GrogHeads Reviews Pulp Cthulhu and The Two-Headed Serpent

A two-for-one look at the horror RPG ~

Avery Abernethy, 13 September 2017

Pulp Cthulhu is a rules supplement to the Call of Cthulhu 7th edition. Pulp Cthulhu adds weird science, psychic skills and much stronger player characters to the traditional Call of Cthulhu system. The rules focus more on pulp action and less on quiet investigation. The player characters have far more points to work with when building characters and have pulp talents allowing players to survive more deadly encounters.

Pulp Cthulhu resembles the “Indiana Jones” school of fighting the mythos. Characters have more talents, heroic archetypes, and a lot more fighting skills than your average Call of Cthulhu game. A major premise is fighting against cultist masterminds with lots of low level “mook” cannon fodder. Multiple secret cult societies are suggested to oppose the players.

Options are given for the “level of Pulp.”   This is not an “either-or” system. You could have a real two-fisted adventure like “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” or “MacGiver set in the 1930s. Or you could add more weird science and paranormal skills while retaining generally weak characters.

Pulp Cthulhu can allow heroes to heal physical wounds faster and make player spell casting and psychic powers more common. The idea is having fights and cliffhangers instead of detailed detective work and building psychological pressure.

I’ve read and played Call of Cthulhu scenarios where clues are hard to locate and it is challenging to impossible to correctly interpret the clues to solve the mystery. I’ve heard game masters complain that players failed to put together clues properly, realize the “only way” to make an alien machine work or repeatedly miss spot hidden rolls to find a vital clue. As a result, the game master had to struggle ad hoc with work a rounds to keep the players on track to solving the menace. Pulp Cthulhu suggests using relatively obvious clues which point your characters into repeated conflicts with cults and their inhuman allies.

The strengthened pulp players are not supermen. They cannot enslave Great Old Ones or slay mighty Cthulhu. The pulp characters are more powerful than run of the mill cultists and are better able to survive routine combat. But pulp players encountering Elder Gods and their ilk splatter just as easily as their regular Cthulhu player counterparts.

The book starts by describing the pulp milieu.   Most of the core rules are devoted to creating pulp heroes and pulp powers (magic, psychic powers and weird science). The book envisions the game running in the 1930s and a section describes the 1930s USA. Another section discusses pulp plots, themes and action. Another chapter details pulp villains, henchmen and monsters. The pulp villains and secret societies provide many adventure hooks that game masters can use to build their scenarios.

Fully half of Pulp Cthulhu is devoted to four Pulp scenarios and their associated player handouts. Three of these adventures are quite interesting. One is set on a slow cruise ship heading to China from San Francisco. A second involves Pandora’s box. A third was a really interesting twist on a combination of a mad scientist weapon and an auction with multiple strange participants. The fourth scenario was a relatively uninteresting slug fest against cultists sacrificing ordinary citizens. Three of the four scenarios were really interesting and are probably best suited to one or perhaps two play sessions. There has been a huge improvement over the years in the quality of maps, layouts, and handouts of Chaosium scenarios. The adventures included in this book meet this very high standard.

I love the Pulp Cthulhu idea. Having pulp heroes fight evil cult organizations can be tons of fun. Investigation, gathering clues and solving a mystery are enjoyable. But shooting up an evil cult and thwarting the plans of an evil cult mastermind can provide gamers with a real sense of accomplishment. Call of Cthulhu scenarios I’ve designed tended to put the clues in the players hands (with some reasonable level of searching). The players have to put the pieces together to thwart the evil scheme. I’ve found that to be more fun than having a difficult to impossible to solve mystery which leads to half or more of the players being insane or dead every game.

 

The Two-Headed Serpent is a globe spanning, 272 page campaign for Pulp Cthulhu. I purchased the hardback a discount from the Chaosium booth at Origins Game Fair. My review is vague to preserve the mystery for readers interested in playing in this campaign. There are a large number of well-developed opposing factions and background organizations. The adventure truly spans the world (and other worlds). The maps and handouts are amazing. The story is richly detailed.

The plot details are even better than the original Masks of Nylarahotep – the gold standard of Cthulhu scenarios. The book also provides experiences of several play test groups at different points in the campaign. My only reservation about the Two-Headed Serpent is the difficulty the players will have penetrating a couple of key locations and ultimately surviving the final encounter location. I’m guessing that the difficulty of this scenario will require many Keepers to supply “nudges” to get players in a position to successfully complete the mission. It will be a roller coaster adventure ride, but even the playtest results provided in sidebars seem like some help was given to get the players across the finish line. I don’t feel this is a severe problem. Chaosium has always urged the game masters to adjust and adapt scenarios as needed.

The Two Headed Serpent will provide many enjoyable game sessions of play. There is also opportunity for the game master to design additional mini-scenarios for inclusion into the main adventure. But the factions in this campaign are powerful and their goals are profound.

The production quality of Pulp Cthulhu and The Two Headed Serpent campaign deserve praise. The binding, illustrations, artwork, handouts are exceptional. The books are super-high quality and even come with a red ribbon bookmark bound into the text. Chaosium did not skimp on any aspect of production in either book. The art is excellent. The layouts are very clear. I could take one, blow it up on a printer, and use it as a play surface to run melee combat. I’ve bought an absurd amount of wargame and RPG game materials over the years. Chaosium hardback books are expensive (in the low $40s), but they should last through decades of hard use. For those on a tighter budget, Chaosium sells pdfs of both books at their website and at rpgnow. I’ve also had good results with Chaosium PDFs.

 

Avery Abernethy is a Professor of Marketing at Auburn University


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