An RPG Resource Review:
‘Pulp’ is the name of the game. Launching into an explanation of just what that means, the authors capture a feel reminiscent of the “Boys’ Own Paper” type of material that my Dad used to read… Larger than life heroes, deeds of derring-do, ancient mysteries to explore and villains with world-conquest in mind to overcome. Even if you aren’t planning a game right now, it’s a rollicking good read.
The book opens with an excerpt from a typical Pulp serial written by John Wick. The usual brave hero and beautiful woman face down evil genius and his gun-toting cohorts with comments of the “If you harm a single hair of her head I’ll break every bone in your body” nature flying around (OK, that one’s from Bulldog Drummond…). This is followed by a note from one of the authors, Dave Webb, explaining that the whole thing is Alternate (larger-than-life) History and the whole point is to have fun; and an Introduction from Kenneth Hite… who reiterates that never mind how much _ireal/i_ history you know, this is the time to sling it aside in favour of going wild on exotic locations, weird science and swashbuckling action.
So. Let’s get on with it… past a beautiful full-page evocative drawing and… what’s this? Chapter 1: So What is Pulp? I thought you’d just told us that… well, for those who have not yet got the message, it’s explained again in more detail and then we hear a little about the world of _iForbidden Kingdoms/i_ itself, loosely based on our own world between 1889 and 1939. It’s a black and white world, easy to distinguish between Good and Evil.
And now, onto the meat of the thing – the next few chapters set the scene. The first is Steampunk, and talks about some of the wondrous inventions spawned by the likes of Babbage – there are some five of these impressive brass and steel machines, driven by clockwork and steam, to be found around the world, a world that they have changed beyond all recognition. Transportation is transformed by dirigibles and celestial elevators, while weapons and equipment have also advanced in wild and mysterious ways. This section is written in the ‘voice’ of an Englishwoman, and captures the prejudice and attitudes of an aristocratic lady of the 1890s perfectly as she describes the various parts of the world that one can visit – the United States full of east-coast sharp operators, wild gunslingers and natives in the north-west; the mysterious Orient with the quaint customs practiced by Japanese (a class of society devoted to ‘warfare, tea and very short poetry’) and Chinese (who have the temerity to wear red wedding dresses and attend funerals in white!); the steamy jungles full of undiscovered ancient treasures that cover South America and so on – India, Africa, under the sea and even the Moon feature as well. And if that’s not enough, there are a selection of historical and fictional ‘celebrities’ you might want to meet – Queen Victoria, Alan (Allen) Quartermain or Sherlock Holmes, amongst others. Bad guys too: Fu Man-Chu, Drs Moriarty and Moreau and more. An outline of daily life both at home or when on an expedition, ideas for places to visit (and reasons why a respectable Victorian lady or gentleman might want to go there) and some scenario ideas round the chapter off.
Chapter 3: Tesla Time launches off with a note about the assassination of US President Bill McKinley by Leon Czolgosz in 1901; and here the ‘voice’ changes to that of an American army rough rider, a practical man who is here to explain things as _ihe/i_ sees them. After a few comments about modes of transportation, he gets on to Nikolai Tesla – who in this reality has created a model city called Manchester (not the one about 40 miles from where I’m writing, this one is in the US and powered hydroelectrically from the Niagara Falls). This is the Tesla that might have been, the one who developed all the ideas that the real one mostly just wrote about. Some have linked the Tunguska explosion to Tesla’s experimentation with low frequency emissions, well here he is helping to investigate (although his actions are a bit suspicious, maybe he _idid/i_ have something to do with it!). This is followed by accounts of more derring-do in which both Reno Wylder, our narrator, and Tesla feature large, as do a fine villain, Dr Ignatius Kreel. These would all make perfectly good adventures… and lead on to a visit to Paris, which is the ghost capital of the world, it seems. History moves on, with the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand (‘The Shot that Rang Around the World’) ushering in the Great War and the narrow survival of the Tsarist Empire in Russia over the communist threat. Carter discovers Tut-ankh-amun’s tomb while Prohibition assists the growth of organised crime in the US, and Lindbergh flies the Atlantic… and loses his child to kidnappers.
The next chapter is entitled Nazi Thugs, and again the ‘voice’ changes, being now that of an historian cousin of our previous narrator. New inventions support exploration into ever more inhospitable and inaccessible parts of the world, such as the Antarctic, underwater and on the highest mountain peaks. The Third Reich has, it seems, risen even faster than it did in the ‘real world’ and is busy pushing back the frontiers of exploration – from an Antarctic base that’s issuing claims of having discovered Atlantis to the new science of psychology and a promise to set a man upon the Moon by 1950… while a robot woman is unveiled, analytical engines develop further than ever Babbage dreamed and an attempt at a cross-channel viaduct fails due to unseasonable storms. Meanwhile in England, Edward VIII married Mrs Wallace Simpson but rather than abdicate, he dismissed the Archbishop of Canterbury and replaced him with someone prepared to recognise his marriage and crown them King and Queen! This led to schism and dissent at all levels of English society, with writs of excommunication flying fast and the government of the day collapsing, thus allowing Winston Churchill to take office as Prime Minister in 1938. Again, the chapter rounds off with ideas for adventures that might intrigue your players.
