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Category Archives: Pulps

Crimefighters and Typos

In my previous post I talked about the game Crimefighters, published in Dragon Magazine #47. The time demands for getting it published resulted in some entertaining typos.

This one is my favorite:

“However, the actual historical conditions of this period have been played down in favor of the atmosphere presented in the pulp navels.”

Who knows what lint lurks in the bellybuttons of men? The Shadow Knows.

 

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Posted by on April 15, 2016 in Gaming, Pulps

 

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Crimefighters

“Dark Night Dan settled into the recess of the window, knowing there was not long to wait. If his informer was right, the enemy saboteur would try to destroy the secret war material tonight. Dan would be ready in the fog to meet him…”

Dragon Magazine, Issue 47, Pg. 29

I love going through old issues of Dragon; you never know what you’re going to find. Recently I came across an interesting gem in issue #47, a complete (if rough) pulp-hero role playing game by David “Zeb” Cook called Crimefighters.

It wasn’t uncommon for games to be published in Dragon, and some were quite fun. Games like King of the Tabletop and Clay-o-Rama even saw repeated play at our gaming table and are worth posts of their own. However the idea of TSR publishing a complete role playing system through Dragon is something I never expected. Yet there it is, March 1981, and it wasn’t a small affair. The rules consist of 17 pages, with an additional four page adventure, all illustrated by Jeff Dee. This was followed by a one page article by Bryce Knorr about the history of pulps. That’s a significant page count for a 78 page magazine.

So how is the game?

It’s a fun and interesting read and it certainly looks playable and from a history standpoint it is especially fun. I doubt Cook had more than a month or so to throw the system together and I’d be surprised if it had more than a couple playtests before it went into the magazine. Yet despite its rushed feel it’s a complete game and looks like something you could jump into and have fun with. If my friends and I had owned Issue #47 I am sure we would have played the heck out of Crimefighters.

That being said, the system doesn’t hold up well by today’s standards. I have plenty of games on my shelf that do a better job, but for 1981 it was virtually alone in the pulp niche. TSR’s Gangbusters wouldn’t be published for another year. Top Secret was already on the market and was certainly adaptable, but it didn’t truly delve into pulp heroes until Top Secret S/I’s Agent 13 Sourcebook in the late 80’s.

The mechanics are an odd mix of old design tropes and new ideas, with a few interesting gems worth looking at. Character attributes are rolled randomly using a percentage system, then modified based on the roll. The modifications improve your stats proportionally, improving low rolls more than high rolls. The result is that no matter how bad you roll, you will have above-average abilities suitable for a pulp hero. Another interesting design choice is that your attributes include separate stats for your right and left hand accuracy, meaning your rolls determine if you are right or left handed, or ambidextrous.

A fun attribute is Presence, the ability of the character to influence others through charm or intimidation. At the cost of 20 points from their Willpower attribute a PC can roll against their Presence stat to force their will on an NPC. This is a delightfully appropriate Pulp idea.

Characters also have the chance to possess a mystical ability, such as hypnotism or invisibility. The chance of having such a power is slim, though a character may acquire one in the campaign by spending enough experience points. Some of these powers require the expenditure of Willpower (as with Presence) or Hit Points to activate, reflecting the mental exertion used to, “cloud men’s minds,” as The Shadow would say. The mechanics for using such powers are simple and understandable and back in the day when we were playing several times a week the acquisition of such abilities would have been a major character goal. Though were I to play Crimefighters today I’d let each player start with a randomly assigned power.

The game is skill based and here we find another interesting idea. Not all skills require a roll to be successful, for example if you have the Mechanic skill you can fix a car engine. The GM decides how long it will take based on the difficulty of the job and materials on hand, but no roll is required. You WILL get that car running eventually. We see this in modern game design, but in the early 80’s this was an unusual idea.

Combat is deadly. “In general, combat is short and quick, with the side acting most decisively and quickly getting the victory.” This is a game where you want to control the fight if you plan to survive. Players should use their wits, as on average they’ll have from 15-25 hit points, while the bullet from a .45 will do 2-8 damage. Frequent or prolonged fights are going to go against the unprepared PC.

The procedure for combat is intriguing, but is also one of the places that the game hasn’t aged well. Combat starts by determining the distance, then the players state their actions, then initiative is rolled, then actions are taken. The way actions work is unique and while I’m not sure it would work well in practice, it’s fascinating to consider. Each action takes a number of seconds to accomplish. The player can declare as many or as few actions as they wish, adding up the required seconds for the string. Once declared the player must follow through with all of them or cancel the sequence, they cannot change the plan. So a player may choose to declare a long string of actions and hope to save a few precious seconds overall, or they may declare a short action hoping to stay more flexible.

