20's & 30's Pulp Fiction
Hi guys, I thought for one of our first topics it would be a really nice to start a couple of new campaigns from the foundations upwards. The first is a Pulp era table top skirmish and semi-rpg.
I'll start off by telling you a little bit about myself.
I'm a lifelong gamer... so old (and so maturing, you could market me as a fine cheddar) I can remember quite clearly the first Moon landings. I can remember when every town and village street still had a corner shop on it, and a penny bought you a whole bag of sweets. Maybe this was a gentler age (quick, where's my white stick), maybe it's just nostalgia talking. But I can remember a time before Playstations and X-Boxes, when the most advanced 'toys'out there were the speaking Action Man, electric powered trains and Scalextrix car racing sets. Most kids still played with Lego, and Meccano, and Mouse-Trap was still state of the art. Most houses only had black and white TV's and depending where you lived (in England) you had the choice of two or three channels to chose from.
The playing fields and go-cart side streets would empty when the weekly matinee would come on around tea time on a Saturday evenings, and the whole family would sit around and watch the telly: War of the Worlds, The Great Escape, or the endless sequels of Dr. Fu Manchu. Aaaah blissful times.
Out of School hours, if you were fortunate enough to live near a Cinema; there were the Saturday Morning Kids'Penny Matinees: Adventures of the River Boat, The Jungle of Mystery, Dick Tracey, and of course, Tarzan & Jane... mostly all borrowed junk and pulp fiction, borrowed from America's fifties and sixties 'cheap flicks'era. Yeesh!!! These movies were terrible... and I get the distinct feeling all these churned out 'talkies'were probably each made on a slightly smaller budget than an average modern wage packet.
But weren't they wonderful days? And looking back on the Amazing Tales, and Boys Own days of "tuppence a go" comic books... the dire over acting of talentless heroes and femme fatales was legend and all part of the attraction. Is it hardly surprising that these simpler and more innocent times still holds such intense appeal - especially for the wargamer and role play gamer?
My passion for the hobby overall has, until now, always taken me in a completely different direction, and I never thought my desire to pick up Pulp as a gaming genre would ever amount to anything more than ooo-ing and aaa-ing over the wonderful photos in some of the on line blogs and sites. Pulp gaming seems to be a relatively new phenomena of this and the last decade, but I have lately been noticing an increased general shift of interest towards this era as a whole.
Whereas before, you might rarely glimpse at an easily forgotten wargame magazine article about Dinosaur Hunting, Mobster Wars, or such like, the general gaming public had no real knowledge or interest in the subject as a whole.
Maybe it's a reaction to the endless churned out of same-y games systems and sets of rules which have flooded the market over the last few years, but certainly, hobbyists seem to be looking elsewhere to get their kicks nowadays; and suddenly Victorian Sci-Fi, Steampunk, and a host of similar divergent subjects seem to be gracing many games tables of late; and more and more Pulp gaming miniatures suppliers are popping up every day.
.... And so, caught up in this new wave of Pulp fervour, I finally decided I wasn't getting any younger, and before my eyes completely fail me with middle age, it was now or never (Thank you Gabriel for your infectious enthusiasm.... it's all your fault you know). So I have taken my big plunge into the larger world of 20's and 30's Pulp Fiction.
So, where to start?
Well, I did the obvious thing: I started scouring the computer browser for companies selling the figures. I originally looked into 10mm, soon discovered there was zilch in that scale, and even 15mm yielded a lot of empty slots from the collection I envisaged owning. See, I've always liked the smaller scales because, having a very limited space to play my games, I find myself drawn to the aesthetic symmetry of being able to field two opposing forces in a very small area. However, my search results soon revealed to me that I was out of luck if I wanted to find the types of miniatures I was going to need to create my fait accompli in anything other than 25/28mm. But all was not lost. It also dawned on me that I wouldn't need a large playing area to set up the semi RPG and skirmish campaign games I envisaged taking place in my Pulp Imagi-Nation.
.... And then I discovered the wonderful range of Astounding Amazing Miniatures by Bob Murch, http://www.pulpfigures.com/ and I was hooked immediately.
