THE PULP AVENGERS: Game Mastering Pulp Adventures in the 1930s
Copyright © Brian Christopher Misiaszek, 1994.
Table of Contents
What is Pulp?Adventure, excitement and
danger in the manner of The Shadow, Indiana Jones, Doc
Savage and Flash Gordon are the hallmarks of the Pulp RPG genre.
While the genre gains its name from the adventure fiction magazines of the 1930s
and 1940s, in gaming terms it also includes the hair-raising adventures of the
"stay tuned for next week's episode" brand of radio and movie serials.
Pulp may even be more correctly described as a meta-genre, as it covers
the broad gamut of Horror, SF, Fantasy, Western, Aviation, and many other story
Pulp is not simply a genre or era fixed in stone, it is
really a state of mind. Fast-paced and energetic adventures. Exotic locales and
two-fisted action. A wistful and nostalgic glimpse of an era that seems familiar
but more simpler, innocent and daring. Pulp is all these and more. Some features
of the pulp genre include its simple morality of good versus evil, masked and
cloaked heroes and heroines, devious villains and their schemes, gun-wielding
desperados, cliffhanger endings, weird science, and a world still lush with
unexplored places and lost races. Understanding the nostalgic elements of the
material the pulps cover and the stylistic conventions used in them are
essential in squeezing the most enjoyment out of this rip-snorting and
adrenaline-laced gaming genre.
What Were the Pulps?While beginning in the
dime novels at the end of the last century, the 1930s and the 1940s were truly
the golden age of the pulps, popular American formula fiction magazines filled
with lusty tales of daring adventure and heroism. Their slick colour covers were
lavishly and luridly illustrated with bright images of masked avengers,
rocket-ships, scantily clad women menaced by monsters, steel-jawed detectives,
and other fevered visions of adventure. Leafing past the brilliantly hued and
seemingly radioactively enamelled colour cover page revealed a stark contrast
inside; cheap and grey wood-pulp paper that the stories were printed on, and
from which the pulp magazines gained their name. Readers were not disappointed
if the stories inside didn't quite match the promises of a magazine's cover
illustration; they still provided an imaginative escape from reality for many
Depression era readers.
Unfortunately, readers of the pulps couldn't be
very fussy in their literary tastes. Many of the stories in these magazines were
poorly written and larded with purple prose, outright sexism, racism or worse.
Hack writers, out to make a quick buck churning out reams of logorrheic prose in
this penny-a-word market made pulp a disparaging word used by literary critics
of the day (and today!) to dismiss much of this brand of fiction, the good
stories as well as the many bad. Despite their ignoble origin however, it was in
the pulps that many writers whose stories are read and reread today first made
their mark; Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, Robert Bloch, Robert Heinlein, Arthur C.
Clarke, Tennessee Williams, Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, Erle Stanley
Gardner, John D. MacDonald, Edgar Rice Burroughs, H.P. Lovecraft, Robert E.
Howard, Luke Short, Max Brand and Louis L'Amour, just to name a few.
corner newsstands during this Golden Age of the Pulps could be found literally
dozens of different fiction magazine titles and topics. An alphabet run through
a few of these titles will give you some idea of the incredible diversity that
could be found: Air Trails, Argosy, Black Mask, Crack Shot, Dime Mystery,
Excitement, Far East Stories, Foreign Legion Stories, G-Men, Hollywood
Detective, Imaginary Worlds, Jungle Stories, Ka-Zar, Love Story, Magic Carpet
Magazine, Nickel Western, Oriental Stories, Planet Stories, Quick Trigger, Rapid
Fire Action Stories, Six Gun, Spicy Mystery, Strange Detective Mysteries, The
Thrill Book, Underworld Romance, Weird Tales, Youth, Wings and Zing.
Genres covered in the pulps included Detective-mystery, Flying, Jungle, War,
Western, Sports, Horror, Science Fiction, Romance, "Spicy", Adventure,
Spy, and Fantasy of all types. Sometimes these genres were crossbred to produce
such unlikely genres as Weird-Menace, War-Horror, Space-Western and
Jungle-Detective. Even bizarre niche subjects as "Racketeer",
"Financial-Wizardry" and "Zeppelin" found a brief life
during this period, providing pulp magazine titles that are highly sought by
collectors today. During the heyday of the pulp magazine era, over 1200
individual titles were published, thought the majority folded or simply changed
their name after only a handful of issues.
The Hero PulpsThe "single character"
or "Hero" pulps appeared early in the days of the flourishing pulp
publishing jungle, their adventures zigzagging a course through many different
story genres. Before the hero pulps, most magazines were of collections of short
stories, or perhaps a novel serialized to span several issues. Later magazines
became specialized by genre, such as the detective, horror, and science fiction
pulps. In these genre magazines, the stories were usually written by different
authors, though it was not uncommon for a single writer to fill the entirety of
a given pulp title under multiple pseudonyms, a fact most readers were ignorant
about. Certain characters were so popular with readers that they had appearances
in many issues, and even different magazines. Examples of these included the
detective-mystery pulp Black Mask where Dashiell Hammett's "Sam
Spade" and Raymond Chandler's "Philip Marlowe" hard-boiled
fiction first appeared. If fantasy and horror was more to your taste, the
magazine Weird Tales had both, being home to the very popular Conan sword
and sorcery stories of Robert E. Howard, H.P. Lovecraft's terrifying Cthulhu
mythos cycle of tales, and Seabury Quinn's ghost-breaking stories about occult
detective Jules de Grandin.
Pulp editors soon caught on to the idea that
a recurring character meant increased magazine sales to readers having a
"collect the set" mentality. Series characters had always been popular
with readers of adventure magazines, with such famous examples as Tarzan, Nick
Carter, Fantomas and Sherlock Holmes. It was not, however, until the appearance
of a magazine called The Shadow that the exploits of a single character
became popular enough again with the public to provide the contents of an entire
pulp magazine, each issue being a complete novel in a never ending saga of their
The entirely unexpected and unprecedented success of The
Shadow Magazine spawned a host of other single-character or hero pulp
magazines, many extremely popular between the time of the Depression and the
Second World War. Some of these were The Avenger, Buck Rogers, The
Lone Ranger, Captain Future, The Phantom Detective, Operator No. 5., Dusty Ayres
and His Battle Birds, Hopalong Cassidy, The Masked Detective, The Whisperer, G-8
and his Battle Aces, The Wizard, Secret Agent X, The Secret Six, The Green
Lama, and many, many more. Even villains had magazines of their own, such as
The Mysterious Wu Fang, Captain Satan, The Octopus and Doctor
Death, all of which featured the fiendish plots of some of the most
diabolical and wicked villains in the pulps being thwarted by a few much less
Below is a thumbnail sketch of three of the most
popular pulp heroes and the magazines they appeared in; the Shadow, Doc Savage,
and the Spider.
"Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men?" asked an
awesome and eerie voice over the radio airwaves late in the summer of 1930. A
long pause, and the uncanny voice answers himself with, "The Shadow
knows!" and starts laughing a nightmarish and terrible laugh. This same
rich and sardonic laugh would be the bane of hundreds of criminals,
mad-scientists and foreign spies for the next two decades to come. But who was
The terror of criminals and evil-doers, the Shadow was a
mystery crime-fighter who did his best to weed cities of crime in a staggering
run of 325 magazine issues, beginning from his debut in the April 1931 issue,
and lasting all the way to the summer issue of 1949. The first of the pulp hero
magazines, The Shadow Magazine was far and away the most successful and
popular with the newsstand magazine reading public. He stalked the steel canyons
of New York City garbed in his trademark slouched hat, black swirling cape, face
concealing red muffler and two uncannily accurate and well used .45 automatics.
As a man of mystery and a master of deduction and disguise, the only consistent
feature of the Shadow was a mysterious ring on one finger, described variously
as a fire opal, and as a blue girasol. Originally beginning his career waging a
one-man war on crime, the Shadow gradually began recruiting agents to create a
secret organization built along the lines of his World War I spy ring, devoted
to fighting injustice and criminal wrong-doings. In the pulp series, he was
aided by a small empire of helpers; Clive Burke, a newspaper reporter; Harry
Vincent, his right-hand man, Cliff Marsland, a reformed gangster; Moe Schevritz,
a taxi driver who doubled as the Shadow's chauffeur; Burbank, his contact man
used by all his roving agents, and many more.
The Shadow worked under a
number of false identities, the most famous being that of flamboyant millionaire
playboy Lamont Cranston. It is in this role that most people are familiar with,
the bored wealthy man-about-town using his athleticism and personal fortune to
fight crime as a masked crusader. This was not, however, his true identity
according to the pulp novels, recording that there was a real globe-trotting
millionaire of this same name conveniently absent travelling around the world.
With the permission and cooperation of the "real" Lamont Cranston, the
tycoon's appearance, identity, home, and even the friends in the wealthy circles
he moved in were borrowed by the Shadow in order to aid his war on crime, as
revealed in the issue entitled, "The Shadow Laughs". On occasion the
two even aided each other, each adopting the role of the other in order to stop
a diabolical villain. Other roles adopted in the double life of the Shadow
included that of dim police janitor Fritz, the fussy Phineas Twombly, thick
fingered businessman Henry Arnaud, and many others.
After some six years
of stories about the Shadow, his secret was finally revealed in the 131st issue
of magazine series. In the August 1st, 1937 issue "The Shadow
Unmasks", it would be revealed that the true identity of the Shadow was
none other than that of missing noted World War I flying ace and super-spy, Kent
Allard. The cover of this issue even revealed his own true appearance! Known
during the war as the Dark Eagle, Allard had disguised himself as a wraith of
the night to work behind enemy lines as a saboteur and spy, learning and honing
many of his crime-fighting skills in the process. This explanation of the
"real" origin of the Shadow raises more questions than it answers. It
does not account for the Shadow's extensive knowledge of the Far East, its
cultures, languages, martial arts and mysticism, features frequently present in
the pulp stories, if he had been spending much of the war as a spy in Germany.
The most recent film version of the Shadow attempts to account for some of the
Oriental background history of the Shadow, hinting of the mystic source of his
powers to fading into the shadows, the use of his mocking laugh and his
mind-warping abilities. Alas, such explanations owe more to Hollywood and to the
liberties of the radio version of the Shadow than anything provided in the pulp
novels. Ambiguity of this variety is no stranger to the Shadow, as illustrated
with the example of the history of his famous jewelled ring. The latter is
described variously in the pulp series as both a gift from the last Czar of
Russia as well as the eye of an ancient Xincan idol. In the recent film version
of "The Shadow", the famous ring was reduced to being simply a baroque
signalling device, flashing out Morse code messages among the Shadow and his
The origin of the Shadow is a curious and complicated story. In
the summer of 1930 Street & Smith had begun a radio mystery anthology series
as part of a promotional advertising campaign for their line of detective
fiction magazines. Every Thursday night during "Detective Story Hour",
the shows radio announcer--a mysterious voice known only as the
"Shadow" (played by actor Frank Readick, Jr.)--would read a story
taken from one of Street and Smith's detective magazine's currently on sale. The
response to the radio show was surprising, with news agents reporting to back to
the publisher about eager readers asking them for their magazine about
"...that Shadow guy". Having no such magazine, but determined to
exploit the success of their radio show and the demands of their readers, Street
and Smith arranged for novice pulpster Walter B. Gibson to write a couple of
Shadow novels for a new magazine of the same name. The result was a smash
success, with the first two issues completely selling out. Realizing they had a
winner, Gibson was contracted on a more permanent basis to write a Shadow novel
every month (and for a period, twice-monthly), so that the loyal readers of
The Shadow Magazine would be treated to yet another complete issue
devoted to their favourite mystery pulp hero. Most of the Shadow novels--285 out
of 325--were written by Gibson, a former stage-magician, and the stories he spun
made heavy use of his expertise in tricks, disguises, puzzles and secret codes.