There are no classes in the traditional sense, but the character receives experience based on a role determined by the players. Defenders gain double experience for each criminal they bring to justice, but none for criminals who are killed. Avengers gain only half experience for criminals sent to jail, and then only if they confess. It’s implied, but not stated, that they get normal experience for killed criminals. Pragmatists gain normal experience for criminals sent to jail and half experience for killed criminals.

The rules include a short but solid section on creating pulp adventures and how it differs from the traditional location (i.e. dungeon) settings that gamers would be used to.There are also rules for using Random Encounters, which are not tied to the adventure plot. The value of including these in a mystery-based game seems dubious and more like another artifact from D&D, but it does give me something new to consider.

The introductory adventure is a solid, fun mystery that comes complete with a city map and a couple floor plans. It is quite suitable for anyone looking to run a short game and worth a look.

My final verdict? While the game would have definitely been worth playing in the early 80’s, I would not run it today. The real joy is in the reading, seeing what David Cook could come up with in a short amount of time, seeing the transitional design elements and recognizing the concepts that would show up in later games, and the fun of knowing that at one time TSR would devote that much space in Dragon to give its readers a complete role playing game.

Crimefighters is a delightful artifact. If you want to check it out for yourself, there is a link from the game’s Wikipedia page where you can download the rules in .PDF format.

MF-spy

 
 

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Why I will Never Get Caught Up

If I never bought another book, never checked out another thing from the library, never downloaded another e-book from Project Gutenberg, I’d still have enough reading material to keep me busy for a long time.

And things like this keep popping up, the Bundle of Holding has a package deal on Rocket Age by Cubicle 7.

Now, if this was just about having another sci-fi rules set, it wouldn’t be so attractive to me; I have enough of those to fill a supermassive black hole. But this bundle comes with sourcebooks and adventures. I love Flash Gordon-style sci-fi, I love sourcebooks, and I love reading adventures.

The only thing holding me back is that lately I’ve been reading fewer e-books, and I really am trying to conserve some cash. But there are still eleven days left for this bundle to wear me down.

If any of my readers have seen these books and care to chime in, I’d love to hear your opinions.

Image from http://www.pdclipart.org/

 
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Posted by on April 7, 2016 in Gaming, Pulps, Science Fiction

 

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Stop the Presses!

One of the perks of living in Southwest Ohio is that I’m not terribly far from the National Air Force Museum in Dayton, OH. It’s a wonderful facility, filled with aircraft and artifacts from every era of flight. Including of course the dawn of flight, appropriate for a museum located not far from the Wright Brothers’ home.

Not long ago we took a family trip to the museum. In the section where they have a Wright Flyer they also have an issue of the Washington Post dated Saturday, July 31st, 1909 that includes the announcement of the Wright Brother’s first flight.

This is a cool thing in itself, but what caught my gamer’s eye were two more articles that also ran on the front page; one is about a new secret weapon rumored to have been developed by the U.S. military and the second regarding a medical breakthrough that would be quite at home in the annals of mad science.

Please excuse the image quality. I had planned to find better shots online, but the Post’s archives are behind a paywall.

WashPost1

The first story is about a death ray that can hurl lighting to, “Make Enemy’s Guns Useless, Slay Men, and Cripple Ships.” The story comes from an anonymous source within a European government, and is used as an explanation for why the U.S. military seemed to have very little interest in the success of the Wright Flyer. The suggestion is that aircraft would be insignificant against an army capable of swatting them out of the sky with lightning bolts.

The second story is unrelated to flight, but no less intriguing:

WashPost2

The topic is a medical procedure being explored in Paris, by which a surgeon could sever a nerve in the brain. Doctor Bonnier believed that removal of this nerve, “relieved greatly persons suffering from melancholia and timidity.” Speculation was that the procedure had, “the possibility of turning a coward into a hero by a surgical operation,” a concept that was of interest in 1909, when everyone knew that another major European war would happen sooner or later.

I couldn’t locate more information on Dr. Bonnier, though I did find reference to the article in a professional journal of Phrenology. However it’s worth noting that the article uses the past tense regarding the doctor’s procedure.

He’d already performed the operation. More than once.

To sum up; we have the front page of a world-renowned newspaper running articles about aircraft, death rays, and medically created supermen.

Happy gaming!

