Sunday, January 21, 2018

Pulp Cthulhu


First off, I wish this was a standalone book with all the rules you need to play a 1930's pulp adventure game. You need the main rulebook Keeper's Guide to play. If that was so, this would be my standalone book go-to game for 1930's action and adventure. You could get alone with the quick-start rules and this book, but the full rulebook is really needed here. That is my only issue with the book.

Otherwise, this is darn-near close to a perfect game covering the era: radio-show dramas, gangster action, and all sorts of cool retro 1930's crime-fighting adventure. This is the only game that I feel comes close to me for replacing the classic and now out-of-print TSR Gangbusters game, just because of the wealth here of flavor, two-fisted action, and period specific information. The strength of supporting material here makes this a lot easier to play than the latter game.

As Time Passes...

I find historical games get harder to play, as interest wanes and the source era becomes less familiar to the world. There will always be fans of the genre and old-time movies, but I get this feeling these games are a harder sell to players these days. The Cthulhu appeal is strong and drives player interest, but I find gangsters and crime fighters are less so, and without Cthulhu you really need a group of fans of the era to maintain interest in a longer-running game.

So part of the strength of the game is the supporting material, especially on what it was like to live in this world. No cell phones, no computers, no jets, no Internet - so how do things work? What do people wear? What cars do they drive? With Gangbusters, it felt like the players of that time were more familiar with the era with late-night movies and that whole 1930's gangster vibe still a part of popular culture. that game didn't need as much supporting information and you could get by with a loose rule set and a lot of help from players who bring information and excitement to the table.

Nearly 40 years later from that game's release (and approaching 100 years from the original era), we are a lot further from that point in time and familiarity with this time. I feel for a game to work in this point in history, you need a lot of help, articles, pictures, drawings, and getting people started on becoming a fan of the era. The game should serve as an entry point for players who want to explore the era through movies, music, and radio shows and this book does an incredible job of doing that. This is more than just player training, this is seeding the interest for future fans in this time and genre.

A Longer Life Expectancy!

Compared to characters in the basic 7th Edition rules, Pulp Cthulhu heroes can take a lot more punishment, have much better skills, and can dish out a lot more damage. Part of me likes the less experienced and less capable heroes, but I can see the 'superhero' appeal of a two-fisted masked crime-fighter than can out punch a Shoggoth. Remember, the first issue of the original Batman comic came out in 1939, so this sort of period-style costume crime fighting came from The Shadow, Green Hornet, and all sorts of other cool radio shows, serial films, and other entertainment from the day. Not to say you need to be a masked crime fighter, you could be a Sam Spade style PI equally bad-ass and pulpy.

This is, in a way, a superhero game at heart with all the special rules in character design, using luck, and other game systems that give a player greater agency over the game world and events that happen during the game. That word agency is important, since a lot of hard-core games have this 'you fail, you die' sort of feeling with no way for players to spend resources to better the odds or change outcomes after the fact. This "mod" of the base game does that very nicely here, and for players frustrated their base game characters "go insane and die" all the time this feels like a breath of fresh air. Players can now twist fate and design characters with special talents and game-changing abilities not present in the base game, and this gives players more control over the game world and their player's fates.

Overall, while making things slightly more complex, it makes the game more accessible for an audience expecting more two-fisted heroism and less soul-crushing horror. A 7th Edition compatible Hero Lab module for this book is sorely needed and I hope they come out with a module or update soon. This is something I would pay for to have support for this expansion.

The Futuristic World of the 1930s!

Where I felt the 1920's was closer to fantasy, the 1930's feels a lot closer to the modern day for me in both attitude and technology. You get police car two way radios, car radios, talkie films, electric shavers, frozen food, stereo records, and a lot more of the early versions of the familiar things that make life easy today. With mad science inventions you could get away with modern inventions, such as Dick Tracy's wristwatch radio as a cell phone, primitive television as an 'electric eye machine', the Internet as the 'analog electric brain network' which transmits data via punchcards, disintegration rays, or any other fun and crazy conversion of a modern device to 1930's tech. A lot of what we have today can be recreated through mad science (and there is much fun to be had with making it not work the way we are used to).

If I ran this campaign, you can be sure Moon Men, Flash Gordon, or any sorts of other 'from beyond the world' space aliens from Mars or beyond would show up to mix it up with gangsters, gun molls, two-fisted archaeologists, mad scientists, and masked crime fighters of the day. I know space aliens are closer to a 1950's game, but I love the old sci-fi serials of the 1930's so much that while the 1950's thin-man 'gray aliens' are out, green-skinned long-mustached Mars Men human-like actors hamming it up as 'Mentok the Powerful' may be in. Ditto for the 1950's 'matinee monsters' like the Blob, Create from the Black Lagoon, giant ants, killer bats, and other Cold War craziness - those are out and strictly the realm of a 1950's game. Anything from the 1930's radio serials or pulp books of the era is fair game.

It sounds fun and crazy to have Chtulhu monsters on Mars, The Shadow, Sam Spade, Al Capone, mad science, and that would be the type of game I would love to run with this expansion.

Adventures and More!

The book ends with a generous collection of adventures with maps, locations, art, and characters. The characters are richly detailed and pulpy and would make a great collection of NPCs for any game set in this era. Overall, I liked this book a lot and it adds a really fresh and cool new era to play in, and most importantly an entirely new feeling and power level to the game. the game is strong, and even strong enough to support non-Cthulhu play, and one I know we will be having fun with for quite a while. the game pays for the extra complexity in rules mods and character design with the 7th Edition's simplifications, and it hits the right balance of crunchiness yet retaining simple core mechanics with us. I will put this one in our 'happy purchases' column and a book that I know will be out on a shelf within easy reach for years to come.