Thrilled by their success with The Shadow Magazine, Street and
Smith managed to convince the sponsor of the radio Shadow, Blue Coal, to change
the focus and format of the radio show. In the 1937 season, the announcer become
the narrator, and then the star of the mystery radio-play more faithful to the
pulp magazine novels penned by Gibson. In a stroke of genius, Orson Welles was
cast in the starring role of both the Shadow and Lamont Cranston, and his voice
was synonymous with radio's master detective far beyond the 40 odd episodes he
acted in. The radio version of The Shadow gave him a romantic interest, the
beautiful Margo Lane, who was later incorporated by Gibson into the pulp
stories. The writers for the radio Shadow also gave him the powers to cloud the
minds of men, a talent not used in the pulp stories. For many years, the radio
show's sponsor gave away as a premium a ring with mysterious black stone
surrounded and guarded with embossed depictions of the shadow. The stone, alas,
was not a rare girasol but simply a chunk of Pennsylvania anthracite! The radio
Shadow ironically both preceded and outlasted the pulp version, with the last
episode, "Murder At Sea", airing December 26, 1954.
has been a perennial favourite with the public, spawning many comic book series,
several films and movie serials, Big-Little books, board-games, secret decoder
rings, and other ephemera over the last six decades . During the heyday of the
magazine and radio series, over 900,000 people were members of the Shadow Fan
Club. As additional proof that the Shadow has not laughed his last, the latest
movie version of the Shadow starring Alec Baldwin in the title role, was
released by Universal Pictures in the summer of 1994. Despite the admonishment
made by the radio Shadow, that "Crime does not Pay", it seems that
making movies him about fighting it does!
Example titles: The Living
Shadow, The Voodoo Master, Mox, Grey Fist, Shiwan Khan Returns, The Romanoff
Jewels, The Creeping Death, The Room of Doom, The Shadow Unmasks, The Shadow
Doc Savage Magazine featured the incredible adventures of Clark
"Doc" Savage Jr., known by many as the "Man of Bronze".
Armed with a superhuman intellect, scientific prowess and an awesome strength in
his giant frame, Doc Savage had dedicated his life at an early age to thwart the
foes of truth and justice. The 186 issues of Doc Savage Magazine
recounted the world-shaking exploits of Doc and his daring five helpers ranged
from straightforward adventure, to far-out science-fantasy, to war-time spy
Trained and raised by some of the worlds foremost scientists,
Doc Savage was a true renaissance figure, proficient or excelling in nearly
every field of athleticism, science and invention. His own nickname of
"Doc" was bestowed as a result of being one of the world's most
distinguished and skilled neurosurgeons, in addition to all his other noted
scientific accomplishments. The "Man of Bronze" epithet was made in
reference to the bronze hue of his giant, deeply tanned and muscular figure, as
well as his uncannily hypnotic gold-bronze coloured eyes. His five helpers--who
were best known by their nicknames Ham, Monk, Renny, Long Tom and Johnny--were
no slouches either, each being an expert in such diverse fields as
industrial-chemistry, engineering, law, geology, archeology, and electricity,
but with all bowing to Doc's vast expertise in each of these areas. Occasionally
tagging along with this "famous five" was Doc's tomboyish and
beautiful cousin Patricia "Pat" Savage, who was worth more than her
own weight in wildcats to this team when trouble came her way.
gadgeteering hero, Doc Savage and his pals were loaded with exotic devices,
vehicles and equipment. This included special rapid-fire machine pistols that
fired narcotic "mercy bullets" (for Doc never knowingly took a human
life), giant zeppelins, ultra-violet tracking powders, true gyrocoptors,
miniature radios, tiny knock-out grenades, underwater breathing tablets, and
much, much more. He made his headquarters the entire top floor of the worlds
tallest skyscraper, where folks in distress and villains wanting to take out
their only threat could often find him. This was connected by a secret elevator
to an elaborate waterfront shipyard and aircraft hanger which Doc Savage also
owned. Doc also had a more secluded scientific base to which he occasionally
retreated, his "Fortress of Solitude", hidden high up in the Canadian
With an immense wealth obtained in his very first adventure,
"The Man of Bronze", Doc Savage was an aggressive
philanthropist, not only building hospitals, schools, and performing surgical
operations for the needy, but also going to great lengths in trying to rid the
world of powerful evil doers. He also operated a secret "Crime
College" in upstate New York state, where the criminals he caught underwent
a delicate brain operation to have them forget the memory of their crooked ways,
and then trained in some useful vocation before being released as a productive
member of society. Nearly all the Doc Savage stories were written by Lester
Dent, an incredibly inventive pulpster who was somewhat of a Doc Savage himself,
being simultaneously an inventor, ocean sailor, treasure-hunter, ham-radio
operator, and aviator.
Example titles: The Man of Bronze, The Land of
Terror, Brand of the Werewolf, The Sargasso Ogre, The Phantom Oasis, The
Giggling Ghosts, Murder Melody, Meteor Menace, The Dust of Death.
Richard Wentworth donned the hideous visage of the Spider--hunched back, fanged
teeth, hooked nose, a lanky mop wig, and a slouch hat--when he stalked the
streets of New York as an eerie vigilante to deliver bullet justice to those
most deserving it. The most violent, imaginative and passionate of the pulp
heroes, Norvell Page's The Spider series was simply volcanic with
elements of horror and weird-menace. The Spider was not content to rehabilitate
crooks as Doc Savage did; instead, he'd much more often throw such thugs off a
tall building or riddle them with a Niagara of molten lead from his thundering
automatic pistols. As a warning to other criminals, he would afterwards brand
the cooling foreheads of his dead enemies with his trademark spider seal, using
a device concealed in the base of his cigarette lighter. The costume and the
branding trick worked too, with even the spine of the most hardened villain
turning to jelly at the sight or mere mention of the Spider. The police took a
very dim view of this hobby of course, and avidly sought the capture or death of
this weird crook killer. Loathed by crooks and lawmen alike, the Spider waged
war hampered by a personal code that prevented him from fighting the police at
the same time as they interfered with his own efforts to combat such foes as
bloodthirsty cavemen, robot-suited gangsters, resurrected Pharaohs, and even
No lone wolf, Wentworth was aided by a cadre of loyal
helpers when he took to the streets to fight crime. These included his faithful
Sikh warrior and personal bodyguard, Ram Singh; his former sergeant and now
private chauffeur, Jackson, who always referred to Wentworth as
"Major" because of their days spent together in the Great War. As the
Shadow has his Margo, so did the Spider have his own soul-mate, the incredibly
beautiful and feisty Nita Van Sloan. Nita was no shrinking violet, having had
several times donning the dark mantle of the Spider herself when she had to
fight for the life of her true love, Richard Wentworth. Another ally of both
Wentworth and the Spider was Professor Brownlee, a scientist friend of
Wentworth's, sometimes became involved whenever there was a gadget to be built
or a villainous weird-science device to be thwarted. There was also Wentworth's
friend Stanley Kirkpatrick, New York City's Chief of Police and later State
Governor. Ironically Kirkpatrick's sworn enemy was the Spider, which made for
tense moments when he suspected Wentworth--as he often did--of being the Spider.
Representative titles: The Pain Emperor, Hordes of the Red Butcher,
Death Reign of the Vampire King, Satan's Death Blast, Corpse Cargo, Green Globes
of Death, and The Grey Horde Creeps.
RPG Systems for Pulp GamingThe
furious-paced thrills, deadly perils, exotic globe-spanning adventures, and
rough-and-tumble excitement of the pulps are a natural topic for role-playing
adventures. While there has in the past been a few RPGs devoted entirely to the
pulps or some aspect of this genre--games such as Justice Inc.,
Daredevils, Mercenaries, Spies & Private Eyes, Gurps:
Cliffhangers, and Top Secret S.I.'s "Agent 13
Sourcebook"--these systems are all out of print or have not been supported
with additional supplements or scenarios. As perhaps the only commercially
available RPG aimed at least partially towards the pulp genre, West End
Game's multi-cosmed Torg RPG, with its "Nile Empire"
and "Terra" source books of pulp reality go quite far towards
capturing the spirit of the pulps within its rules and supplements.
Other readily available and in print RPG systems can be tweaked to
become a satisfying platform for pulp adventuring, although the GM must provide
nearly all the background information for the period. Currently available
generic rules systems that fit this category include Steve Jackson Games'
Gurps, Ice's Hero System, and R. Talsorium's
Dream Park; all are routes that a GM can use to present pulpish-hued
adventures for their players, and each having several useful supplements for
this purpose. Chaosium's Basic Role Playing System, as provided in their
1920s horror RPG Call of Cthulhu, can be easily updated to cover the
1930s-40s Pulp era with a bit of background work. TSR's Buck Rogers:
High Adventure Cliffhangers, while set in a variant 25th Century future as
depicted according to the famous 1930s comic strip of the same name, can also be
used to play more typical pulp adventures with a GM expanded skill list and more
appropriate background information. Finally, Atlas Games' modern-surreal
RPG Over the Edge is admirably suited to playing pulp adventures. with
its highly versatile free-form character generation and cinematically friendly
storytelling combat system.
THE PULP GENRE: RECIPES FOR PULP ADVENTURINGNo matter which game system is
used, all pulp RPG adventures rest on mixing many of the following adventure
I LARGER THAN LIFE HEROES
- Larger than Life Heroes.
- Reduced Hero Deaths.
- Colourful Villains.
- Gadgets and Weird Science.
- Bizarre Crimes and Mystery.
- Exotic Settings and Locations.
- Lost Worlds.
- The "Feel" of the 1930s-1940s Pulp Era.
may be obvious to say so, but the heroes of the pulps were heroes! No quibbling
or ambiguity about good and evil, morality was monochromatic, with the hero in
the white and the villain in the black. Heroes of pulp magazines were cast in a
mould of nobility and bravery, the final product perhaps a little tarnished and
rough around the edges, but still with a core that was solid, rare and pure.
Adventurers in the pulp magazines were larger than life, being the strongest,
the most athletic, the smartest, and naturally the most heroic.
that your players recognize this pulp convention of the hero being role-models
of bravery, honesty and integrity. This will allow you to avoid such problems as
out of genre characterizations and actions from cropping up later in your game.
Your players' PC acts of self-sacrifice, gallantry and daring should be
encouraged with appropriate rewards specific to the pulp game world. Give them
praise on the front page of city newspapers, ticker-tape parades held in their
honour, have the mayor bestowing to them the key to the city, and even have
children begin adoring PC hero fan-clubs complete with secret passwords and
secret-decoder rings! Let them earn the friendship of powerful patrons inside
the game world that can provide them with super-scientific gadgets, help them
cut through pesky government red-tape, or smooth things over with the law when
things go horribly wrong. Hand out such games mechanic rewards as increased
skill and experience levels, luck points, and other "player cookies"
as your rule system allows for. Players who persist in having their PCs perform
less than noble actions may find to their surprise NPC pulp heroes showing them
up and getting all the goodies mentioned above. Even worse, NPC pulp villains
may try to recruit them as allies for their own nefarious plots!
heroes often had unusual powers and abilities granted to them as a result of a
strange experience or an eccentric background. A stint in the Far East gave
weird powers of the mind and body to the more mystically oriented. Having been
orphaned and raised by animals in the jungles, deserts and polar regions of the
world conferred to certain heroes amazing abilities in strength, agility and
athletic prowess. Or a strange gadget or device invented by the hero may be the
source of their unique powers and weird talents. These powers were much milder
in comparison to the extravagances typical of the "long-underwear"
superheroes of golden-age comics, and made pulp heroes even more believable for
this restraint. The GM should exercise strict control on the weird powers that
their players may want for their PCs, putting their foot firmly down on strange
powers too overpowering for their own interpretation of the genre.
fantastic, but still unique background abilities and skills for pulp heroes of
more traditional "whodunit"s and spy-smashing stories should be
encouraged. For example, a hero with an encyclopedic memory coming from growing
up in a household with a set of these as the only reading material will find
this renaissance knowledge handy time and time again; for even more
entertainment, Volume S could have been missing, providing strange gaps in this
PC's knowledge. A stint in the Great War will provide familiarity with weapons,
combat techniques, and even how to handle airplanes and potato peelers for a PC
with this type of background. Time spent in the police station, as a rookie cop,
news hound or even as a custodian can provide in-depth knowledge of police
procedues, the city, underworld contacts, and even how to fix a leaky faucet.