 
 

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Divas, Dames, & Daredevils

A fun book hit my reading table recently, courtesy of my local public library, Divas, Dames, & Daredevils: Lost Heroines of Golden Age Comics. Written by Mike Madrid, the book is a collection of stories about heroines from the dawn of comics and includes a good deal of history about the characters and the industry.

Divas focuses in on books from the 30’s and 40’s, in a time when comics were still raw and their pulp foundations were still strong. It was a time before the Comics Code Authority sapped the life out of the books, blunting their edge and taming their characters. The heroines of these stories are hard fighting, tough characters, of a kind we don’t expect to see before the 70’s and 80’s.

“In these very early days of comic books, there weren’t as many established rules about how women characters should or shouldn’t act. As a result, many of these Golden Age heroines feel bold and modern as we read them today.”

Divas, Dames, & Daredevils – pg. 15

And bold they are.

I’ve been a comic book fan for most of my life. The pulp and super hero genres are favorites of my gaming group and one of the things we love to do is find obscure characters and introduce them into our games. This book presents us with a collection of adventurers and super heroes that covers quite a spectrum of styles.

“Modern day comic book readers might be surprised at the broad spectrum of heroines in Golden Age comics – daring masked vigilantes, queens of lost civilizations and intergalactic warriors, crafty reporters and master spies, witches and jungle princesses, goddesses and regular gals.”

Divas, Dames, & Daredevils – pg. 15

Madrid breaks the book up into sections based on different heroic styles, such as Women at War about heroines fighting in WWII, Mystery Women in the same style as The Shadow and The Spider, and Warriors & Queens whose adventures rival the likes of Flash Gordon. Each section includes a bit of history, and introduction to the featured characters, and a reprint of several adventures.

Because these characters come from anthology comics, their stories are short and tight. This does come at the cost of depth and the stories are simplistic compared to comics today, but this will be nothing new to readers familiar with golden age comics.

There are several characters who stood out in particular for me. One is Madame Strange, a vengeful woman of mystery who exterminates Axis spies without mercy. Among the Mystery Women, Mother Hubbard caught my attention for being a classic old witch complete with broomstick and potions, but who wields her black magic against crime. My favorite of the Daring Dames is Calamity Jane, a hard boiled noir detective who has more in common with Phillip Marlowe than the femme fatales he deals with.

Then there is Wildfire, a heroine with a magical power over flames. Wildfire stands out in this collection, as she is a character who would be at home in the Justice Society. Wildfire enjoys being a heroine and wields her abilities with wit and humor, showing the same “daring do” as Jay Garrick’s Flash or Johnny Storm’s Human Torch.

Another intriguing character is The Sorceress of Zoom, who possesses vast magical powers and travels the world via a city on a cloud. The Sorceress is interesting because she is not a hero, not intentionally. She is motivated by a selfish desire to expand her power and she is willing to kidnap and threaten innocent people to achieve her goals, but she does follow a personal code of honor. The Sorceress collects power for its own sake, but she comes into conflict with those who would use it for base villainy. In the end she defeats these petty mortals, rewards those who have served her well, and moves on to seek her next adventure.

It’s a delight to see these characters, heroines who have an edge and allowed to take the lead, and there is a sense of discovery as you read about these characters who have been lost to time. Madrid has a passion for these characters and it comes through in his writing. If you’re interested in the history of comic books, the role of women in early comics, or just want to read some fun adventures, I recommend getting your hands on Divas, Dames, & Daredevils.

DD&D

 
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Posted by on January 19, 2016 in Books and Comics, History, Pulps, Reviews

 

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He-Man! The Complete Mini-Comic Collection

Greetings Programs!

Lately, thanks to my glorious local library system, I’ve read a couple comic collections that are off the beaten path.

He-Man and the Masters of the Universe: Mini-comic Collection

As a true child of the 80’s, I remember well the He-Man toys and cartoon show. I wasn’t a big fan of the toy line. I liked them well enough, but I was just a little too old for them when they hit big. However, being a cartoon junkie, I did watch the cartoon. One of the unique things about the He-Man line is that they packaged mini-comics in with many of their toys, and with many years and MANY toys produced, that added up to a lot of comics. Dark Horse has managed to collect them into one mighty hardbound tome, and let me tell you I think this thing can stop a bullet.

This was a fun trip down memory lane, and it was interesting to read interviews with several of the creators who went on to be giants in the industry, including Bruce Timm who brought us the monumental Batman: The Animated Series. It’s also fun to see the evolution of the He-Man mythos. The toys and comics pre-date the Filmation cartoon series, and the early comics present a different, more primal saga that has more in common with Conan and John Carter than what we are familiar with, and it is these tales that I found to be the most fun. They have a certain raw quality to them that appeals to me, and they make a good attempt to keep a solid continuity, even when some aspects of the stories end up feeling awkward as things progress.