Chapter 5, at last, gets onto Characters, and how to create them. All characters are, of necessity, human as far as race is concerned; and there are eight core classes to choose from: Academic, Clergy, Expert, Explorer, Idle Rich, Mystic, Scoundrel and Soldier-of-Fortune. As a D20 book, reference is of necessity made to the _iPlayer’s Handbook/i_ for certain aspects of character generation, with exceptions from ‘standard’ D20 practice being clearly shown – such as the acquisition of languages – purely skill-point based, with no bonus for your Intelligence. Another interesting variation is the rule for multi-classing – you may multi-class as much as you please without attracting an XP penalty for doing so. However, there may be consequences of having _ileft/i_ your former class, and these are given under each class description… although it appears that the only folk at risk are Clergy (who understandably will lose the favour of their deity if they lose their faith in Him) and the Martial Mystic subclass, who are unable to maintain their training if they spend time on other things, so once they turn from that class may no longer take levels in it.
Chapter 6, as one might expect, looks at ‘New Rules, Skills and Feats’ and their main purpose is to emphasise what differences there are between this system and ‘standard’ D20 rules. The first, and major, change is the abandonment of simplistic _bDungeons & Dragons/b_ style hit points (i.e. increasing dramatically as your character rises in level) to a dual system of ‘wound points’ and ‘stamina points.’ Your stamina determines how much damage you take or exertion you can undertake before you fall over exhausted, and still depend on your class and level, hit-point style. Your wound points, however, depend on your Constitution and your size, and losing them is bad news, that’s real physical damage to your person. Most damage sustained is taken from your stamina points first, although things such as critical hits or injuries received after you have used up all your stamina points will come directly off your wound points. This style of dividing damage between real harm and general aches is a growing trend amongst better-thought out games, and allows for a greater measure of realism than pure ‘hit points’ without having too much book-keeping to detract from role-playing in a fight.
The way in which injuries are sustained – and recovered from – and their effects is discussed in detail, so nobody should be in any doubt of what they are doing in combat situations. In natural progression, the next item is Defence – a score drawn from class, level and Dexterity and used in place of _bD&D’s/b_ Armour Class, reflecting the character’s ability to dodge or withstand whatever the opposition throws at him. If you wear armour, you are limited in how much effect your Dexterity has on your Defence. Armour works differently too. It provides ‘protection’ in that it reduces the amount of damage you take once a blow has landed, rather than making it harder to hit you.
Finally, there is a wholly-new concept – Hero Points. You get one per level, and use them to, in effect, roll a natural 20 at a time of great need. They refresh when you gain a level, and any you haven’t used at that time are converted to experience points before you get your new batch.
The notes on skills mostly look at existing published skills within D20 Fantasy and what changes are necessary for a ‘pulp’ world – new areas of knowledge for example – although there are new skills which enable you to use a Babbage engine, conduct a civilised conversation (or bribe someone), drive or pilot all manner of vehicles and use firearms. Note that if you are familiar with other D20 games such as _bD20 Modern/b_ or _bSpycraft/b_ you will already have encountered many of these skills; however, this game is built on the basis of familiarity with _bDungeons and Dragons/b_. The same applies to feats – mostly modification of the ‘ranged combat’ ones to allow firearms use and a few new ones applicable to the ‘pulp’ situation. A few new feats and skills are listed here but become relevant if you choose to use some of the optional rules that come later… The chapter winds up with the vehicle rules. While the _bSpycraft/b_ vehicle chase rules probably have a slight edge especially if your taste tends to the cinematic, these are a sound and comprehensive set of rules for general vehicle use.
Next comes a chapter on prestige classes. Some of them give scope for development in interesting directions, given the various options available both in prestige classes and in additional rules options (which I’ll be getting to in a minute). The options are Adventurer, Arcanologist (a student and practitioner of the arcane arts), Chosen (marked and supported by his chosen deity), Crimefighter (anything from Elliot Ness to a costumed vigilante), Diplomat, Spiritualist (as in, a medium), Spy and Weird Scientist. Not all will be available, depending on the direction in which the GM wishes to take the game – particularly things like magic, psionics or weird science may or may not be allowed.