Having at an early age running away to join the circus and working there can
give useful knowledge of acrobatics, disguise artistry, snake handling and human
cannonballery. As a last example, merely having sold newspapers or shined shoes
as a kid on the street corner near the city hall or local honky-tonk, and
remembering the face or shoes of all the politicians, celebrities and crime
figures that bought papers can be a very useful background. While not as exotic
a background as being raised by apes, or having the power to cloud people's
minds, such background skills are remarkably portable through many pulp story
genres and should not be neglected or sneered at.
vocations of the heroes can also help to explain their involvement in pulpish
adventures. Stereotypical active professions of the good guys of pulp adventures
included hard-boiled detectives, jaded playgirl/boy millionaires, frustrated law
officers, crime-fighting stage-magicians, absent-minded professors, veterans of
the Great War, gold-digging femme-fatales, mystics from the mysterious East,
ghost-busting scientists, trouble shooting circus performers, cynical
soldiers-of-fortune, and many more. You can gently twist these stereotypes to
get such "bent" heroes as great white hunters in urban jungles,
ice-age barbarians defrosted from ancient glaciers now living in the 20th
century, reformed gangsters for whom bloodthirsty habits die hard, un-cerebral
gadgeteers whose devices work only occasionally as intended, ultra-smart German
Shepherds or any other favourite animal star, cigar-chewing middle-aged
aviatrixes, and so on. The heroes of the pulps could be literally anyone, as
long as they stood behind truth, justice, and fair play.
strange names and alter egos for the PC pulp heroes not only give a touch of
mystery to the adventure, but also protect them from the unwelcome attention of
the press, the police and criminals. Have your players' PCs invent such
distinctive names for these alter-egos as "The Nemesis", "The
Golden Cometeer", "Captain January", "Merlini" and
"Madam Xodiac". If the players do not invent such names for their
mystery pulp heroes, they may find over-zealous newspaper reporters doing it for
them! Secret hideouts, gadgets, exotic vehicles and more were stylistic
conventions that some players may want to include in their PC conceptions. These
may also have their own colourful names and labels, such as "The Arachnid's
Web", "The Juggernaut", "The Radium Gun", "The
Zed-mobile", etc. If the PC heroes are using their real names during their
adventures, have attached to them a colourful nickname to create such vibrant
monikers as "Ripper Smith", "Flash Maxwell", "Dynamite
Bob" and "Wizard Parker". Sometimes a professional title or even
the place they were from provided part of the nickname; "Doc Ravage",
"Sawbones McCoy", "China Blue" and "Idaho Bones"
are some examples of this naming trick. Finally, epithets, little descriptive
phrases such as "The Weird Crusader", "The Red-headed
Wrecker", "The Man of Uranium" and "The Reckless Flyer"
can also be attached to the PC's name to spice it up a little.
players choose to use secret identities for their PC pulp heroes, ensure that
this common pulp convention works as a two-edged sword. Let the mundane world
present interesting hazards and pitfalls for the PC with the secret double life.
Have their boss in the "real" world become upset at all the days of
late appearances or missed work secretly spent fighting crime. Let the PC hero's
current romantic partner or significant other become curious about that locked
room in the basement that contains their secret make-up and costume room. Have
the editor of the local daily newspaper start a campaign to rid the city of
these secretive law-breaking vigilantes. A copy-cat amateur crime-fighter may
don the same disguise and try later to un-mask themselves to claim all the past
credit and glory which is the rightful due of the real hero. Alternatively,
tricky villains may disguise themselves as a mysterious PC hero to work their
diabolical deeds, and the unfortunate PC will have to dodge the attentions of
the authorities to clear their besmirched good name while at the same time
acting to thwart this villain's dastardly plots. Villains can also track down
the pulp mystery hero's hideout, and either steal valuable equipment or place
booby-traps in it. Villains can also blackmail the hero who hides behind a
secret identity to do some favour for the villain, else revealing their identity
to the world. Sometimes, it isn`t easy being a hero!
II REDUCED HERO DEATHS
Pulp heroes face
incredible danger every day, but very rarely came to any serious harm during
their death-defying adventures. Pushed out of flying aeroplanes, being trapped
in flooded caverns, dodging a hail of gangster lead, pulp heroes survived it
all, with only torn shirts, ripped stockings and mussed hair to hint at the
dangers they had faced. In a fair fight, the good guys never lost, being beaten
by the bad guys only through overwhelming odds, hypnotism, traps, and other
cowardly and treacherous acts. A combination of clever tricks, fast thinking,
audacious daring, sheer luck, and plot immunity from pulp authors reluctant to
kill a favourite character saved countless heroes from seemingly sure death in
It's harder for GMs to have their players' PCs continually
stare death in the eye and still have these heroes regularly surviving deadly
pulp RPG adventures, but it can be done. Introduce cinematic rules in your RPG
system of preference, reducing most wounds to simple unconsciousness, and minor
injuries to blackouts, dazing and temporary incapacitation. Instead of lethal
injuries, arrange situations for the mortally wounded PC's body to disappear,
and later reintroduce the character to the storyline with a some lesser but
longer lasting injury and an explanation of some sort for their disappearance.
Have your players let their PCs make copious use of the RPG rules on luck and
luck talents, allow them to push their strength and will-power to beyond the
brink, and let them use extra experience die rolls and "brownie
points" to save their PCs from certain death. Note that this pulp adventure
ingredient is one of reduced PC deaths, not outright immunity from death. If
players have their PCs repeatedly perform reckless and thoughtless actions, let
the dice fall as they may, and occasionally let such PCs die. On the other hand,
never let a string of bad die rolls alone spell the demise of an otherwise well
played pulp PC hero.
Other tricks to reduce the lethal effects of gun
combat can be gadgets invented and used by the PC pulp heroes. Allow bulletproof
armour for those heroes who frequently face lead-happy enemies. Allow PC
gadgeteers to invent strange electrical devices that render gunpowder inert
within its area of effect, or produce personal force-fields that will only allow
slow-moving weapons such as swinging swords or hurled fists to penetrate. You
can also have the pulp version of the magic healing that is common to fantasy
games, weird science devices such as "Blood Pills", "Bone
Glue" and "Flesh Wrap" that can be invented by gadgeteers to
quickly patch up damaged or mangled PC heroes.
Emphasize to your players
the pulp convention that both crooks and heroes will more often surrender in the
face of overwhelming odds than fight on to the last anaemic drop of blood. To
help promote this behaviour, do not punish PCs who honour this classic pulp
tradition of surrendering to the enemy; instead, have them taken to the
villain's secret HQ, and once there, give them a chance to escape and turn the
tables on their former captors. Have your NPC villains make use of knockout gas,
heavy saps, and narcotic bullets to bring down our heroes, and not the more
ubiquitous and deadly lead variety. Let fisticuffs and brawling be the preferred
means of combat by the agents of the villain and the heroes, by allowing
handguns to be quickly knocked to the ground at the start of fighting when they
are first pulled out by trigger-happy combatants. Providing situations where
everyone knows that firing a gun is foolhardy, perhaps aboard a hydrogen-filled
dirigible or inside a dynamite factory, is yet another trick to reduce the scale
of lethality of your pulp RPG combats.
The evil arch-villain is at the centre of
every pulp adventure, and this crucial pulp NPC enemy will directly affect every
aspect of the story. With a colourful background, unique name and bizarre
disguise or uniform, the villain is often a mysterious figure whose presence
projects menace and fear. Build up the pulp villain by having other NPCs refer
to this person in terms of terror and awe. Have newspapers, police "wanted
posters" or bragging criminal underlings trumpet their diabolical deeds and
horrible crimes. The villain can vary from being a Local Gangster stretching his
crooked muscle in the Big City, or being a Mad Inventor with some device that
she plans to use to blackmail the government, or even an Evil Ethnic Genius with
a sinister plot to take over the world. Alternatively, agents, spies, and
minions of unfriendly nations or even planets count also as villains, with an
automatic tension of "us versus them" being established from the very
For starters, give your pulp villain a villainous name! If their
identity is known, pick a harsh and unpleasant sounding name for them, such as
Dr. Scarp, or Zach Claw, or "Black" Bram O'Bear. For foreign bad guys,
refer to an atlas and pick names of mountains, rivers and forests from a map of
their place of origin, and use one of these as part of their name. Look up names
in telephone books, movie books, or simply make one up out of random syllables
strung together. Use some of the suggestions for epithets and nicknames
suggested earlier for the PC pulp heroes for the villians, too. You can also
slightly change or steal outright the names and villains from pulp stories and
comic books. If the villain is a mystery figure with their identity unknown,
give them a menacing name that hints at their awful reputation. Use a thesaurus
to check out synonyms for "danger", and also for "crime",
"terror" and "mystery". One quick and dirty way to name a
villain is by combining a colour with a word suggesting something animal,
supernatural or about leadership; i.e. the Black Bat, the Green Goblin, the
Scarlet Queen, etc.
Decide your NPC villain's personality and
background. Are they a veteran of the Great War unhappy with its outcome, a
scientific researcher Gone Bad, a modern gadgeteering pirate, an ethnic criminal
mastermind, a misguided idealist, a greedy and sadistic businessman, or even a
lunatic who has read too many shudder pulps? What is their source of power?
Sinister charisma, immense wealth, weird super-science, black magical arts,
alien devices, or a hereditary position? What are their motivations? Is it
money, power, revenge, love, lust, a huge ego, or what? Give your NPC villain
one or more quirks or traits based on these that will make them memorable; a
scary costume, a deep and cultured voice, a squeaking laugh, a silver swiss army
knife for a hand, a fondness for chess, a hatred of classical music played
badly, etc. If you plan things well, you can use such traits in the pulp plot
itself to help figure out what crimes they will commit, what type of treasure
they are after, their Achilles Heel, and so forth. This trick of fleshing out a
character can also be used with other NPCs, whose personalities can be filled in
with the use of such external features. The more important the NPC, the more
quirks and outward personality identifiers the GM should give them.
sure to have your pulp villain follow other common conventions of the genre.
These include having the mystery villain being discovered at the climax of the
adventure by the heroes as an unsuspected close acquaintance of the PCs.
Murderers in mystery stories were all the time hiring Private Investigators in
order to throw the authorities off the trail! Have them kidnap friends of the
pulp heroes, threatening harm unless they give up their investigations. More
deviously, have the enemy release captured friends, but not after first
implanting dangerous post-hypnotic instructions in their minds. Let the villain
earn their title by their insidious plans, callous actions, use of fiendish
torture, and worse. Another trademark of the pulps you can introduce to your
game is having the NPC villain first throwing captured PCs into deathtraps
instead of killing them outright, and then taunting them by boasts about their
brilliant and insidious plans that the heroes cannot possibly stop. At least,
not until the heroes make their escape!
