator generation in Pulp Cthulhu is based upon the same mechanics as given in Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition, but adds several steps to the process. This process involves not the creation of investigators, but of heroes, for player characters in Pulp Cthulhu are intended to be exactly that—heroic, larger-than-life, and this is reflected in the rules. The first of these is to have the player choose an Archetype, such as Adventurer, Bon Vivant, Dreamer, Egghead, Hard Boiled, Mystic, Sidekick, Thrill seeker, and so on. Each Archetype defines a core attribute which will always be fourteen or more, grants points to spend on a set pool of skills, and suggests the number of Talents and suitable personality Traits that the archetype can possess. The other noticeable changes to hero generation include the effective doubling of Hit Points, the selection of Talents, and the possibility of an investigator possessing Psychic powers and skills. Divided into four categories—Physical, Mental, Combat, and Miscellaneous—Talents can be selected or rolled for, but they are all fairly simple in their effect. For example, Quick Healer improves a hero’s natural healing rate by three Hit Points per day; Arcane Insight halves the time required to learn spells and grants a Bonus die to spell casting rolls; Rapid Attack can gain a hero an extra attack if he spends ten Luck points; and Shadow reduces the difficulty or grants a Bonus die to Stealth rolls as well as allowing the hero to make two surprise attacks before his location is discovered if he is currently unseen.

So for example, in the case of Bartholomew ‘Chudders’ Herman Chudwell—“Yes, Herman is my middle name. Pater could have married a rich American, bagged himself a bally German instead. Sorry.”—as a Dilettante, an appropriate Archetype is the Dreamer. The core attribute for this is Power, he can have two Talents, one of which it is suggested should be Strong Willed. This grants him a Bonus die on all Power rolls. Since ‘Chudders’ has had to take a pre-set Talent, his player’s Keeper lets him choose one of his own. In this case, his player gives ‘Chudders’ the Lucky Talent, which means that he gains an additional +1D10 Luck points when Luck Recovery rolls are made.

Bartholomew ‘Chudders’ Herman Chudwell,
Age: 28
Archetype: Dreamer
Occupation: Dilettante (Something in the City)

STR 65 SIZ 70 CON 65 DEX 75
APP 75 INT 50 POW 90 EDU 90
SAN 90 Luck 75 Damage Bonus +1d4 Build 1
Move 7 HP 27

Firearms (Rifle/Shotgun) 55% (22/11)
Brawl 45% (22/11), damage 1D3+db, or by weapon type
Dodge 47% (23/11)
Skills: Art/Craft (Dancing) 45%, Charm 80%, Climb 30%, Credit Rating 85%, Drive Auto 65%, Dodge 47%, Fast Talk 25%, History 40%, Mechanical Repair 55%, Natural World 30%, Ride 15%, Stealth 30%, Swim 25%, Throw 40%
Languages: Other Language (German) 41%, Other Language (Latin) 41%, Own Language (English) 90%
Talents: Strong Willed, Lucky

So having adapted a previously played investigator, here is a hero who has been created with the Pulp Cthulhu rules in mind. This a combination of the Mystic Archetype with the Occultist Occupation, which gives a hero access to the Psychic Talents and if the Keeper allows it, to the Cthulhu Mythos skill—and this during investigator generation. Swami Hrishikesh is not a genuine Swami—or Hindu scholar—but a fake, an ex-British Army deserter turned con man who discovered that he has a real gift when it comes to the occult and the unknown. Hence the Disguise skill as well as the high Persuade skill. What this shows is how a combination of Archetype, Occupation, and Talents can be used to build classic Pulp character types. So combine the Outsider Archetype with the Drifter or Tribal Member Occupation and the Animal Companion and you can do a Tarzan-style hero or the Swashbuckler Archetype with the Aviator Occupation plus the Gadget Talent and you have Cliff Secord (with a rocket pack!).