So, while I wait for my initial order of these pieces to arrive in the post, I thought it might be nice to share my new venture into this intriguing world with you, and give you a sort of 'gamer's eye view'on how to go about setting up an absorbing new campaign; literally from the ground up.
Over the coming months, if the articles are of actually of interest to anyone other than myself LOL, I plan to create an elaborate film set of skirmish games, all linked into an ongoing 'soap'opera campaign where the characters live and breath... much like one of those early Saturday Morning Cinema Kid's Matinees I remember with such over indulgent fondness.
So, once again, where to start?
What exactly is Pulp Fiction anyway? Time to turn to the Wikipedia I think :-)
I believe the term originated from the magazines of the first half of the 20th century which were printed on cheap "pulp" paper. The publications were fantastical, escapist fiction for the general entertainment of mass audiences. The pulp fiction era provided a breeding ground for creative talent which would influence all forms of entertainment for decades to come; and ultimately, the 'hardboiled detective'and science fiction genres were created by the freedom such pulp fiction magazines provided.
Pulp Fiction is a term used to describe a huge amount of creative writing available to the American public in the early nineteen-hundreds. Termed "pulp magazines" because of the low quality paper used between the covers, these publications proliferated in the nineteen-thirties and nineteen-forties to the point where they blanketed newsstands in just about every popular fiction genre of the time.
Although the pages in-between the covers were a dingy cheap quality, the covers were beautifully decorated, often with lurid portraits of pretty women in various stages of distress, and handsome square headed and broad shouldered men attempting to rescue them.
By under-paying writers and publishing on in-expensive media, pulp publishers were able to charge 10 cents for an issue containing several stories. Low prices drew in many workingclass young adults and teenagers, who could not otherwise afford some of the more pricier magazines of the day.
The low price of the pulp magazine, coupled with the skyrocketing literacy rates, all contributed to the success of the medium. Pulps allowed its readers to experience people, places, and action they normally would not have access to.
Bigger-than-life heroes, pretty girls, exotic places, strange and mysterious villains all stalked the pages of the many issues available to the general public on the magazine stands. And without television widely available, much of the free time of the working literate class was spent pouring through the pages of the pulps.
World War Two brought paper rationing and increased paper prices. Also, some believe that the real horrors of the war replaced the fictional horrors found between the cover of the pulps. The once popular magazines began to lose readership and disappeared from the newsstand, one-by-one, replaced by paperbacks, comic books, television and movies.
Today, the short story has changed into a different breed of creative writing, leaving the amazing tales found in the pulp magazines as a unique offering. But, beyond the legacy of entertaining light relief, pulp fiction must be given some credit for the evolution of literature and popular fiction heroes of today. Many authors got their start in the pulp magazines, and developed to become great writers who changed the landscape of popular fiction. Writers such as Carroll John Daly changed the detective fiction story from the staid whodunits popularized in Great Britain to the more "hard-boiled" version where the bad guy was plain bad and the detective was tough and street-smart.
Edgar Rice Burroughs was another pulp writer, who helped to define the science fiction story into what it is today. The other well-known alumnae of the pulps include Max Brand, H.P. Lovecraft, Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, and Ray Bradbury. And of course, there were the legions of other authors, less well-known today, who all had an equally important hand in forming popular fiction.
Even though some details are dated because of social, technological, and historical developments, the stories found in the pulp era are still an entertaining read. They still offer action-packed adventure, on par with any of today's television shows, and heroes who are lively, entertaining characters.
But what counts as Pulp and what doesn't? I was talking with some friends about this just the other day, and I was very surprised to discover many of their ideas and mine were at completely different ends of the analysis spectrum. For some, Pulp means giant metallic robots, rocket men, and giant ray guns wielded by evil, yet fatally flawed would be megalomaniacs intent on world domination. Whereas my idea of Pulp is low budget stage sets (used over and over again) where heroes, heroines, and arch antagonists (who never seem to die) meet in a seemingly endless charade of postulating speeches and long winded plotlines; a place where the Agents of Justice, Gumshoes, Femme Fatales, Boys in Blue, and a myriad of supporting cast 'bite the bullet'at regular intervals while the main cast repeatedly survive to act another day. The setting can be in the deep jungles of Burma, South America, or some poorly defined location in Asia... it doesn't matter.