Recurring villains are yet
another common pulp convention, with the Bad Guy appearing boomerang-like from
prison, deportation or even the grave. Hidden escape routes, secret gadgets and
surprise tricks concealed up the villain's sleeve all help to ensure the
villain's getaway should the PCs finally capture them. Dead pulp villains are
rarely truly dead despite, the fact that no one could possiblely have survived
the mine cave-in, dirigible explostion or plane crash the villian was trapped
in. By arranging the disappearance of their body and some sort of an
explanation, no matter how improbable, the GM can have them return at a later
date stronger than ever, and now with an unhealthy grudge against the pulp PC
heroes. Failing this ploy, pulp villains can always have identical twins (or
even triplets!) to step in to fill their evil shoes after the heroes have
arranged for their demise in a previous adventure. It has also been known for
other crooks to cash in on the fame of a famous and truly dead villain, adopting
their reputations as a cover for their own crimes. Of course, your PC's do not
have to discover this deceit until the impostor is unmasked at the end of the
IV GADGETS AND WEIRD
Gadgets have been an essential plot device throughout
all ages of storytelling, from the magical gifts the Greek gods gave Perseus to
defeat the Medusa, to the high-tech gizmos given to James Bond by Q Branch. In
the pulp stories, these devices play an equally important role, being the tools
of mad scientists and gadgeteers to both commit and combat crime. An incredible
diversity of gadgets were invented and used by pulp heroes and villains. A far
from complete list would include invisibility suits, personal rocket-packs,
pocket radar, atomic jalopies, lightning-guns, and much much more. Some
inventions made by gadgeteering pulp characters did have some basis in
scientific reality, such as gas-guns, wrist-radios, ultrasound goggles, electric
skeleton keys, chemical tracking devices, and so on; these were items often far
in advance to the technology normally available to the world at large, but still
scientifically plausible. Gadgets can also be used to provide or duplicate some
of the amazing abilities that many larger than life pulp heroes and villains
possess; hypnotism by hypo-guns, night-vision through special goggles, enhanced
hearing through electronic stethoscopes, etc. Other devices were simply used for
their plot convenience, such as giant robots, thinking machines, death rays,
flying-saucers, rocket-ships, time machines, and so on.
Gadgets are very
handy tools in planning and plotting pulp RPG adventures. For starters, such
gizmos, devices and inventions can be used as a plot McGuffin to kick off
adventures as villains steal or attempt to steal such devices. They can be used
by PCs to neutralize the efforts of villains trying to kill them in deathtraps
and other cliffhanger situations. Besides protecting the hero and their pals,
gadgets were awfully handy at providing clues for locating and defeating the
villain and their evil minions. Working as they do at the very fragile extremes
of technology or via the black-box magic of Weird Science, it is really the GM's
whim that decides if the gadget will always work as intended in all situations
and conditions. They can be used to subtly guide PC actions, as when a
scientific gadget allows the heroes to uncover a valuable clue, or to provide
drama when a damaged lifesaving device has to be repaired in a race against
time. As the equivalent of "magic items" common in fantasy RPGs, you
may want to look at lists of your favourite FRPG's magic devices and take some
of the more interesting of these to translate into more appropriate
technological terms for your pulp adventure game.
Besides the wonderful
availability of gadgets and gizmos, another charm of the pulp era was that the
world did not always obey the strict physical laws of science as we know them,
but sometimes followed the mysterious rules of "Weird Science".
Weird-Science is a catch-all phrase for the technology of the impossible, which
was actually possible in the pulps in the hands of mad doctors and crazed
inventors. Pulp writers were all the time coming up with scientific and
non-scientific "what if?" scenarios, and then exploring the
consequences of such things as gravity-nullifying metals, etheric engines,
mind-controlling radio-frequencies, elements not found on any periodic table,
invasions from other worlds, broadcast power, and so on. Scientific ignorance or
the laziness of many pulp writers also resulted in many strange devices with
only what appears today as scientific gibberish as an explanation.
Inventions using Weird-Science differ markedly from their counterparts
built via normal science, being more powerful yet unpredictable in practice,
devices that use it being incomprehensible in mechanism or function to the
mind-set of more conventional scientists. Often Weird-Science gizmos could only
be created by inventors who were a little crazy to begin with, the stereotypical
"mad scientist". Starting from principles very different from the
scientific and often tinged with occult and mystical elements, mad doctors could
come up with inventions both ludicrous and deadly. These included devices
designed to catalyze a new Ice Age, dehydration rays, earthquake triggering
machines, metal-rotting gases, sun-sapping stations to blow up the sun,
inventions that slow the Earth's rotation, and so on.
One problem about
Weird-Science occurs when players finally defeat the villain and lay claim to
all their scientific equipment, notes, and other assorted goodies. Unless
destroyed in the final climatic battle, how do you prevent the PCs from using
the incredibly deadly Weird-Science Crime-Ray captured from the villain
themselves in their future battles? There are some things that man and PCs were
not meant to know (or own), if only to prevent the GM from initiating a Weird
Science arms race between the PCs and later villains. The GM may later reveal
that the weird science device was simply a hoax, with the example Crime Ray
being nothing more than a trigger for previously implanted hypnotic suggestions,
or a signal to detonate pre-planted explosives. Alternatively, you could
postulate that it was some weird mental ability or talent of the mad scientist
was the true power behind the device, and not the actual device itself. This
gadget may have been a psychological crutch for this strange talent, or simply
served as an amplifier for this weird ability. Both explanations would answer
why such devices become only useless junk in the hands of the PCs once they
defeat this pseudo-science using villain.
V BIZARRE CRIMES AND MYSTERY
Mystery, crime and violations of justice were common everyday
occurrences in the pulps. Many a story centred around a strange mystery to be
solved, a dangerous spy ring to be smashed, a loathsome murderer to be revealed,
and a mad villain to be brought to justice. Heroes solving a kidnapping,
thwarting a ghoul or stopping a blackmailer could be professionals just doing
their jobs; police officers, private eyes, consulting detectives and even
vampire hunters. Amateur detectives investigating a haunted house or finding a
missing treasure ranged in identity from teenage sleuths to little old ladies. A
burning curiosity and a love of riddles, puzzles, and strange mysteries were
characteristics of nearly every hero in the pulps.
Crime in the pulps
were never boring or mundane. The vault of the First National Bank is not opened
with just dynamite, but through the magic of Weird Science. It is not just
anyone being blackmailed, but a beautiful redheaded siren with a dark and
dangerous secret. It is not just a crook trying to take over town with their
henchmen, it's an Ancient Criminal Mastermind with a scheme to destroy the
world. A dead body is not found with just any knife in their back; a rare
ceremonial Aztec sacrificial knife is the murder weapon. Deadly poisons, archaic
weapons, rare beasts and other exotica were common means of delivering death in
the pulps, and can be in the adventures you run based on them.
made by ordinary means but under identically strange circumstances were a common
feature of the pulps. For example, a string of murders of men named Smith, the
robbery from museums throughout the country of their Egyptian mummies, the same
playing card left at the scene of the crime, or even a taunting clue for the PCs
to follow up on. Such a series of crimes are often made by the villain to
obscure their real motives and plans; blowing up trains to conceal the
kidnapping of important atomic research scientists, stealing rare fish from
aquariums whose internal organs are needed to create deadly toxins with strange
effects. The theft of suits of armour from a long dead European monarch to
recreate a long-lost treasure map from clues inscribed on the inside the metal
breastplates. Seemingly unconnected crimes are often but the means the villain
uses to get to the real item they are after, and can offer important hints for
the heroes to follow. Clues could also be deliberately planted by more devious
villains to lead PCs into ambushes, deathtraps or worse.
wrongdoings may even appear to be made using impossible magical skills and
supernatural ability. The walking dead, disappearances from locked rooms,
mythical creatures of the night and other eerie elements were often encountered
by pulp heros, but were later revealed to occur through either trickery and
deception, or by some weird new gadget of the villain's devising. Again, for
designing such gadgets for villains to use, it may be helpful to look over the
spell and magic item lists of your favourite fantasy RPG for ideas on abilities
for what these devices can do. For a twist to the genre, you can even rule as GM
that magic does work in your version of the pulp era, and even allow for other
fantasy trappings such as lost magical races, mythological beings, magical
spells and occult devices to exist in such a variant pulp world background.
The type of treasure a pulp villain can be after can also be more
interesting than just stolen bank loot, though it's the rare crook will turn
down cold, hard cash. Antique Chinese jewelry, a cache of pearls, Blackbeard's
treasure map, famous artifacts of religion and mythology, or even the rare
metals necessary to create Weird Science devices, are all more fun to steal than
just paper money. Treasure itself is anything that the villain is after, even if
its value to others is questionable. This can range from obscure items for a
villain who collects such things as autographs, blue glass, Confederate army
swords, medieval suits of armour, pre-Colombian art, vintage violins, and so on.
A villain can even steal interesting people to talk to, kidnapping famous
persons for their conversational value!
Clues in pulp mysteries and
crimes should be fairly obvious for your players to follow up on since there is
nothing more frustrating than having a mystery that would confound a Sherlock
Holmes being dumped on the average players' plate. It is neither satisfying to
have a die-roll to provide a solution to a puzzling mystery, nor appropriate to
have the PCs fail because their players missed an obvious clue. Since all pulp
adventures have a mystery of some sort to be solved, the GM has a narrow line to
tread in presenting what can be a challenging and not impossible problem for
their players to solve. Providing multiple clues that lead to the same step in
the mystery is important, for even if the PCs miss one important clue, there
will be backup clues they can stumble over and use. Having a handy NPC who
suggests not the clue itself but something related to it will help direct the
PCs back on the right track. Clues can also be inadvertently dropped by the more
dim of the villain's henchmen, or even by a bragging villain themselves within
the adventure. You can certainly use red-herrings in your pulp RPG mysteries,
but be careful not to use them very often; events in pulp adventures are often
tangled enough without having the PCs being led continually astray.
There may be occasions when you are absolutely, positively stuck for an
idea for making a pulp mystery for your players. One handy trick a GM can use to
create mysteries on the fly is to simply throw out random clues like crazy, and
then listen carefully as your players try to make some sense of all these
different clues and suspects. When your players first come up with solution that
seems to fit all the random clues you have provided, and also implicates a
certain NPC as the villain, give that NPC suspect an alibi. Later in the
adventure you can pass on information to the PCs that invalidates this alibi.
Not only will your players feel smug that they have solved the mystery and
defeated the villain, but they'll have written much of the plot and have done
much of the work of creating the mystery for you as well!
VI EXOTIC SETTINGS & LOCATIONS
It is important to provide interesting places, settings and scenery
where your pulp heroes can strut their stuff. Give each important scenes for PCs
to explore or villains to attack or hide out in, a slight twist to make them
interesting and unique. Roaring steel-mills, condemned theatres, midnight
graveyards, frenzied race-tracks, eerie psychiatric hospitals, inky-black mine
tunnels, chaotic circus grounds, observatories, cluttered warehouses, posh
hotels, desolate oil-fields, movie-studio back-lots, ivy-covered college
buildings, public aquariums and more can all provide interesting settings and
situations to knot an adventure scene around. Don't hold back in furnishing
these buildings with pulp-action rich architecture; chandeliers to swing on,
balconies to throw thugs over, ramps and ladders to climb on, elevator shafts to
fall down or climb up, secret tunnels and hidden doors to discover and be
trapped in, conveyor belts and factory machinery to be turned into death traps,
etc. Simply let your imagination run wild, and if it runs a little short, try
looking at floor plans and pictures of interior decor in magazines or in books
on famous buildings. You can even cannibalize non-pulp RPG supplements for maps
of buildings and other interesting structures.
