Saturday, September 8, 2018

Pulp Cthulhu

It's been a while since I posted here, but now it's time to blow off the dust and add some new content.  As I posted back in December, we spent the first part of the year playing through The Enemy Within campaign for Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay 3rd Edition. It had it's high points, some neat set pieces and more than a few problems, but overall it was a fun time.

Now we've returned to Call of Cthulhu, or more specifically (the ENnie Award Winning)  Pulp Cthulhu to play through the Two Headed Serpent Campaign.  I'll shortly begin a chapter by chapter review, as I did with Horror on the Orient Express.

Before I get into it, I thought I might start with a few reflections on Pulp Cthulhu itself.  First, the obvious - it's a beautiful book, brimming with content and ideas.  A worthy purchase for any Keeper, even if Pulp isn't to your taste.

At a more detailed look, Pulp Cthulhu sells itself thus:

"Tired of your investigators dying in quick succession when jaunting around the world in a desperate bid to save humanity? Wishing that sometimes your investigator could make a stand instead of hiding and waiting for the eldritch horror to pass? Pulp Cthulhu ups the ante and provides you with tougher, more capable heroes—ready to take on the villainous machinations of the Cthulhu Mythos!"

In my view, the core Call of Cthulhu System is focussed on investigation and sanity mechanics.  Other things, like combat, are serviceable but not really intended to be the meat of the game-playing experience.  To meet the pitch set out above, Pulp Cthulhu imports a point-spend mechanic, using the Luck system from the 7th Edition Rules with a suite of new options and significantly increasing Luck accrual between sessions.  

This means that, for every skill based roll of the game, players must decide whether to spend points to increase their result, knowing that they will have their Luck Pool replenished to some extent at the end of the session.  So long as players keep 30 Luck in their pool, the are guaranteed that their investigator will survive certain death.

As a mechanic, the 'Luck economy' it works well because it puts the decision making in the hands of the players, allowing them to decide where their characters will enjoy ridiculous success or survive certain death.  The only criticism that I'd make is that the calculation aspect encourages players to muse different possibilities and can break the flow of narration and is somewhat at odds to the free-flowing style you might typically associate with epic pulp combat.

There are a variety of other innovations, and a 'pulp-o-meter' which allows the Keeper to tune the options to their pulp preference - and that's great.  I recommend the ever-quality Reviews from R'lyeh post if you'd like further information.

But I want to pick up on something else, that I'll raise again in relation to my review of the campaign.  That's the tension between the pulp and investigation themes.  The origins of pulp are about 'lurid, sensationalist and exploitative" tales.  In many cases they more closely resemble a superhero story, than a police procedural.

The question for me is; in an investigative game should pulp scenarios be necessarily more simplistic than non-pulp scenarios?  Each of the four scenarios included in the Pulp Cthulhu book have a decent investigative component, but only one of them is a sandbox, where the investigators have full freedom of movement.

I can understand the temptation of streamlining the scenario to an extent, as it allows the Keeper to dictate the pace and limits the scope of the characters to engage with things that aren't relevant to the scenario - but the luck economy means that many of the frustrations of typical Cthulhu investigations are not a factor for Pulp Cthulhu.  Or, put another way, if I really want to play a primarily action rather than investigative outing, is Pulp Cthulhu actually the best system for this?

This is a theme I'll touch on again, in the context of the Two-Headed Serpent, a 'globe-spanning' campaign which presents an ambitious plot set in a variety of interesting locations.  Stay tuned for chapter one.

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