Equally, the story can be set in some vaguely described part of New York, The Florida Keys, or New Orleans... again, it doesn't matter. Half a dozen indoor sets, and a handful of street locations is usually enough to set the repeated scene for ensuing all the mayhem and excitement.
For me, the atmosphere needs to be more low key, and subtle. The best 'soaps'go on and on in an endless merry-go-round of character interaction and plot outlining, and the action is planted at appropriate intervals to break the pace from time to time.
Between the two spectrums... the high fantasy route and my own views about what goes to make up an interesting Pulp setting... lies a whole host of similarly valued styles of storytelling. Tarzan of the Jungle, The Adventures of Indiana Jones, and Dark Nazi Plans to propagate the world with undead Storm Troopers and racial purity.... all these and many more genres all have a place within this fascinating mythos which goes to make up the collective whole; and the beauty of it all is - they can all be used and interlinked: crossing over and interlacing from time to time as and when the gamers'needs and interests merit a change of pace... also as the games themselves grow and mature into imaginary 'living worlds'.
For me, it feels like I was fatefully steered towards my choice of game. First of all, a while ago, I started collecting a lot of pseudo Pulp-y type movies, Indiana Jones, The Mummy, Dick Tracey, Sin City, a load of the Humphrey Bogart classics... and would you believe, Who Framed Roger Rabbit. I guess the appeal of nameless dark city streets of America where it always seems to be lashing down with rain, where the women are always naive suckers for a good looking suit... and always always fall for the wrong man; couple this with an endless supply of stupid side kick villains wearing turned up collars and always with a hand just hovering inside their breast pocket to reach for a barely concealed handgun, makes (for me) the Gangland riddled streets of the late 20's/early 30's an obvious choice for one of my two initial settings.
Secondly, I recently discovered quite by chance a source of complete black and white classic Pulp serials on DVD's. My favourite ones once again always seem to be the stories based on the nocturnal city streets of America (the streets that never sleep) full of seedy gambling dens, majestic Art Deco Casinos and high rise Hotels... seemingly, always with a liquor store and garage for smuggled goods next door.
My third reason for picking this Gangland style of game as an alternative to the more exotic settings: (i.e. Darkest Africa, the Gokudo gangs of Japan, the Triads of China, and the Qing Dynasty and Manchu rebellions of China and Soviet Asia, etc, etc).... is simply that everybody else seems to be doing that already. Never really one to follows trends, I wanted something different, but equally as exciting; with scope to grow and expand in various new directions as and when I need to add fresh dynamics to the campaign.
I also knew I wanted the frustrating Prohibition period and The Great Depression to feature heavily in my world, and by adjusting the real life historical time line slightly, by tucking the 20's and 30's together into a moldable whole and bringing Hitler's rise to power forward to a time line slightly earlier than really happened, I would now be able to include the growing rise of Nazi-ism into the mix - give it a slight twist, and include supernatural and occult elements; like adding salt and pepper to your mashed potatoes.
Finally, my reason for choosing Bob Murch's Pulp Figures Gangland Justice range is simply because I think they are some of the most excellent Pulp action miniatures I have ever seen, and not to have included at least some of these would have been a real sacrilege and missed opportunity.
As I mentioned just now, in the old black and white movies, and especially in the old Saturday Morning Matinee Specials, the settings were usually limited to no more than half a dozen to a dozen repeated interior 'sets', some of which could be refurnished to create alternative settings in any case; and outdoors scenes often showed the same streets over and over again, filmed from different angles and by taking advantage of various day and night lighting effects. So BINGO! I knew I could recreate a very acceptable facsimile of the real classic Pulp movie and serial classics. In the end, after many painstaking hours browsing the net, I discovered e-x-a-c-t-l-y what I wanted.
The Virtual Armchair General's cardboard range of "Mean Sets" and "Mean Streets" would do the trick excellently. Room and building interiors for Pulp fiction, ganster, detective, and horror role playing games.