Vehicles can also provide
mobile adventure locations for pulp heroes on the move. The Orient Express, a
sleek millionaire's yacht, huge helium-filled dirigibles, rusting tramp
freighters, trim speedboats, alien rocket-ships, baroque aerial aircraft
carriers, and elegant ocean liners can all be the scene for claustrophobic pulp
action. Rather than just being a means to get from here to there, the means of
transport can be the main setting for an eerie murder mystery where victims are
trapped with an unknown murderer. Or the mobile location can be a way to gather
an interesting and diverse band of characters who can be caught together when an
terrible electrical storm transports the PC's to a Lost World, or shipwrecks
them on the coast of a mythical republic. The vehicle itself may be an item the
villain wants to carry out some wicked plan with. It may even be the secret
headquarters of the NPC villain. A great deal can happen on such a movable feast
of a setting, with the advantage of using such a limited location being that it
constrains the number of choices available to the PCs, making the action and
adventure easier to control by the GM.
It was common for pulp heroes to
travel to the four mysterious corners of the earth in pursuit of action and
adventure. Travelling for long distances was like travelling back in time, with
the sights and smells that the PCs encountering having been relatively unchanged
for hundreds or even thousands of years. Introduce the PCs to the spice-drenched
bazaars of Persia, the lonely moors of Scotland and the Great Pyramids of Egypt.
Let them experience the zephyr breezes of the South China seas and the
sun-bleached ruins of ancient Greece as they hunt down the villain's secret
hideout. Have them encounter dangers on the fog-choked streets of London, the
arid steppes of Outer Mongolia, and other thrilling destinations. If all this
seems like old hat, have your PCs journey to fictional countries such as the old
European nations of Noirlandia, Ruritania and the Duchy of Grand Fenwick. For a
more South American flavour, have them visit the make-believe republics of
Hildago and Nasilia for even more obscure but exciting excursions abroad.
Immerse your players in exotic cultures, foreign languages, and anachronistic
sights; stew this with thrilling adventure and watch the fun that results.
You can also provide a touch of the exotic close to home. Your PC heroes
can visit the local Chinatown, and be exposed to the transplanted mysteries of
the Far East. Other ethnic enclaves or ghettos can give a taste of Old Europe
and other distant locales. Or they can visit the wharfs of the nearby waterfront
to confront danger and excitement shipped in from any one of the seven seas.
World Fairs allow the sights of sounds of many nations to be mixed into a
multicultural tossed salad of adventure. Hollywood back lots work much the same
way to gather many different historical environments of adventure; haunted
castles, old West towns, jungle sets, Victorian streets, and so on. Private
libraries and museums can offer exhibits of Egyptian relics, African totems,
dinosaur skeletons, or other similarly atmospherically intense artifacts and
backdrops. Environments of the strange and foreign can be found literally in the
PCs own backyard, which in turn will also attract similarly foreign visitors and
their bizarre problems.
You can even place adventures in fictitious
nearby cities, counties and states that exists on no map or atlas of the real
world. A GM's version of New Orleans can be a renamed River City, or the
fictitious US state of Wichinois with its capital of Zenith can be set vaguely
somewhere in the American Midwest. Such alternative settings offer the GM the
opportunity to be creative and play fast and loose with political figures,
street-plans, road maps and other historical details. With this method you do
not have to worry that inadvertent historical or geographical inaccuracies that
can result from using a real setting will cause problems in the game for your
VII LOST WORLDS
worlds are a very special setting for PCs to visit for pulp adventure, they
being isolated and fantastic chunks of geography unknown to the world at large.
Lost Worlds were places, creatures and people trapped in time, existing today as
living museum pieces while the rest of history marches on. Hidden jungle cities.
Immense caverns buried deep under the earth. The craters of smouldering
volcanoes. Valleys surrounded by impassable mountain ranges. Islands in
uncharted parts of the ocean. For all these and more, what made all these
mysterious areas special was their difficult access, foreign inhabitants and
strange wildlife. The natives were often living descendants of ancient
cultures--Egyptian, Viking, Babylonian, Incan, Aztec, Roman, etc.--unaware of
the outside world. In the opposite extreme, its inhabitants could be
fictionalized long lost races and cultures--Atlantis, Lemuria and Mu--whose
rulers are determined to remain secluded from the 20th Century. Even more
strange can be locals who are intelligent dinosaurs, giant Ant-men, or even
space-shipwrecked aliens. Lost Worlds can be outright terrariums of bizarre
biology with dinosaur valleys, ice-age plateaus, islands of giant or dwarfish
creatures, and so on being common and time-honoured locations.
premise of a Lost World adventure is having the PCs accidentally discovering a
small Lost World, being trapped there, exploring its thrills and dangers and
unpleasant native inhabitants, and then escaping, never to find it again. The
latter can be accomplished by losing the maps on how to get their, having a
cave-in or avalance cut off the access, or even having some terrible
cataclysm--a volcano erupting or Weird Science gone wild--destroying the Lost
World completely. Such a "one-off" Lost World can be a playground for
fantastic historical or super-science adventure. Cowboys being challenged by
medieval knights or mole-people. Detectives shooting out with Spanish pirates.
Whip-wielding archaeologists trading blows with mammoth-riding cavemen. Aviators
dogfighting with pterodactyls or flying-saucers. All these and more are but some
of the wild adventures that the PCs can encounter in the Lost World setting.
If wanted, a Lost World can be a campaign setting that is much more
extensive and durable than the one-shot version mentioned above. Instead of
having the Lost World lost again or destroyed at the end of the adventure, the
GM may decide for the PCs to take up temporary or permanent residence and
positions of power in this self contained setting. It was quite common for pulp
heroes of this more style of adventure to stumble on a Lost World setting whose
native inhabitants are in the middle of a civil war or have the PC heroes
presence push a previously tense situation over the edge to war. Heroes in pulp
Lost World romances were often forced to choose sides in such conflicts. The PC
heroes may decide the aid the "good guys" with merely their grit and
brawn; "going native" as it were. Alternatively, they may decide to
use their superior equipment and knowledge to arm the locals against the (until
then) superior forces and abilities of the enemy. Rewards for helping the
winning side of the conflict ranged from gifts of valuable treasure, a means to
escape the Lost World if the PCs had been trapped there, or even the hand in
marriage of the eldest child of the current ruler of the Lost World.
Newly created gadgets and futuristic vehicles can be used to get to even
stranger landscapes of wonder. A Lost World can be found deep inside a hollow
earth, accessible only by a mechanical drilling mole of an inventor PC's
devising. Time machines can convey PCs to a far-off past or future. Rocket ships
or teleporters can whisk players off to brave new worlds both inside and out of
our solar system, galaxy or universe. Shrink-rays can even let heroes explore
the normal world scaled down to the size of toys, insects, or even
sub-sub-sub-atomic particles. Along with being the means of conveying the PCs
there, vehicles can be used for stranding the PCs in the Lost World, either
temporarily or permanently. The pulp GM can go wild at designing alien cultures,
monstrous ecologies and fantastic landscapes for their heroes to romp through.
If the GM is stuck, they can raid material from their favourite fantasy or SF
RPG--maps, modules, bestiary lists, fantasy races, etc--to help in the creative
process of building their pulp fantastic Lost World.
Cliffhanger endings were a
classic technique used by the pulps and by radio and movie serials to maintain
tension and drama. Stories that end suddenly with the hero and their friends
caught in a dire predicament with only a "stay tuned for the next episode
to see what happens next" message ensured that the impatiently waiting
reader, listener or viewer would be soon be back to see how the heroes avoid
their fates in the next adventure chapter. Heroes in the pulps have been left at
the end of a chapter trapped in falling elevators, bound and gagged inside of
burning warehouses, caught without parachutes in stalled and falling aeroplanes,
locked inside flooding dungeons and, to fulfil the old cliche, even found
clinging precariously to the edge of a cliff with the villain about to step on
their clinging figers and push them over to certain doom! Despite all odds, pulp
adventurers always survived these deadly perils in the next chapter of the
Salt and pepper your adventures liberally with situations
that temporarily leave the PCs in a very tight jam, with the PCs wondering how
on earth they';l survive. This is especially easy to do when a group of your
pulp PCs have separated. When this happens, you can cut away from the first
group left at a cliffhanger ending, and then continue gaming with this second PC
group until they in turn have a cliffhanger opportunity. Then cut back to the
first group, switching back and forth as often as you can. If your players PCs
do not split up into different groups, you can announce a short stretch and
snack break at a cliffhanger situation, and then return again later to it later
to complete the scene to your players satisfaction. Make each cliffhanger a
special and unique opportunity to create harrowing adventure for your players
Try to arrange to end a session of game play on a cliffhanger
note to create a much longer period of suspense and dramatic tension until the
next time the gameing group meets. You can provide for such a theatrical ending
for your own pulp RPG adventures by picking a time window for completion of that
sessions game. Whenever a dramatic action scene occurs within that pre-chosen
time window, make it the cliffhanger scene, and suspend game play at that
point until the gaming group meets again. Alternatively, you can try to plan
ahead of time for a cliffhanger or deathtrap to end your game-session on; this
requires some GMing experiance in predicting just how much the players can
accomplish in a given time period before springing the cliffhanger. Whatever
method you decide to use, your players may complain about being left in
suspense, but they'll soon be back with a vengeance
While the beginning
and end points of a cliffhanger scene are fixed, what happens in the time
between is entirely up in the air. For example, a game session may end with the
GM saying "...the car with your hero tied to the steering wheel is hurtling
towards the cliff edge! Seconds later, the car goes over the edge and bursts
into flames when it hits the rock below! Stay tuned until next time to see what
happens!" The next time the gaming group meet, the GM can recap the
situation of the car hurtling over the cliff edge and then say that if the PCs
want to make their escape, it has to be in the few seconds before the car
actually hits the ground (after all, the GM never actually said the PCs were in
the car that exploded in the last cliffhanger scene!). How the PCs survive this
situation is up to the players decisions and action. They may try to break
through the steering wheel and jump out of the car at the last possible second,
or attempt to slip their bonds and do the same, or somehow regain control of the
car in a way that forces the villain's car that had been following them
to go over the cliff instead, etc. Remember, there should always be an out for
the players to have their PC's to discover, and one that does not rely on lucky
die rolls alone.
Cliffhanger escapes should always be made at what looks
like the last possible minute, and this by the actions of the PCs, and not some
outside agency. While movie serials often cheated by having some form of deus ex
machina rescue the trapped heroes--a freak power failure, the police charging
in, the friends of the hero coming to the rescue--don't overuse this cheap trick
in your game. It's more satisfying for the PCs to escape due to their own
efforts, abilities and ingenuity, rather than relying on the fat hand of the GM
to do their work for them. Sometimes making the situation apparently worse for
the PCs by piling even danger will suggest a solution to the players. If bad
luck doggedly follows the PCs let the bad event happen, but by no means have a
string of poor die rolls cause the death of a PC. Going back to the pulp genre
convention of reduced hero mortality, have some long lasting but non-lethal
injury occur instead, or simply have the PC involved disappear for some time,
and then have them appear again at an opportune moment when their friends could
use them most.
Deathtraps were a special kind of cliffhanger used in the genre, devices
either built or used extemporaneously by the arch-villain to do away with the
hero and their friends. Deathtraps are not designed to kill the PCs as much as
they exist to give them a puzzle to solve, and to slow them down while the
villain does their bit of nasty work. It was a rare villain who simply tossed a
hero in a deathtrap and ran away; the deathtrap gave the villain a chance to
gloat and brag about their fiendish plans and answer all the unanswered
questions raised by the hero! Deathtraps include such classics as locked rooms
filling with poison gas, heroes tied to tables with huge pendulum knives slowly
descending, being slowly lowered by rope into huge vats of boiling and noxious
liquids, electrical devices with two persons ensnared for whom the escape of one
means certain shocking death to the other, and so on. Death traps need not even
be mechanical contraptions of this Rube Goldberg variety. Villains framing PCs
with murder and other criminal activities can be remarkably effective, with the
most gentle penalty for failure being a long and uncomfortable vacation in Sing
Sing or Alcatraz; for a worst case scenario, the electric chair awaits the
These lethal traps can be difficult for the GM to construct so
that their players face a nasty challenge, but still have a decent chance to
avoid their deaths. The quick wits of the players working could probably turn
some portion of the trap against itself, or lead to some way to deactivate the
device. You can try to plan the deathtrap around the PCs' equipment and
capability, ensuring that they are equipped for escaping danger. Special
abilities or devices unknown to the villain--lock-picking skills, a wire saw
hidden in a hollow tooth, a vial of acid--may be used to elicit an escape. Or
you can simply make for a fiendish situation, and trust to the creativity of
your players. You may be astonished at some ideas your players can come up with
for escapes. If you are stuck on building a good deathtrap, try using
alternating the two techniques that follow below, but be careful not to tell
your players you are using such tricks!