Eternia is a changed world, where there was once a series of great wars. The details are not given, but the implication is given that the present world of swords and sorcery is built on the graves of an ancient civilization of great technology, and this is just the beginning of the differences between this world and that we came to know in the cartoon series. There is no lazy Prince Adam and cowardly Cringer acting as secret identities for He-Man and Battlecat. Instead, He-Man is a warrior from a primitive tribe who goes out into the world to seek adventure. He-Man’s powers come not from a magical infusion from Castle Greyskull, but from the armor harnesses he wears; one gives him tremendous strength and the other an impenetrable force field, but he can only wear one at a time. The secrets of Castle Greyskull are no more defined here than in the cartoons, but there is an implication that the castle holds technology saved from the destruction of the ancient civilizations of Eternia. The castle itself is home to a spirit who speaks to the heroes occasionally, but only rarely allows anyone within its walls and only in times of great need. Even the Sorceress, who is Greyskull’s guardian but does not reside within the castle. This setup for Greyskull works better for me than the one in the cartoon, where the heroes have ready access to the castle, and the hints of what powers are within is more evocative than the completely undefined secrets in the cartoon.

As an aside, the whole Clark Kent/Don Diego disguise of Prince Adam never worked for me. The excuse of wanting to protect your family is foolish when your parents are the king and queen, already the sworn enemies of Skeletor. It is not possible to put their lives in greater danger than they already are. If anything, the requirements of maintaining such a ruse puts them in greater danger than revealing your identity.

But I digress.

As the book progresses the stories do get rather tedious, and I did skim quite a few. The sheer volume of work combined with the increasing focus on the appropriate toy over characters or world building causes many stories to lose their luster. There are still fun tales to be found in the later comics, but they get lost in the mass of increasingly childish stories.

Still, the book retails for $30, a bargain if you’re an old fan. For me it was fun to read, but not something I’ll be adding to my bookshelf. However if you do have it in your local library, I recommend checking it out.

skeletor

 
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Posted by on December 11, 2015 in Cool Stuff, Pulps, Reviews

 

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Skullduggery

In 1919 the Allied Powers compelled the German Empire to sign the Treaty of Versailles, thus ending the Great War. The treaty itself is legendary for being a tool for harshly punishing Germany by placing heavy burdens on the defeated nation. These include the dismantling of Germany’s military forces, stripping them of their colonies, demanding the return of an African king’s skull, crippling financial reparations, the…

Wait… what was that?

“ARTICLE 246: Within six months from the coming into force of the present Treaty, Germany will hand over to His Britannic Majesty’s Government the skull of the Sultan Mkwawa which was removed from the Protectorate of German East Africa and taken to Germany.”

-The Treaty of Versailles

I first learned about this provision while reading the 1938 book Brigade of Spies by William J. Makin. This delightful book is a highly sensationalized collection of questionable anecdotes about spies, focused mainly on tradecraft from The Great War and on through the 20’s and 30’s. It’s a rare glimpse into the world of espionage through the lens of Europe after the Nazis have come to power and before the outbreak of World War II. While I have reason to question many of the details presented, I’ve been surprised to find an element of truth to the stories I’ve investigated further. If you can find a copy of this book I highly recommend it, it reads like one big collection of adventure seeds.

Case in point, the skull of the Sultan Mkwawa.

According to Wikipedia, a source less entertaining but more reliable than Brigade of Spies, the man referred to in the treaty was Chief Mkwavinyika Munyigumba Mwamuyinga, commonly known as Chief Mkwawa. He was the leader of the Hehe tribe in the former German East African colonial region, in what is now Tanzania. His name translates to “conqueror of many lands”. The title of “sultan” seems to be an error, as I couldn’t find any indication that the Hehe tribe were Muslims, and I’ll attribute that to the general European lack of understanding about the people of Africa and the Middle East.

In 1891 the German government sent a battalion of colonial troops under the command of German officers to suppress a rebellion by the Hehe tribe. Chief Mkwawa waited in ambush with a force of 3,000 warriors. German forces, under the command of Commissioner Emil von Zelewski, marched into the trap and were annihilated.

“The Germans imagined he could be easily conquered. A confident Captain Zeuike in charge of a number of askaris, set off for the interior. The Sultan was waiting for him – in ambush. The whole party was massacred and the Sultan returned triumphant to his kraal. Witch doctors danced in triumph and prophesied further victories.”