Swami Hrishikesh
Age: 28
Archetype: Mystic
Occupation: Occultist

STR 50 SIZ 65 CON 40 DEX 80
APP 45 INT 70 POW 85 EDU 80
SAN 85 Luck 65 Damage Bonus None Build 0
Move 8 HP 27

Brawl 55% (27/11), damage 1D3+db, or by weapon type
Dodge 50% (25/10)
Skills: Anthropology 36%, Credit Rating 20%, Disguise 45%, History 55%, Hypnosis 21%, Occult 60%, Persuade 70%, Psychic Power (Medium) 65%, Psychology 40%, Psychoanalysis 31%, Science (Astronomy) 56%, Sleight of Hand 30%, Stealth 40%
Languages: Other Language (Hindi) 56%, Own Language (English) 80%
Talent: Psychic Power (Medium), Shadow

Pulp Cthulhu makes some changes to how certain skills work. It allows scientist and inventor characters to take the Computer Use skill, though the exact function of the skill will need to be determined by the Keeper. Notably, it gives more proactive ways in which the Cthulhu Mythos skills can be used, whether that is causing direct harm to another (essentially imposing your knowledge of how the universe actually works on someone), banishing monsters, communing with the dead, creating a physical ward, or temporarily understanding a Mythos language. Both Hypnosis and Psychoanalysis become means of alleviating emotional and mental trauma in others, while Hypnosis can be used to implant post-hypnotic suggestions, aid recollection or concentration, alleviate pain, and even freeze a target. What this represents is a broadening of these skills to reflect a Pulp sensibility whereas a Purist setting would adhere to more strictly defined applications of such skills.

In terms of the game system, Pulp Cthulhu remains a percentile system derived from RuneQuest and the Basic Roleplay System, but it pushes certain elements already present in Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition to achieve its intended Pulp sensibility. Most of these involve the expenditure of Luck. In previous editions of Call of Cthulhu, Luck was a derived value, but in Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition it became an attribute all of its own and as an option, could be spent to ensure that player could make a roll. In Pulp Cthulhu this is a standard rule rather than an option, and further, a player is free to expend his investigator’s Luck on an array of effects. These include ‘Adjusting Weapon Fumble or Firearm Malfunction Outcomes’, ‘Avoiding Certain Death’, ‘Avoiding Unconsciousness’, ‘Halving Sanity Loss’, and ‘It’s Only a Scratch’. This is in addition to the various Talents that cost Luck to use. The combination of more skill points during hero generation and being able to spend Luck points increases a hero’s success rate in any action. Of course, Luck is only a finite resource, but whereas in standard Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition, it is a finite resource from scenario to scenario, in Pulp Cthulhu, it is a finite resource from session to session because Luck can be recovered at the beginning of each gaming session rather than possibly at the end of a scenario.

Combat in Pulp Cthulhu begins with the removal of Major Wounds in Pulp Cthulhu and a faster healing rate, further indication of investigator resilience. In Pulp Cthulhu, heroes can more easily knock out an opponent, while if all else fails, they can go out in Blaze of Glory when faced with certain death. Their opposition receives some changes too. Mooks can be taken down with ease allowing the heroes to focus on the villains, but some NPCs can spend Luck just like heroes can. Theirs is a finite resource though and the most notable thing a villain can spend it on is ‘Look Out Master!’ in which he can sacrifice a mook in order to avoid taking damage that would kill him. Further options for action and combat and so adjusting the ‘Pulp-o-meter’ include more detailed Dodge rules, dual-wielding weapons, being able to recover from Indefinite Sanity, fighting under the influence of alcohol, and so on.

At their most base, the Sanity mechanics in Pulp Cthulhu remain the same as Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition. Heroes can still go indefinitely insane and before will suffer a bout of madness, followed by an extended period of latent insanity. A hero can still suffer a bout of madness if he suffers further sanity loss whilst insane, but in Pulp Cthulhu, such bouts of madness are larger than life. Further though, and if the Keeper allows it, a hero might gain an Insane Talent, a Talent triggered by the circumstances that cause the Bout of Madness. These Insane Strength, Insane Driver, Insanely Intimidating, and so on. In each case the investigator gains a Bonus die to the appropriate action, but there are often severe consequences if the hero fails. Whilst there is no penalty to using such Talents whilst insane, using them when actually sane incurs a sanity loss.