A) One method is to secretly
rule that the PCs must make two different kinds of escape attempts that will
automatically fail before their third try automatically succeeds in
providing their escape and getaway from the trap. This technique allows the
players ingenuity to play a role, and providing such timing that the escape is
made by the hero at the very last possible second. For example, a PC hero locked
in a cage with a maddened gorilla on a barge that is slowly sinking can try to
escape this trap by 1) bending the bars, or 2) stunning the gorilla and then
picking the lock, or 3) pouring trap-eating acid on the floor and making the
escape through the resulting hole. Whatever order the hero tries, it will be the
third and final attempt that succeeds, and it will occur at such a time that it
just saves the hero from death or worse.
B) A second method is to rule
that the very first way the players choose for their PCs to make their escape is
in fact the correct one, but something must change before this initial
idea will work. For the example of the PC trapped inside the sinking barge, yes
pulling the bars apart will work, but only the gorilla is strong enough to do
this and must be tricked to do this task for the PC. Perhaps the acid trick is
the right idea, but the barge has to tilt on its side for the acid to work on
the side walls of the cage. Or picking the lock is the right idea, but you must
first deal with the enraged gorilla that is rushing to attack this trapped PC.
"FEEL" OF THE 1930s-1940s PULP ERA
To help capture
the zesty colour and rough-and-tumble atmosphere of the pulps, familiarize
yourself and your players to the pulp genre and understand its peculiar
stylistic conventions and unique atmosphere. Read reprints of the pulps, and
lend these to your players, or try reading comic books inspired by the pulps.
Many of these are listed in the recommended references and resources guide that
follows this article. Watching old adventure movie serials is another painless
way of getting the know the period and the trademark pulp etiquette used.
Showing such a mystery-adventure episode to your players before a pulp RPG
session can do wonders in setting the right mood for the gaming that will later
follow. Books on and about movie serials can be a goldmine of plot ideas and
character names for you and your players to steal. Recordings of famous
radio-plays, such as those of "The Shadow", "The Green
Hornet", "I Love A Mystery" etc., are also worth listening to,
and can also be played or lent to your players to help them provide the right
atmosphere and mood of the era in your pulp adventure role-playing game.
Fast pacing is an important element to convey to give the proper
atmosphere inherent in a pulp-inspired adventure. While relentless action is
nearly impossible to maintain, you can still punctuate your pulp RPG adventures
with scenes simply drenched with furious action and drama. To reflect this, do
not give the PCs much time to think or plan during such episodes of overwhelming
excitement. Have masked men burst into the room through trap-doors in the floor,
let the cable of the elevator they are standing in break loose and start to
fall, or have a hail of bullets fly their way as they stand around wondering
what to do. It's okay to allow players some time to plan elaborate responses to
thwart the villain, but realize that in the pulps, when push came to shove, it
was common for the heroes to think more with their fists and guns than with
their brains. Also remember that action doesn't just mean combat; it can also
mean a reckless chase scene, escaping from a deadly deathtrap, rescuing someone
from the jaws of catastrophe, or being suspended near death at the end of a
cliffhanger scene. It's okay to skip ahead through boring scenes of travel or
plotting in your adventure to get to a more interesting scene, but be sure to
show that such PC preparation and planning pay the price of passing time. Above
all, keep things moving!
Convey the feel and "pulp" atmosphere
for the period of the 1930s and 1940s for your game. Give a "postcard and
snapshot" glimpse of the time, providing details and historical trivia to
your players throughout the gaming session. Major issues of the day can be
mentioned via actual newspaper stories and alongside of clue laden stories and
headlines you make up yourself. For the latter, you can create your own
headlines or news-stories by either using a good computer desk-top publishing
program, or by doctoring a photocopy of a real newspaper's frontpage headline
obtained from a public library's microfiche collection. Along with this method
to drop news of the day and clues to help move along a pulp plot, you can relate
stories in newsreels or radio broadcasts to your players; make up your own
"Flash" announcements that interrupt some appropriate period music you
have previously recorded and have playing softly in the background.
subtle ways can be used to impart a verisimilitude of the pulp period. Try
mentioning the every day entertainment of the era for starters. This can be what
live music bands are playing in a nightclub (Benny Goodman's or Guy Lombardo's
Orchestras), the latest fad (be it Mah-jongg, jalopy racing, or flag-pole
sitting), what baseball team is leading the World Series, details in dress and
fashion, what Hollywood celebrities are spotted at the local ritzy honky-tonk
restaurant (Myrna Loy, Jimmy Stewart, Fred Astaire) and the latest movie playing
at the Orpheum theatre (Frankenstein, The Prisoner of Zenda, or The Wizard of
Oz, etc.). Show and use the technology of the 1930s and 1940s--large
radio-transceivers, six-shooters, complicated telegraph sets, propeller-driven
aeroplanes, octopus-like telephone switchboards, vacuum-tube scientific devices,
etc.--and juxtapose these with more higher technology elements that really
existed (rocket-planes, gyrocoptors, radar, submarines, television, atomic
power) along with weird science devices that never did exist but ought to have.
Other period details you can drop in are the makes of the vintage automobiles
people are driving (you can also call them flivvers or jalopies), having NPCs
drop 1930s slang words, mentioning the price of lunch at an automat, having
elevator operators in large buildings interact with the PCs, spotting a
horse-drawn milk-wagon, travelling by cruise-ship or zeppelin to Europe, etc.
Mention the PCs seeing apple sellers on street-corners, hoboes riding the rails,
dusty cars full of migrant workers, long lines at soup kitchens etc., all images
of the Depression to make these decade feel real and solid to your players.
To add further depth and breathe life to the era, have your PCs run
across famous and important personages of the day. Thomas Edison, Nikola Tesla,
Howard Hughes, Ernest Hemingway, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Winston Churchill,
Houdini, and Eleanor Roosevelt are all people they can meet, perhaps even help
or be helped by. Fictional personages can also be added for fun; an aging
Sherlock Holmes, an even more poisonous and shrunken Fu Manchu, a still
vine-swinging Tarzan, etc. Other pulp heroes such as Doc Savage, the Green
Hornet, and the Shadow can also cross your PC heroes' path. For the latter you
can even drop stories in the press on their competitors' pulp exploits, or even
adding a "box-score" column on the front page of the daily newspaper
listing the number criminals put away by their friendly rivals each week. All
these details help instill a feel of authenticity to this brightly innocent and
charming age that existed in the pages of the pulps.
IDEAS FOR PULP ADVENTURES
need to mix many of the pulp ingredients previously mentioned above to create
the structure for your own pulp adventure scenario. It doesn't hurt to follow a
formula approach, which is what most pulp writers did. Create your villain,
flesh out what they want and how they intend to get it. Make the crime that each
separate villain you create different, and make each way the crime is performed
unique too. Develop a number of interesting scenes and situations for the heroes
to romp through in their pursuit of the solution to the mystery, and be generous
about how you spread clues and ideas to get players moving from scene to scene.
The goals of the villain and the crimes they commit always set the stage for the
interesting settings that provide the background for your pulp adventure.
Start your adventure with the heros in a mess of trouble. Give them
cliffhangers to escape from, several deathtraps to rescue themselves and friends
from, and keep the excitement and action at a furious pace. Let them stumble
over trouble as they go about their business of crime-fighting, crime-busting,
helping friends out, etc. Foreshadow the arch-villain by having this NPC built
up by their terrible deeds and horrible crimes. Introduce this wicked NPC to
your PC heroes at an early opportunity via news reports, eyewitness accounts,
taunting letters, and even successful kidnapping of your players' PCs. Invent
prisons and ingenious deathtraps for your heroes to escape from, and turn the
tables on their former captors. Be sure to allow your pulp PC heroes ample
occasions for them to defeat the villain honestly at the adventure climax. Don't
worry about having your players kill off a wonderful arch-villain; pulp villains
are made of durable stuff, and you can even bring back a favourite Mr. Nasty
from the grave if you want to!
To help in the creative process of
constructing a pulp adventure, try looking at authentic background material on
the era of the 1930s and 1940s. Many public or university libraries have
back-issues of local newspapers available on microfilm that you can scan for
ideas--local or national news stories, ads for movies and theatre shows,
classified ads, obituaries, etc.-- around which can be knitted an adventure of
your own devising. Used bookstores can have old issues of Life,
Look, Popular Mechanics, National Geographic, school
atlases, encyclopaedias, time-lines of history, etc., all of which can be a
source for ideas for pulp adventures. Current or vintage travel books and maps
are also good for pulp adventure ideas in foreign lands. Try reading about
political events, items from war newsreels, strange Fortean news stories,
scientific "what-ifs" of then and now, accounts of famous crimes and
disasters, for more even more ideas for stories. While there are many good
history books covering this period, you can give yourself a break and check out
the history section in your local children's library. Books aimed at younger
readers are clearly written, never assume any prior or specialized knowledge,
and they are often wonderfully and generously illustrated.
reprints of the original pulps, watching movie serials and listening to radio
shows from this period is the best and most direct way to capture ideas and the
flavour needed for pulpish cliffhangers. Try looking at some of the recommended
pulp-related materials listed a the end of this article. Many cliffhanger
serials filmed during the 1930s and 1940s are readily available on home video.
To maximize your enjoyment of watching these vintage shows, be sure not
to see each video entirely in one sitting--watch only one 20 minute episode at a
time, and only watch the next episode after you have waited with bated breath to
discover how the hero and heroine have extricated themselves from a deadly
cliffhanger. There are also many black & white movies filmed during this
period from which you can pick up ideas for plots, mysteries, traps, atmosphere,
villains, settings and mood. Keep a pad and pencil handy while watching, and be
sure to jot down ideas as they flood into your creativity.
IDEAS FOR PULP CAMPAIGNS
A campaign based on the pulp genre can be of several types. One-shot
adventures can be fun, and can be used to explore a variety of story genres and
characterizations. Such one-off adventures are useful for players or GMs with
schedules too busy for long term campaigns. Also common is the pulp serial
campaign, where the same group of heroes are followed through a succession of
different adventures. This approach has such positive features as growing PC
reputations, a chance for players to explore thoroughly their GM's version of
the pulp era, familiarity of PC characterizations among players and GM,
recurring villains appearing to work their dark revenge on the PCs, and so
forth. There are many interesting settings and situations that can unite a band
of PC heroes; a charismatic NPC pulp hero who needs help in fighting crime, the
announcer and crew of a newsreel reporting company, the stunt gang of a movie
studio's back-lot, a pulp magazine publishing company roster of writers, a
"scandal-sheet" newspaper, a university's nutty-faculty club, and so
Whatever the campaign style, it helps to have either the players
or the GM provide a reason for why the heros are involved in the pulp adventure,
either alone or working together as a team. A mechanism must be provided to
explain and get all the different PC heroes working together for at least their
very first adventure together. The GM can provide an adventure campaign
framework, such as a detective agency that all PCs work for, or a World
Explorer's club that they all belong to. The force of circumstances can also be
used to sweep together PCs of highly variable backgrounds together for
adventure. This could be a disaster that occurs with all PCs on hand, having all
the PC's being accused of murder together and working as a team to clear their
good names, the PCs being zeppelin-napped together, having the PCs all working
for the same incredible pulp-hero boss (but whom unfortunately suffers from
lapses of amnesia, and thus cannot always be relied on), and so on. Below are a
few adventure campaign premises you can use as examples or tweak for your own
Masks Publishing Co.
