Q&A: Pulp Cthulhu
The tabletop roleplaying game Call of Cthulhu, which is published by Chaosium Inc., is perhaps best known for using the 1920s' as a setting. But the game, which is based on the Cthulhu Mythos horror tales of H. P. Lovecraft, has used a variety of other settings ranging from ancient Rome to the far future.
One of the most anticipated settings has been the 1930s' "pulp" era which is due out shortly. We spoke with Nicholas Nacario, a game designer for Chaosium Inc., about Pulp Cthulhu and the different flavor it adds to an established game.
When did your company first conceive of the idea for Pulp Cthulhu?
The idea of Pulp Cthulhu was raised by Dustin Wright (long time Chaosium employee and all round nice guy) back around 1999. The Mummy film had just been released and Dustin thought it would be cool to be able to play Call of Cthulhu in a more two-fisted action sort of way, where the players could take the fight to the monsters and cults of the Cthulhu Mythos without becoming monsters themselves - a more "Indiana Jones" approach, high on action and drama - the idea being that pulp characters might better survive the dangers and traps of the classic Masks of Nyarlathotep campaign, which is renowned for killing of player characters at the drop of a hat.
It’s been a long road since then and the book was caught up in development hell for quite a few years. It wasn’t until the Call of Cthulhu 7th Edition Kickstarter in 2013 that Pulp Cthulhu was raised as a possible stretch goal for the project. Backer funding meant the stretch goal was reached and we were able to pull the book from dusty aeons of neglect and get it started again.
I took over the project in my capacity as Call of Cthulhu Line Developer and became the book’s lead writer. I was able to uncover and use some of the material that had been previously written for the book by luminaries such as James Lowder, Wolfgang Bauer, and Jeff Tidball. I also brought in some people to help out with creating new scenarios - Matt Sanderson, Alan Bligh, and Glyn White, as well as Paul Fricker to help with pulp insanity. Having these great writers contribute allowed me to focus on the core Pulp rules, game guidance, example villains, and the flow of the book. I’m really pleased with the result and the reaction of players has been overwhelmingly positive.
It appears to have a drastically different emphasis than Call of Cthulhu. The key difference from regular Call of Cthulhu is that Pulp Cthulhu is very much focused on action and dramatic stories inspired by the golden era of pulp magazines of the 1930s. The emphasis is on tougher characters, who have more agency in the game and a few “edges” to give them a help when tackling the dark forces of the Cthulhu Mythos - known as Pulp Talents. This doesn’t mean the games are a walk in the park - pulp heroes can still go insane when encountering strange and horrific situations and monsters - after all, it wouldn’t be Call of Cthulhu otherwise! It still feels like playing Call of Cthulhu but with greater emphasis on outlandish characters, foul plots, and mega villains, while submerged in the creepy and horrific tentacles of the Cthulhu Mythos.
The idea is that the Pulp Cthulhu mechanics can be geared to whatever level of pulp you want in your games. Advice is provided to adjust the mechanics from low- to high-level pulp. You can essentially layer the pulp rules onto any Call of Cthulhu scenario - from deep investigation to high action, and points in between. The pulp rules work hand-in-hand with 7th edition Call of Cthulhu.
As the player characters are tougher, non-player character villains are also given a few tricks to keep the players on their toes, as they have a pool of Luck points that can be used to make the heroes’ lives more difficult and challenging. Indeed, there’s a whole chapter of pulp villains, each with their differing agendas, for the Keeper to make use of in their games. I’ve also included a range of hero organizations for the player characters to join, as well as evil organizations for them to fight against. There’s plenty of material to inspire Keepers, including four fantastic scenarios that each focus on different aspects of the pulp genre.
Why did it remain in limbo for so long? There’s no one single reason for the book’s delay. Chaosium’s historical financial situation meant that, at times, the book had to be put on the back burner. Other products jumped ahead in the production queue and time moved on. It was always there, gurgling and bubbling away in the background. The Kickstarter allowed us to drag it into the light of day and really get to grips with it. Is it a standalone game? No, Pulp Cthulhu is a supplement to Call of Cthulhu. It expands certain rules, introduces some new rules, and modifies some mechanics from the standard game. For example, investigators can suffer major wounds in Call of Cthulhu if they take a large amount of damage, whereas, pulp heroes don’t - they can shrug off injuries more easily. Of course, pulp heroes can still die but, even then, there may be a way to avoid certain death or the hero can embrace their fate and go out in a blaze of glory.
The mechanics of Pulp Cthulhu dovetail perfectly with the standard rules of Call of Cthulhu, so they can be used with all of the supplements, scenarios, and campaigns released over the years with just a little tweaking to ramp up the level of pulp. I’ve seen many gaming groups adopting the pulp rules in their games, and some groups alternating between “Pulp" and “Call of” Cthulhu. You don’t have to base your games in the 1930s either, as the pulp rules can be used in any setting or historical period - from the Dark Ages to modern-day. Ultimately, it comes down to how you like your games - the mechanics are very much a toolkit for players to adjust and use to build the style and flavour of games they want.
The book itself is lovely. Hardback, full colour throughout, and with tons of gorgeous art. It compliments the 7th edition Rulebook and Investigator Handbook very well and looks even prettier! Will there be expansions?
We have a number of Pulp Cthulhu scenarios and campaigns in the pipeline. The first will be out in the New Year and is called The Two-Headed Serpent. It’s an epic world-spanning campaign of nine scenarios set in the 1930s, and involves the heroes in a despicable plot where the actions of two warring cults could plunge the world into darkness. The heroes must venture to far flung locations like Bolivia, Iceland, Borneo, and beyond. It’s very exciting and the heroes face an array of enemies they must deal with in order to win the day.
We also have other pulp campaigns in the works too. For some books, you’ll see informational asides for using the material with Pulp Cthulhu - giving players the best of both worlds and allowing them to choose whether to run the material with “Call” or “Pulp” Cthulhu. The beauty of the book, though, is that you can use it with existing material. Playing Horror on the Orient Express or Masks of Nyarlathotep with the pulp rules is certainly a lot of fun and very easily done. We intend both Call of Cthulhu and Pulp Cthulhu to be strongly supported.