When it comes to magic in Pulp Cthulhu, Mythos tomes are easier to read, it takes hours rather than weeks to learn a spell, and once an investigator has successfully cast it once, he need never roll to cast it again. (Magic casting investigators will probably come into their own with the release of The Grand Grimoire of Cthulhu Mythos Magic, a collection of every spell and spell name published since 1981.) As an option and with the right Talents, some characters—hero, NPC, or villain—can possess psychic powers. The five given include Clairvoyance, Divination, Medium, Psychometry, and Telekinesis. All five require the use of Magic Points to use. Other Pulp roleplaying games allow weird science, but Pulp Cthulhu gets to do Mythos-weird science, but how it works is best decided upon by the Keeper according to how the ‘Pulp-o-meter’ is set. The Weird Science Talent is really needed to get the most out the otherwise straightforward rules for gadgeteering, but the rules allow the Egghead and Grease Monkey Archetypes to build gadgets and several examples and what is needed to create them are given.

To support Keeper and player alike, Pulp Cthulhu provides a good introduction to the Pulps, devotes a whole chapter to detailing the thirties, and gives three sample hero organisations, including the Vanguard Club, a society of explorers and adventurers with a branch in Arkham, and Department 29, a fledgling office of the Bureau of Investigation that looks into cult activities. Three evil cabals are detailed for the Keeper’s eyes and these are supplemented by a dozen Pulp villains and their entourages. These include a mix of Pulp standards—criminal mastermind, ancient oriental criminal mastermind, inhuman scientist, and so on, but they have been given a Mythos twist, whether they are secretly cultists or things of the Mythos. Accompanying the villains is a small grimoire of spells, including Cloak Of Fire, Deflect Harm, and Vanish, specifically for their use and so give them a few powers that put them further apart from the heroes.

Pulp Cthulhu gives the Keeper a whole chapter of advice of his own. This examines Pulp plots in light of Lovecraft’s fiction, for example, exploring ‘At the Mountains of Madness’ as an Adventure/Quest plot, as well as Pulp themes, scenario hooks, reoccurring villains, cliffhangers, MacGuffins, and more. It makes an important point that with the strengthening of the investigators into heroes with more Hit Points, higher skills, Talents, and the encouragement to spend Luck points, then the opposition, including Mythos opposition should likewise be strengthened to present more of a threat and more of a challenge. That said, even the most Sanity-sapping of encounters still present a major threat to the heroes and the Keeper is encouraged to grant greater rewards in terms of Sanity gain if the heroes are successful.

Rounding out Pulp Cthulhu are four scenarios. These begin with ‘The Disintegrator’, written as an introductory Pulp Cthulhu scenario. Set at lonely coastal hotel in New England, the heroes are hired to gatecrash the auction of a potentially deadly device that could upset the post-Great War balance of power. As interested parties—both mundane and otherworldly—express a desire to obtain the device and it is seen in operation, fog falls and mayhem ensues. This can either be a showdown, a brawl, or more likely, a shootout in the mist. What ‘The Disintegrator’ showcases is the lack of subtlety to Lovecraftian investigative horror in Pulp Cthulhu and really the heroes should be throwing themselves into both the story and the action to get the most out of the scenario.

Where ‘The Disintegrator’ traps everyone onsite with the fog, ‘Waiting for the Hurricane’ does it with a tropical storm, though this time in Key West rather than New England. This scenario ups the action with the heroes having to race back and forth across the island as cultists use the cover of oncoming storm to go about their murderous purpose. This scenario does not quite run on rails, but its plotting is linear and there is relatively little room—in terms of plot and geography—for the heroes to manoeuvre. Plus, the Keeper is encouraged to bring the action to the heroes if they try to avoid it or take other actions.

