Over the years, I’ve played a great number of Cthulhu scenarios across a range of different genres. Sci-fi, noir, war, even comedy (ask Scott sometime about the antics we got up to in our Spirit of the Century Cthulhu campaign!), the Mythos has been portrayed in each of these genres, and many more no doubt, at the gaming table. Even Lovecraft himself wrote in various styles. For example, “The Dunwich Horror” has a very different tone to “Dagon”. Trail of Cthulhu provides a set of mechanical options whereby the Keeper can distinguish between these two major styles, calling them Pulp and Purist modes.
Pulp stories, such as “The Dunwich Horror”, usually pay more attention to action and adventure than a Purist scenario, which in turn focuses more on building an atmosphere of menace and dread such as that in “Dagon”, for example. Given that Lovecraft wrote in both styles (and sometimes using both in the course of some stories), I don’t think there’s much point in arguing which one is better compared to the other (as far I’m concerned, they are both equally suitable as they were both employed in the original source material), but there’s certainly a discussion to be had about which mode is most appropriate to particular scenarios and why.
My thoughts on the whole “Pulp and Purist” theme came to mind after two incidents in relatively quick succession. The first was the announcement as part of the Call of Cthulhu 7th Edition Kickstarter (which was a huge success!) that the long-awaited “Pulp Cthulhu” would be released as a stretch goal. Around the same time, I also received a wonderful playtest report of a Trail of Cthulhu scenario I’d been working on for the upcoming “Mythos Expeditions” collection (as discussed here). The scenario was well received by the players, and details of certain moments during playtest really put a grin on my face. One comment that arose though was a desire to clarify whether the scenario was designed to be played in Pulp or Purist mode, as it wasn’t explicitly clear to them.
From my own perspective, when I write scenarios, I automatically default to writing in a Purist style. I always favour the darker, bleaker mode of play when writing for horror, mainly because it is the style of game I prefer to play as well. That said, I’ve found that the end product normally can’t be exclusively pigeon-holed into one genre or the other. It’s significantly easier to write a work of fiction in one mode or the other, but for a gaming scenario, there is almost universally a balance between the two. Rarely is there a scenario without some kind of climatic fight between the Investigators and their adversary. Whether it is a one-shot or an ongoing campaign, the road almost always ends up leading towards a final showdown with the cultists or other-worldly horrors they have summoned. That showdown is almost always of a Pulp nature. As such, it’s a matter of setting the balance between them, for which I generally turn down the dial on Pulp and up on Purist. I’m thinking that’s why the playtest report sought to clarify which one it was supposed to be. In short, “a little from column A, a lot from column B”.
Mechanically speaking, it’s easier to build rules that complement one style of play over the other. In Trail of Cthulhu, certain skills are capped at given levels for a Purist scenario, and unrestricted in Pulp, for example. I’m guessing that a mechanical approach will also be taken in the upcoming “Pulp Cthulhu” for Call of Cthulhu. The mechanical changes in both games can certainly be used to help inspire similar changes in other horror games. I know I’d certainly be interested in seeing what happens if someone ran a Pulp Unknown Armies game!