Thursday, 30 April 2015

Seven Stars in the Rearview (Part Three)

One of the recurring themes of the game, in retrospect, was travel. We had agreed that the game was to be a globetrotting adventure in the Indiana Jones mold, rather than an extended expedition to a single exotic locale, or a tale of pulpy masked heroes fighting crime in the shadows of a big American city, and almost every episode had the player characters visiting a new port of call: Shanghai. Hong Kong. Cairo. London. Rome and the Vatican. New York. San Francisco. Rio. Buenos Aires. Virtually no corner of the globe went unexplored, and that meant that as GM, I had to constantly be painting in new pieces of setting.

That was part of the fun of the whole exercise, of course. I got to play scenes against a wide variety of backdrops, introducing a lot of supporting characters that the player characters were acquainted with (all the better to catch up over a nice cigar and some good brandy). It did mean that I was constantly having to do research, at least enough to capture the character of the place and find some interesting opportunities for action and intrigue. Some of that could be done on the almighty internet, of course, which was a goldmine of historical ephemera and photographs. Just the thing to show you where historical airfields were in England in 1936, and if that happened to lead you to an experimental flying wing you could connect to your missing millionaire inventor, so much the better. I made a point of stitching together some of the photographs into a slideshow I could play as the player characters arrived in each new location, to give them a sense of what it looked like and what the mood of the place was.

Luckily for me, I had been squirreling away resource material for a pulp adventure campaign set in the 1930’s for quite some time. This has become a standard mode of game development for me: snatch up every bit of game material or historical books about a setting I’m interested in, and store them away against the day they’ll be needed. (Some would argue that’s more of a pathology than a research strategy, but phooey to you.) I had been yearning for a game like this for a long time, and I happened to have several meaty books that helped me a lot.

That remarkable font of historical and literary minutiae, Jess Nevins, provided me with STRANGE TALES OF THE CENTURY, an invaluable supplement for Evil Hat’s beloved SPIRIT OF THE CENTURY RPG. Nevins not only fleshes out the setting of SPIRIT, he also includes a long and detailed discussion of pulp archetypes (which helped my players think about characters quite a lot) and a nice historical introduction to a wide range of countries around the world where an adventurer might visit. Any time I needed to know a few details about what, for example, Argentina looked like in the Dirty Thirties, Jess Nevins had my back. If you haven’t already read it, this book is damned near indispensible reading for anyone who loves pulp, and it’s just a hell of a lot of fun too.

Additionally, I had the formidable Call of Cthulhu mega-campaign MASKS OF NYARLATHOTEP for reference material, providing me with lots of useful stuff on Shanghai, Egypt, and London. (Running MASKS is another box I’ve got unchecked on my pulp bucket list. For now.) Of even more use was the amazing MASKS OF NYARLATHOTEP COMPANION from Innsmouth House Press. This remarkable volume expands – a lot! – on the historical background and setting material in the classic campaign, providing vast amounts of information for anyone interested in the era or anticipating characters who wander off the already vasty diversions MASKS has to offer. This book was absolutely indispensible to me, and like STRANGE TALES, it’s a must for anyone interested in the genre/era.

It would be uncharitable at least to not talk about the great pulp RPGs that influenced me in the writing of this game. SPIRIT is at the top of my list, of course – although it’s probably aged a little badly as an incarnation of the Fate rules, it’s still a font of great ideas that nails the feel of the genre perfectly. Also, it gave the world Gorilla Khan. White Wolf’s ADVENTURE! is probably second on my list of favourites, and there is still a metric ton of awesome packed in that book for any pulp fan. (Again, the system is not something I would go back to these days, but that shouldn’t stand in the way of anyone looking for inspiration.) A more recent pulp game that I have a lot of love for is the lavishly-illustrated HOLLOW EARTH EXPEDITION, which has a nice even-or-odds dice pool system but a little more crunch than I wanted. I also enjoyed the background material and character archetypes in THRILLING TALES, although neither d20 nor Savage Worlds were quite what I was looking for in this game.

The game I ended up using for this campaign was PDQ#, the variant of the “Prose Descriptive Qualities” system that appears in SWASHBUCKLERS OF THE 7 SKIES. Ultimately, I might have been better served by some variant of Fate (if I were to run it today, I’d probably use the version in ATOMIC ROBO) but I needed to take a break from that system for a bit, and I feel like PDQ# did what I wanted to do. Some of the best moments in the game where when I faded the system into the background, but that was more as a time consideration than as an acknowledgement that the system wasn’t doing what it was supposed to do. Perhaps it would have felt stronger in a game of swashbuckling swordsmen than it did in a game of varied pulp heroes, but I am satisfied that it worked for my purposes (which were mainly fights). Yes, it did not provide long-term disadvantages to the characters, but I’m not sure the genre does that either. Indiana Jones is in a lot of pain after escaping Cairo with the Ark, but he pulls himself together inside a scene and is back on the Nazi-punching trail.

To be continued

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