-Brigade of Spies, pg. 126

Three years later the Germans sent a stronger, and more cautious, force against the Hehe. They succeeded in defeating Mkwawa’s forces, but the chief escaped and continued to wage guerrilla warfare against German rule. It wasn’t until 1898 that the Germans finally cornered Mkwawa, who took his own life to avoid capture.

Most records say he shot himself, though the account in Brigade of Spies gives him a more romantic death by falling on his sword. What the accounts do agree on is that the Germans beheaded the corpse and sent the skull back to Berlin as a trophy.

During the Great War the Hehe people aided the British in fighting against German forces. With the conclusion of the war the story of Chief Mkwawa was retold and the idea arose of returning his skull to the Hehe people in thanks for their aid and as a symbol of Germany’s removal from power in Africa. Most accounts attribute this idea to Sir Edward Twining, then governor of Tanganyika, but again Makin’s book goes with a more romantic story of native delegates in tribal dress traveling to Paris and pleading their case to Lloyd George. What Makin did get correct is that the framers of the document did incorporate the demand into the treaty as Article 246, and once the German government had signed it they were compelled to turn over the skull.

There was only one problem, they had no idea where it was.

Makin’s book describes how over the years this provision would continue to bedevil both the Germans who had lost the skull and the British who had sworn to see it returned. Again there seems to be some truth to this and in 1953 (15 years after Makin’s book was published) Sir Twining once again pushed for Article 246 to be fulfilled. Finally in 1954, after searching a sizable collection of skulls kept at the Bremen Museum, and using questionable methods of deduction, the British government returned a skull to the Hehe people claiming it to be Mkwawa’s.

“The Museum had a collection of 2000 skulls, 84 of which originated from the former German East Africa. He short-listed the ones which showed measurements similar to surviving relatives of Chief Mkwawa; from this selection he picked the only skull with a bullet-hole as the skull of chief Mkwawa.”

-Wikipedia Entry for Chief Mkwawa, 4/7/2015

Chief Mkwawa is a hero to the Hehe people and to this day the skull is on display in Kalenga at the Mkwawa Memorial Museum. His life is already a tale worthy of legend, but when you add the unusual details about his skull and its inclusion in a document that had such an impact on the 20th Century it propels Chief Mkwawa’s story into the realm of mystery and pulp adventure.

Adventurers based on the skull could have British agents infiltrating Nazi Germany to locate the artifact, both to erase the embarrassment to Britain and to gain support in Africa. Meanwhile agents of the Gestapo would strive to keep the skull secret and eliminate the agents, while at the same time concealing the fact that they still possess it.

The importance of skulls is not limited to aboriginal people and inspiration can go into realms beyond Africa. Many religions venerate the bones of their saints, especially the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthadox churches. The skull of a saint would be a powerful MacGuffin for any pulp adventure. Or perhaps clues would be discovered for locating the skull of Brutus, the legendary first king of Britain. A race for such a relic could pit the player characters against all manner of opposition.

If you want something that appeals to those of us in the former colonies, consider this adventure seed; In the late 19th century there was no question that another war was coming in Europe. What wasn’t clear was who would be allied with whom and given the large German-American population there were people who thought the United States might side with Germany. Today we can’t imagine a time when the US and England were not the closest of allies, but before World War I it was not as certain. Especially when you consider that barely 100 years before the Great War the British Empire had invaded the US and burned our capital.

For this adventure the year is 1915. The Great War is well underway and while the German advance has been halted the allies are in a precarious position. England looks to the United States for aid but many of the people there are reluctant to get involved in a European war. Still aid comes in the form of money and supplies and there are those in the US Government who advocate for sending troops.

It is at this point that the player characters learn a well kept secret. During the War of 1812, when British forces were burning Washington DC to the ground, a small detachment was sent into Virginia to raid Mount Vernon. Their they broke into George Washington’s tomb and stole the head from the corpse. The skull was sent back to England as a trophy, but King George IV was appalled by their actions. By royal command all knowledge of the raid was made secret and the skull was hidden in the Tower of London. Meanwhile the Americans also kept news of the theft a secret to preserve morale in the face of invasion.

Now a crisis has arisen. German agents have broken into the Tower of London and stolen the skull. They plan to reveal the story to the world which would enrage the American populace, prevent the United States from entering the war, and possibly end their aid to England. It’s up to the player characters to find a way to stop this plot.

Skull_of_MkwawaSmall

 
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Posted by on April 8, 2015 in Cool Stuff, Gaming, History, Pulps

 

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