We then come to two specialist areas of endeavour, which although touched upon earlier within the appropriate classes, skills and feats are sufficiently different to warrant separate treatment. The first is ‘Magic’ – not flash-bang fantasy, but the more deliberate and studious ritual sort. The chapter also deals with ‘Miracles’ – the spells and effects that can be wrought in their Deity’s name by clerics and chosen. Although there are some fairly quick spells – indeed many that will be familiar to a _bD&D/b_ player, others will require substantial effort to be spent in study and research before they can be performed… and indeed the actual enactment of the ritual may also be time-consuming. Examples are given, as well as the rules for researching and constructing your own rituals.
Next comes ‘Weird Science.’ This is reminiscent of _bDeadlands/b_ (and indeed the D20 version is cited in the OGL copyright list at the end of the book, as I discovered when I had read that far!). The process of invention is detailed, with the would-be inventor first having to decide what he wants to do and come up with the underpinning theory, then design his weird device, gather the bits he requires and then finally to construct it. All time-consuming, expensive and liable to (often explosive) failure.
These are followed by copious equipment lists, with specimen prices, to enable you to send your characters forth with all that the well-provided for gentleman or lady might require when adventuring. Prices are given for the ‘steampunk’ era and for the 1920s and -30s. So if your players decide that they want a hot-air balloon, an ouija board or a ‘straight’ jacket (grr – there are few spelling errors in this book but like many folks the authors appear not to know that it’s a STRAITjacket!)… you can tell them how much it will cost.
Although touched upon – mainly in cost – in the previous chapter, the next one is devoted to firearms. With a reminder that firearms in the average ‘pulp’ setting tend to be less deadly than the real thing – heroes routinely run through a hail of bullets unscathed – the chapter launches into a good primer on the basics for those who are not familiar with firearms… well worth the read whatever your game, if you need to know what the gun-buffs are talking about! Everything is firmly rooted in how it affects the game mechanic, which saves it from becoming a gun treatise. It then proceeds – another extremely useful bit – to explain in detail how to model a firearm accurately using the rules… so now all your players can have their own favourite weapon whether or not its in the list, provided they know the basic specifications. The chapter rounds off with notes on firearms combat and a couple of sample weapons showing how they have been modelled.
Now we come to the ‘options’ – self-contained sets of rules for specific components of the game which may be mixed and matched to create the milieu that you desire. The first is a beautifully-designed martial arts system, which is intended to enable you to model your chosen style in considerable detail. To become a martial artist, you need to take a feat called Initiation into the Way, which enables you to take the skill Technique. For each rank you take in Technique, you learn a new move selected from those used by your chosen style. At higher ranks, you become eligible for extra martial arts feats as well. Then when you want to fight, you combine these moves to create that style in action. People looking for a good way to model martial arts in a D20 game could do well to explore this option, even if their game is not a ‘pulp’ one… it comes the closest of those I have seen to enabling you to mimic actual real world styles. For those who are not personally knowledgeable, there is an excellent summary of a wide range of styles both familiar and unusual for you to choose from. Examples are given of how a practitioner of a certain style might progress in moves as he gains Technique ranks, but you will have to do quite a lot of work – and some research if you don’t know the style you wish to portray – to develop other styles. Plenty of examples are also given of actual martial arts combat. Naturally, this method provides ample scope for the keen martial artist to develop his own style and found a school!
The next chapter looks at Psionics, another staple of the ‘pulp’ genre. Any sentient being may start on the road to psionic power by taking the feat Psionic Talent. You can then start developing psionic skills and taking additional psionic feats. A huge range of psionic abilities are presented, each with copious examples of their use in the game. Interestingly, all the psionic powers are conscious – there is no scope for the person who has abilities operating at an unconscious level (which can be a lot of fun, particularly for the GM!). As well as the usual offensive, defensive and intrusive abilities there are also psionic skills designed to enhance your own senses and thought process – for example, ones that allow you to undertake complex mathematical calculations, recall past events in perfect detail or sense your surroundings or the details of a particular object more effectively. Again, this is capable of being used in isolation as the psionic system for any D20 game of your choice.
Finally, and mainly for the GM, there is a chapter on Villains and Monsters. There are several well-developed adversaries, the sort who would make excellent evil masterminds to pit against your heroes; and a selection of creatures such as vampires, ghosts, hellhounds, etc., for them to fight.
Overall, this product has atmosphere, a good feel for the sweep of history and cunning manipulation thereof to create an alternate reality that does hold together well. The martial arts rules are probably the best I’ve seen, and transferable to any D20 game. But boy it does go on a bit at times! And if you don’t have a good grasp of the _ireal/i_ history of the period, a lot of the changes will be lost on you, the alternate history is so well written that if you don’t happen to know better it will be difficult to sift fact from fiction.
This is a good interpretation of the D20 mechanics as applied to the ‘pulp’ genre, for which the authors have a good feel. The martial arts and psionics rules are excellent contributions to the D20 system as a whole, and worthy of consideration whatever particular game you wish to play.