Weird Masks Publishing Co., or more
simply, Weird Masks, is a publisher of those monthly lurid and lusty adventure
periodicals commonly called "pulps". Weird Masks flagship publication
is an anthology weird-detective magazine itself called "Weird
Masks", but they also publish a variety of other genre fiction
magazines. Detective-mystery, gangster, spy, sports, jungle, zeppelin and
single-hero pulps fill out their selection, with many pulp titles being started
and dropped each month. As part of the company's corporate policy, each and
every magazine it owns has either the word "Weird" or "Mask"
somewhere in its title. Its offices are housed in a prominent New York City
landmark, the "Hurricane Building", and its presses are in this
skyscraper's basement. Daily operations are headed by Illingsworth Xagat, its
shrewd, balding and cigar-chomping Chief Editor.
Weird Masks has an
unusual editorial policy of only using fictionalized accounts of true stories to
fill the pages of its many adventure magazines. Even more unusual is that Weird
Masks doesn't just try to chase after completed adventures; they actively
initiate the adventure process. How this works is by Xagat and his underlings
finding an interesting story (i.e. a vampire curse in Peru, a "Stink
Man" raiding hobo jungles near the Florida Everglades, strange shipwrecks
on the Great Lakes, etc.) through the company's network of staff story scouts,
and freelance agents answering to ads in the back pages of Weird Masks many
magazines. Once a hot story has been found and has been selected for follow-up
by the editorial staff, Weird Masks gathers together a team of its adventurer
agents to look into the matter. These adventurers, selected through their
"Department of Adventurers" central character casting file, are
shadowed or accompanied by writers and their aides to write up the subsequent
adventure that will naturally ensue, which will then be published by Weird in an
appropriately (ie. luridly) titled pulp. Particularly successful stories will
lead to Weird and Xagat reuniting this particular team of adventurers under some
appropriately colourful team name. This is how such pulp series as "Rip
Valentine & His Blackhearts", "The Dragon-Flyer",
"Shakespeare's Ghost", "The Radio Rovers", "The
Arachnid" and "The Masquerader" got their start with Weird Masks.
In many ways, "Weird Masks" is run very much like the major
motion picture studios of the same time. Given this parallel, Weird Masks has a
special matching service, the "Department of Adventurers" that tries
to put together the best possible team of individuals to meet their perpetual
demands for stories of eerie mysteries and strange adventures to fill the pages
of its many magazines with. In this department's files are the resumes hundreds
of stuntmen, cowboys, acrobats, boxers, sailors, scientists, circus folk,
aviator's, ex-soldiers, big-game hunters, gunsels, dancers, aspiring actors and
actresses, and other types too diverse to easily classify, who are all available
for hire on short notice. This very large roster of adventuring types has been
compiled from a listing of all those who have answered classified advertisements
that Weird Masks places on an irregular basis in the New York Times, and other
large international newspapers. It's assumed that the PCs have been recruited by
"Weird Masks" in this same fashion. Those signed to a contract with
Weird Masks are sent to coaches for fisticuff training, fencing, horseback
riding and more--the normal grooming for potential heroes of this brand of pulp
adventures. They will also have access to expensive vehicles, equipment and
devices from the company's "Adventure Props Department". Sometimes the
curious loot from villains vanquished by Weird Mask contract heroes makes its
way into the Prop's warehouse, whose use makes for surprising results and
Colourful adventurers are especially sought for
by Weird Masks, especially those with fanciful nicknames and strange
backgrounds. Those that lack such a lurid nickname from either friends, or the
whim of the press will have one grafted on by one of Weird Masks in-house
writers (ie. the GM). Hence a lion tamer becoming, "Zara, the Black
Whip", or a daring race-car driver becoming "Swifty" Fraser.
Occasionally a nickname is inappropriate to the personality of the adventurer,
such as a nervous and timid paleontologist being stuck with "Tornado"
Smith as a moniker, but as Xagat would say (after first removing from his mouth
a particularly vile smelling cigar), "A larger than life name sells copy,
and the fancy name might just inspire you to greatness. Besides, pal, you ain't
got no choice. Read the fine print of your contract!"
One of the
stipulations of the job contract that Weird Masks insists on is that the team of
newly assembled adventurers must be willing to be accompanied by a few hack
writers, a secretary and an illustrator/photographer, who will all record the
various events and happenings that the adventurers encounter. Weird Masks is
willing to spend a great deal of money in training on behalf of promising
individuals; they are also determined to get their money's worth. For a healthy
salary and various bonuses for extra-daring heroics and especially memorable
lines that the writers can use, the players sign away all story rights of their
adventures. Not only does the accompanying magazine staff provide a transcript
of the adventures the PCs undergo, but they can suggest ways for players to get
into the proper pulp spirit, or even drop hints on things to do, "I think
Illingsworth would pay a hefty bonus if you tried to jump from that biplane,
onto that escaping car. Not that *I* recommend you do this, mind you...".
Depending on the GM, the team of pulp writers can take a very low key approach
to their job (ie. planting hidden recording bugs and robot camera equipment on
the PCs), else become active participants in the adventure (with their own roles
carefully edited out of the final pulp transcript).
If the GM wishes to
use the Weird Heroes campaign premise, players can each generate several
different PCs of varying backgrounds, histories and abilities. From this roster
of PCs, the GM, in the guise of the Chief Editor, can select the most
appropriate mix to play out a pulp game with themes as divergent as Lost Worlds,
Jungle-Love, Weird-Spy, Spicy-Zeppelin, Western-Horror, etc. Alternatively, for
even more fun, the GM can chose the most inappropriate collection of PCs,
who'll soon will have to come to terms with the wild diversity of their
backgrounds, talents and abilities in order to complete the task before them.
For some added variety, PCs could be one of the writers or flunkies assigned to
cover the story. They could also be the story scout who uncovers the mystery the
other PCs become involved with. As an additional twist, one of the adventurer
agents or story writers could be an imposter. This ringer could be a famous pulp
hero working incognito to lend a hand to the greenhorns. Alternatively, this
person could be the villain or an agent of the villain working to sabotage the
best efforts of the magazine's team of heroes. PCs themselves can be ringers of
this sort, or may have been hired for the task through false credentials. Such
PCs may find to their dismay they have bitten off far more than they can chew
once the true nature of their abilities and skills are found wanting in the face
of a real pulp danger.
A final, and particularly nasty variation on this
premise is the secret fact that the secret owner of Weird Masks is really a
nefarious pulp villain! The true owner is a megalomaniac with designs to rule
the world, whose insidious purpose in creating and running Weird Masks is to
first locate and then neutralize potential adventure-hero threats to their
diabolical plans. Middle-of-the-road heroes are left to handle mundane
mysteries, while more competent adventuring teams can be safely used as
unwitting pawns to thwart rival pulp villains or led on time-wasting wild goose
chases to occupy their time. If the PCs start to wonder just how and where Xagat
is getting all these juicy stories from, they can be safely diverted into
deathtraps, framed for awful crimes, or worse!
2) The Radio Heroes.
193_, the following advertisement appeared in many East coast newspapers:
JACK GALAHAD IS ON SILVER AIR NORTH
That intrepid knight of the Wild Blue Yonder,
Jack Galahad, can be heard with his daring
Chums every Friday Evening at 9:30 PM on all
Silver Air East affiliate stations. Tune in as
Jack and his "Knights of the Round World"
with Capt. November, The Strange Angel and Lady
every week in eerie and uncanny adventure.
Don't miss out on the EXCITEMENT!
characters are involved with the live broadcast of "Jack Galahad, and his
Knights of the World", an adventure radio-play that airs once a week on
Friday nights. Captain Galahad, a modern day paladin of the skies, travels the
world in the custom zep-plane, "Camelot", helping out people who find
themselves in trouble. He's aided by two other fellow adventurers; Sonia
"Lasagna" Smith, his crackerjack co-pilot, navigator and nurse; and
"Ape" Carney, his wizard radio-operator, grease monkey and cook
Using their wits, quick fists and the technological
marvels of his aircraft, "Camelot", Jack Galahad and his pals
encounter thrills, danger and excitement aplenty in each week's hour long
episode. Dodging their heels are a number of villainous sorts; the sinister
Captain November, a secret agent for a unnamed foreign power that considers Jack
and his pals a threat to their expansionist territorial plans; Lady Tarot, a
slinky red-haired vamp who seems to be torn between romantic entanglements with
Jack and the chance to steal and sell his amazing technological secrets to the
highest bidder; and the Strange Angel, a weird masked flyer known only by the
name of his eerie black-canvassed custom biplane, who wields seemingly
supernatural powers to spread chaos and destruction for reasons unknown.
The radio show is broadcast live, once a week, from the main studio of
the Silver Air North Radio Network, located on the 77th floor of the Argent
Tower in Chicago. It's major sponsor is Galahad Aviation, a major manufacturer
of innovative aircraft equipment, and the radio show is a promotional
advertising effort that has met with great success.
can be involved in the Radio Heroes campaign premise in a variety of ways. They
can be actors and actresses lending their voices for the show. For more rugged
characters (such as big game hunters or federal agents) they could be guest
emcee's for the show, giving a little talk before the radio-show begins on their
own "real" efforts to fight crime. Other PC's can be working as
radiotricians, sound effects persons, story-writers working on the show,
administrative staff (studio gophers, security guards, producers and lawyers).
They may even be members of a guest studio audience observing the show.
Unfortunately for the PCs, while they know that their show is not real,
others in their listening audience are not so well informed. Folks running from
trouble will converge on the studio headquarters of the radio show, intruding
and begging for help from the very surprised PCs. Ill-informed villains thinking
that "Jack Galahad" and his band of helpers might pose a threat to
their own nefarious plans and plots, will make preemptive strikes against the
show, and as a result, drag the heroes into bizarre plots that they would
otherwise remain happily ignorant of. Police, G-Men and "real" pulp
heroes (who will attract in turn their own arch nemeses) will think that where
there is smoke, there is fire, and will continually bother and badger the PCs
and the show. Things could get very interesting, especially if the PCs decide to
really enact the fictional characters they portray, if only in self defence from
all the harassments listed above.
Given its immense popularity of in such media as
film, television, comics and novels, the pulp genre has been surprisingly
underutilised by the RPG industry. With the immense popularity of the modern
superhero genre in RPGs, it is astonishing that their pulp counterparts from the
period before and during the Second World War have been virtually ignored. Comic
books and the superheroes who live in them are the direct literary descendants
of the pulps, with comic heroes as Batman, Spiderman and Superman having the
Shadow, the Spider and Doc Savage as their pulp counterparts. Cliffhanger
endings, strange disguises, epic adventures, secret identities, hidden hideouts,
deathtraps, weird-science and oddball villains, all which to some degree are
present in the comic-book and RPG superhero genres, were classic stylistic
conventions first forged in the fiery furnace of the pulps. Granted that the
unrealistic cinematic approach, absence of flashy superpowers, pre-Atomic
technology level, and narrow period of the era between the Depression and the
Second World War is off-putting for some, there is still a great deal of
fascinating material that can be explored in this style of gaming.
Primary Pulp Sources and
Maxwell Grant (pseudonym for Walter B. Gibson
who wrote the majority of the stories, as well as Theodore Tinsley and Bruce
Elliott). The Shadow series.
Robert Hogan. G-8 & his
Battle Aces series.
