I've been doing a lot of thinking lately about running a pulp adventure game. My friend Rob talked me into the idea in these very pages, when I waxed rhapsodic about the genre and its siren call. It was energizing to finally have a player that was excited about pulp, because I've been trying to sell it to groups for many years.
I was a big fan of White Wolf's wonderful ADVENTURE! RPG, which had a metric ton of inspiration even if I didn't care for the ruleset so much. I was an early adopter of SPIRIT OF THE CENTURY, although I must admit that it too served more as a tease than a window to pulpy adventures -- I used the early incarnation of FATE inside to run many things over the years, but rarely what was advertised on the cover.
There have been others: HOLLOW EARTH EXPEDITION is a beautiful book with all kinds of awesome in it, but it's wrapped up in a system that's a little too fiddly for my liking. The core "use any die you want" mechanic of Ubiquity is great, but there are just a few too many geegaws welded onto that elegant frame. SAVAGE WORLDS has a lot to like about it, and a generally pulpy tone, but it's way too swingy for my liking. And I never did find an alternative to the "Shaken" rules that easily fixed the issues I have with a player being sidelined during combat, possibly for a long while.
Bearing in mind the above, I had a bear to wrestle now that I'd finally made the decision to run a game in this genre. What rules to use? You might think the answer would be obvious: SPIRIT, or some more modern version of Fate (such as the excellent FATE ACCELERATED EDITION, which is now my go-to Fate game). Usually, you'd be right, but having just come off running two games using Fate in the last six months, I'm ready to run something different. I had already decided -- before I'd actually settled on a subject -- that my next game would not, could not, be Fate. Sorry, Evil Hat guys, I love you and your game a lot, but papa needs a little vacation from Aspectville USA.
After leafing through a number of games on my shelves, during which I briefly considered MUTANTS & MASTERMINDS (lovely, but too much of that system would be unnecessary for what I've got in mind) and WILD TALENTS (the default mode is too gritty for pulp), I settled on the lovely and simple PDQ system as it appears in SWASHBUCKLERS OF THE 7 SKIES. PDQ feels like a distant cousin of Fate, and should be a good fit for the group and the subject matter without a lot of heavy lifting. I still have to read the version of PDQ included with TRUTH AND JUSTICE (the superhero incarnation of that ruleset) to see if there are tweaks I want to make with the rules.
The next step was to decide on an angle with the material that would be cool. I remembered all the cool stuff in the above books, and especially Jess Nevins's STRANGE TALES OF THE CENTURY, a glorious supplement for SotC that explores a lot of the most important archetypes (and briefly catalogues the real-world pulp characters who fit into them) and, more importantly, places them in historical context against a global backdrop spanning the thirty-plus years of the pulp era.
Which era would I use? The Roaring Twenties? The Dirty Thirties? The war-torn Forties? The Fifties seemed less likely, but perhaps there was some juice there (although Indiana Jones's latter-day Commie-fighting adventures left a thoroughly bad taste in my mouth). Maybe there was a way to combine them all in one sprawling, Nazi-punching narrative?
Stay tuned for the next pulse-pounding chapter!