Both ‘The Disintegrator’ and ‘Waiting for the Hurricane’ have plots that take place along relatively straight lines, but the third scenario, ‘Pandora’s Box’ opens up into more of a sandbox. Like ‘The Disintegrator’ it involves a MacGuffin with multiple interested parties, this time all wanting to take possession of what is rumoured to be the actual Pandora’s Box of legend. Not only are the heroes free to go where they want, they are also free to follow up the clues as they want, ‘Pandora’s Box’ involves more clues and investigation than the previous scenarios. In fact, it is much less action-orientated and potentially even involves a visit to a library. It even plays out a little like a murder mystery as a rash of disappearances and deaths run throughout the scenario, but above all the MacGuffin plays a big role in scenario and the Keeper will have some fun with said MacGuffin as well as the meaty cast of Pulp NPCs.

The last scenario is ‘A Slow Boat to China’, which takes place aboard the SS President Coolidge as it sails between San Francisco and Shanghai. Unfortunately, instead of travelling far away to confront the Mythos—though the scenario could well be used for that purpose, that is, to get the heroes from A to B—the Mythos is already aboard when the heroes set sail. Depending upon their social class, the heroes get to travel in style, but may need to step back and forth across the strict class segregation lines aboard ship as they investigate a disappearance and a possible suicide. This scenario is primarily event driven, these pushing both the heroes’ investigation and the plot towards its climax.  There are notes on how to turn the scenario up high on the ‘Pulp-o-meter’, but again there is not much room for deviation from the plot, but it is more understandable given that the scenario mostly takes place aboard a ship in the midst of the Pacific.

What marks all four scenarios out as different to traditional Call of Cthulhu scenarios is how they emphasis action over investigation. This is no bad thing since it is a hallmark of the Pulp genre, but three of the four scenarios feel constrained by their design that sets them in limited areas and two involve MacGuffins that everyone wants, so it does not feel as if the four are presenting the full possibilities of the Pulp genre. Further, in and of themselves, they do not feel particularly Pulpy. In the main, it will be up to the heroes to really bring the Pulp genre to them beyond the degree of action each scenario involves. That said, they are decent scenarios and with some effort they could be dialed back down to run with standard Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition.

Physically, Pulp Cthulhu matches the quality of the recent published scenario anthology, Doors to Darkness: Five Scenarios for Beginning Keepers. It is full colour, the layout is clean, the range of artwork is good, and above all, it looks professional. That said, the book could have been slightly better organised to keep the material suitable for the players and the material for the Keeper’s eyes apart. As it is, the order of the book’s content does not necessarily flow from one chapter to another. Another issue is with the artwork is in the scenarios, which places the thumbnail portraits of the NPCs in each scenario all together in a box. This hampers their use as handouts—single portraits would be much easier for the Keeper to use.

The publication of Pulp Cthulhu allows something else beyond pushing Lovecraftian investigative horror into the Pulps and the 1930s. It allows a Keeper to re-examine some of the great Call of Cthulhu campaigns of the past in light of Pulp Cthulhu. Classic campaigns such as Masks of Nyarlathotep and Day of the Beast are renowned for their Pulp leanings. Even though both are set in the 1920s, there is nothing to stop the Keeper running both using the Pulp Cthulhu rules. Doubtless there are others suitable for such an adaptation.

What is clear from Pulp Cthulhu is that it is an extension of the Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition mechanics given how Pulp Cthulhu places Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition akin to the Low Pulp setting on the ‘Pulp-o-meter’. Further, it suggests how much effort would have been needed to push Call of Cthulhu, Sixth Edition—and earlier editions—up on to even the lowest rung of the ‘Pulp-o-meter’. Even so Pulp Cthulhu does still have to do some work in order to push Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition even further up the ‘Pulp-o-meter’ and although it is the Keeper who sets the ‘Pulp-o-meter’, the players will be ones applying it through their Luck spends. The result of that work is as effective as it could be without radically redesigning Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition. Pulp Cthulhu provides the means for investigators to be bigger-than-life, withstand a punch or six, withstand a shot or three, even cheat death as they go fist to tentacle, spell to spell, and mind against the unknown in confronting the Mythos. In doing so, Pulp Cthulhu: Two-fisted Action and Adventure Against the Mythos turns up the action and the threat to turn Lovecraftian investigative horror into Lovecraftian heroic horror.