Brant House (pseudonym for Paul Chadwick,
G.T. Fleming-Roberts, Arthur Leo Zagat and R.T.M. Scott). Secret Agent X
Kenneth Robeson (pseudonym for Lester Dent). Doc
Savage series. Note that the unnumbered stories currently in print are new
novels ghost written by Destroyer author Will Murray.
(The first 20 novels by Paul Ernst under this pseudonym; subsequent novels
ghosted by Ron Goulart in the 1970's). The Avenger series.
Stockbridge (pseudonym for Norvell Page, though R. T. M. Scott wrote the
first two novels). The Spider series. Reprinted in double book format by
Carrol and Graf, with the latest (and likely final) volume being #8 at this
point of writing.
Books on or about the Pulps, Movie and Radio
Alan G. Barbour. "Days of Thrills and
Adventure". An illustrated survey of movie serials, divided by genre,
stars, stunt-men, etc.
Alistair Durie. "Weird Tales". A
survey of the authors, stories and artists of the premier pulp magazine of the
strange and the bizarre.
Frank Eisgruber Jr. "Gangland's
Doom". A slim and hard to find book that discusses the Shadow and his
various identities; brief synopses of his various exploits, his helpers, B&W
cover reproductions, etc.
Philip Jose Farmer. "Doc Savage: His
Apocalyptic Life". A loving look at Clark Savage Jr., his various lairs,
his famous helpers, his tom-boyish cousin, notable villains, gadgets, and even a
speculative family tree relating Doc Savage to most every other fictional and
real-life hero. Also check out his carefully researched and creative biography
of Edgar Rice Burroughs most famous Lord of the trees, "Tarzan Alive!"
Tony Goodstone. "The Pulps". A bright and cheerful
illustrated survey of the pulps, with a short story or two from each of the main
Ron Goulart. "Cheap Thrills". One of the
few survey books about the pulps, covering such genres as SF, Western,
Detective, etc., this book includes interviews with some of the original
Ron Goulart. "The Dime Detectives". An
examination of the mystery-detective pulp stories, with chapters on the Shadow,
the Spider, Doc Savage, Race Williams, Sam Spade, Philip Marlowe, and other
fictional gumshoe notables.
Walter B. Gibson. "The Shadow
Scrapbook". Actually written by the man who penned the vast majority of the
Shadow stories, this is a beautiful look at this dark avenger through essays, a
short story, a complete comic strip, a radio-script, listing of all the stories
and radio-episodes, colour plates on the original pulp covers, information about
the various Shadow movie-serials, and more! Well worth tracking down.
Harmon. "The Great Radio Heroes". A nostalgic, though at times
gushing, book about many radio serials of the 1930s to 1950s. It covers such
radio shows as "Little Orphan Annie", "Superman", "The
Lone Ranger", "I Love A Mystery", "The Shadow", and
many others. Highly recommended.
Robert Kenneth Jones. "The
Shudder Pulps". A look at one of the more bizarre genres of the pulps, the
horror-terror-weird-menace tale of newlyweds and couples beset by lusty
cripples, sadistic witches and bloodthirsty fiends; lots of quotes and synopses
from representative stories.
Jay Maeder. "Dick Tracy; the
Official Biography". A look at the comic-strip version of this famous
police detective, and the many oddball crooks he fought.
Prozini. "Gun In Cheek". A humorous trek through some of the worst
detective-mystery stories of all time. Not surprisingly, lots of pulp material
to be found here, and tons of great quotes from less than great stories.
Robert Sampson. "Spider". A deep and thoughtful look at the
novels involving the most messianic and violently right-wing of the pulp heros,
the Spider. The book includes a listing off titles, and a brief synopsis of many
of the stories, and is the definitive work on this character.
Sampson. "Yesterday's Faces". A five-volume series that looks at
the broad literary themes and characters of the early pulp stories, such as
Tarzan, the Red Raven, Nick Carter, etc.; it has less coverage of later hero
pulp characters and magazines.
Lee Server. "Danger is My
Business". A beautiful survey book of the pulp magazines. Wonderfully
illustrated with colour reproductions of many pulp covers. One of the few books
on the pulps actually still in print. Strangely enough, I found my copy in the
art section of my local bookstore; don't miss picking this up!
Steranko. "The Steranko History of Comics" (two vol.). Besides
having an entire chapter devoted to "The Bloody Pulps", there are tons
of material and ideas from golden-age comic-books that are entirely suitable for
Robert Weinberg (with John McKinstry). "The
Hero Pulp Index". Thumbnail sketches of every hero of the hero pulp
magazines, and a listing of every magazine appearance they had. The list of pulp
novel titles is extremely useful for triggering ideas for pulp adventures of
one's own. Hard to find, but well worth looking for.
(ed.). "The Man Who Was Doc Savage". Chock full of essays about
the gadgets, adventures and villains encountered by Doc, and articles about the
author of the Doc Savage stories, Lester Dent. This book also includes Dent's
pulp formula that he used to write all his Doc Savage stories.
& Ed Goodgold. "To Be Continued..." is a gold mine for RPG
ideas; this book lists nearly every adventure movie serial ever made, and
provides photos, a brief plot synopsis, a few of the more daring cliffhangers
encountered, and a cast of characters for each.
Comic Book Series
and Graphic Novels:
The Green Hornet
The Phantom Stranger
The Shadow Strikes
Sandman Mystery Theatre
Terry and the Pirates
Movie Serials Available on Home
The Adventures of Captain Marvel
Cliffhangers: Adventures from the Thrill
The Crimson Ghost
Daredevils of the Red Circle
Fighting Devil Dogs
King of the Rocket Men
Manhunt on Mystery Island
The Purple Monster
The Tiger Woman
Movies, Television & Cartoon Shows
The Big Sleep
Big Trouble in Little China
The "Bulldog Drummond" series
The "Charlie Chan" series
/The Two Jakes
Doc Savage: The
Man of Bronze
High Road to China
His Girl Friday
Invasion of the Body Snatchers
Island at the Top of the World
King Solomon's Mines
The Lady Vanishes
The Maltese Falcon
The Mark of Zorro
The Mask of
The "Mr. Moto" series
Murder, My Sweet
On the Town
The Old Dark House
The Prisoner of Zenda
the Lost Ark
/Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom
/Indiana Jones and
the Holy Grail
"Sherlock Holmes" series
The "Thin Man"
The Thirty-Nine Steps
The Wizard of Oz
The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr.
Bring 'Em Back Alive
The Green Hornet
Tales of the Gold Monkey
Young Indiana Jones
Role Playing Systems and
Buck Rogers: High Adventure Cliffhangers
RPG (TSR Games).
Call of Cthulhu RPG, 5th Ed. (Chaosium);
"Blood Brothers", "Shadows of Yog-Sothoth", "Curse of
the Cthonians", "Horror on the Orient Express" are some of the
more pulp-useful of the horror-adventure supplements available.
Daredevils RPG (Fantasy Games Unlimited); supplements include
"Black Claws", "Menace Beneath the Sea", "Supernatural
Adventures" and "Lost Worlds".
Dream Park RPG (R.
Talsorium); useful supplements include "Fiendish Agents of Falconberg"
and "Race for El Dorado".
Gangbusters, 3rd Ed. (TSR Games)
Gumshoe (Sleuth Publications Ltd.).
(Steve Jackson Games).
Gurps: Lensman (Steve Jackson Games).
Indiana Jones RPG (TSR Games); "Raider's of the Lost Ark",
"Temple of Doom", and "Fourth Nail", "Crystal
Death", "Golden Goddess" and "Nepal Nightmare"
James Bond RPG (Victory Games, Inc.); while
aimed at a modern setting background, pulp useful supplements for pulp
adventures include its "Thrilling Locations", "Villains" and
"Q Manual Supplement" sourcebooks.
Justice Inc. RPG (Hero
Games); titles include the adventure "Trail of the Gold Spike", and
the excellent "Lands of Mystery" Lost Worlds supplement.
Mercenaries, Spies and Private Eyes (Sleuth Publications Ltd.);
supplements include "Stormhaven", "Mugshots 1: Case of the China
Top Secret S.I. (TSR Games); "Agent 13
Torg (West End Games); excellent pulp supplements
include "The Nile Empire", "The Land Below", and
Blood Shadows/Indiana Jones (West End Games). Two
different RPGs using the same game engine, the first based on the pulp-magic
movie "Cast a Deadly Spell" and the second on the eponymous film
series. Scheduled for Summer or Christmas release, 1994.
Edgar Rice Burroughs. Nearly
everthing, but especially his Tarzan, Barsoom and Pellucidar series.
Carter. "The Nemesis of Evil" and later books in the Prince Zarkon
Raymond Chandler. "The Big Sleep", "Farewell
My Lovely" and the rest of his hard-boiled detective fiction.
Charteris. "The Saint" series.
Flint Dille and David
Marconi. "The Invisible Empire" and later books in the Agent 13:
The Midnight Avenger series.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Sherlock Holmes
and Professor Challenger stories.
Philip Jose Farmer. "Escape
From Loki" is an authorized novel recounting Doc Savage's first meeting
with his famous five pals during an escape made together from a P.O.W. camp in
World War I. His "Lord of the Trees", "The Mad Goblin" and
"A Feast Unknown" grouping of novels is an affectionate and
"realistic" homage to the Doc Savage and Tarzan stories. Try also the
novella's "Greatheart Silver", "The Adventure of the Peerless
Peer", and the short story "After King Kong Fell".
Dixon. The original Hardy Boys series outlined by Edward Stratemeyer, but
ghost-written by Leslie MacFarlane beginning in the late 1920's under the Dixon
Ron Goulart (ed.) "The Hardboiled Dicks." An
anthology of great detective yarns of the pulps, written by Lester Dent, Erle
Stanley Garnder, and others.
Carolyn Keene. The original Nancy Drew
series, outlined and written by Edward Stratemeyer under the Keene pseudonym.
Dashiell Hammet. "The Maltese Falcon", "Red
Harvest" and "The Thin Man", and the rest of his books and short
Robert E. Howard. Conan sword and sorcery stories, "The
Skull-face Omnibus", "The Incredible Adventures of Dennis
Dorgan", and "Solomon Kane" series.
R. Rider Haggard.
"King Solomon's Mines", "She", and other African adventure
H.P. Lovecraft. The Cthulhu cycle of stories (i.e. "The
Call of Cthulhu", "At the Mountains of Madness", etc.) and other
stories of the strange and bizarre.
Rob MacGregor. The new Indiana
Jones series of novels, that includes "Indiana Jones & the Peril of
Delphi", and "Indiana Jones & the Interior World".
Merritt. "The Moon Pool", "Dwellers in the Mirage",
"Seven Footsteps to Satan", and other fantasy novels.
Moore. "Northwest Smith" collection of SF short stories, and
Bryon Preiss, ed. "Weird Heroes" anthology
Sax Rohmer. Fu Manchu novels; great for ideas on deathtraps
and "Yellow Peril" adventure.
Seabury Quinn. Jules de
Grandin scientific occult detective series.
Drummond" series of a British gentleman adventurer.
"Doc" Smith. Lensmen and Skylark series; galaxy-spanning gosh-wow
Weinberg, Dziemianowicz & Greenberg (eds.)
"Rivals of Weird Tales". An anthology of weird-fantasy fiction
reprinted from pulps other than the granddaddy of them all, "Weird
Gahan Wilson. "Eddy Deco's Last Caper". A fun
spoof that mixes the pulp SF and detective genres, with a big dollop of Art Deco
H.G. Wells. "The Time Machine", and other
Excerpts from this article were previously published in The Familiar.
Brian Misiaszek is a long-term pulp fan; he is currently earning an MD in
Family Medicine in London, Ontario. You can send email to Brian at email@example.com.
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