So, I placed my initial order of a few interior sets. I will be buying a lot more of these building s (both interior and exterior sets) as and when my budget allows over the following months; but for now I am having to make do with bits and pieces of homemade and professionally made terrain pieces... I think it's called winging it hehe. I'd love to have gone mad and splashed out on the a number of the much needed indoor/outdoor sets right away, from the very outset of this new campaign game I'm planning on running; but finances aside, I figured I'd already have my work cut out for a while assembling the few sets I have been able to afford and painting the figures which are already growing into a mounting pile on my work desk area..
... And so one half of my initial choices have been made. I have committed to a style of play I feel comfortable I can maintain and 'pull off'in an authentic manner, pretty much in keeping with the classic Pulp fiction of our bygone past.
The only advantage I have over the original movie makers of the time is that... I have the delicious good fortune to live in the early 21st century, where movie making techniques have improved way, way beyond the imaginations or dreams of even the most far sighted classic camera crews and director. Even a novice like me might be able to think up scenes way beyond the capabilities of those early pioneers in the craft.
For the second half of my purchase, I turned once again to Bob Murch's more traditional Pulp figures, and picked Oriental (Yangzee) river pirates, warlord gangers, jungle adventurers, sinister spies, and personalities type who would be perfectly at home within the film set of Indiana Jones, The Mummy, King Kong, or a typical Fu Manchu movie. The benefits of collecting a crossover style from two separate genres of Pulp was not lost on me.
The Initial Game: The Terrain, The Figures.
I pretty much completed a set of rules for my new game several month ago... but for a long time it sat in files on my lap top, on backs of used envelopes, pieces of paper, and all the usual trimmings that go with my disorganised and dysfunctional brain.
All I had to do was flesh everything out in a neat and orderly (ha) fashion, and add some tasteful artwork; and the whole package is now ready to post elsewhere in this place for you to enjoy as a freebie. I know there are a lot of very decent game systems out there already which more than adequately cover the period. But I do like creating my own rules for the games I play, especially as I like to play a lot of solo, and my rules contain a lot of material which allows for this (much like a lot of the rules created by Ed Teixeira in his Two Hour Wargames).
But more on this later, right now I run before my horse to market.
I'd like to go through the terrain and figure choices I made in my initial order(s), and the reasons why I decided to pick these items over all the others in the 'Pulp Figures'and 'The Virtual Armchair General'ranges.
When I pick up a new era to play in, I always like to stick with a single range of minis, simply because I think it's nice to have a unified visual symmetry running throughout my games. This also has the advantage that all the models will be similar size... which sometimes can be a real problem when swapping between the different choices available from company to company. This is just personal choice, and I know many others will prefer to mix and match their purchases across a wide range of available miniature choices. After all, it could be argued that the slight variations in height and build make the 3D appeal that much more realistic. In reality, people are rarely all the same shape and size. However, I personally think the slight variations - a couple of millimetres here or there, actually promotes a slightly visual attitude of overall scruffiness on the games table. Perhaps better to keep faith with just one or even two companies you like to buy from and give credit where due that the sculptors will (if they're good at their work) allow for these variations within their ranges in a more consistent and aesthetic way. I like to feel I have a collection of 'toy soldiers', not just scattered parts of many collections thrown together in an Adhoc manner. But again, I state, this is only my personal view and I'm sure others have equally valid reasons to dismiss my claims entirely... which is good. Diversity within the hobby is what makes it so interesting.
As for the terrain (or film sets as I like to call them): ideally, I'd like to have placed one of my core games in the fictitious townscape locale of either Florida Keys (Key Largo area) or some large semi-imaginary town in New Orleans. Why here? Basically because I'm fascinated with the idea of having some completely out of place pin striped or white suited gangsters and hoods rubbing shoulders with country hicks, amidst the steamy, sweaty heat of the tropics for eight months of the year; then dealing with the contrast of heavy storms and monsoons for the remaining four. New Orleans, on the other hand would allow me to include my voodoo zombie masters and dark tribal magic. There's something intensely macabre and utterly terrifying about the vision of zombies walking the streets at night after the sun goes down, controlled by the 'bokor'to do whatever dark bidding is required. My mind's eyes sees the seedy streets emptying of life at night, as people rush to get indoors and bar the doors before the swamp demons begin to wake up and walk amongst them.
Naturally this would suit the gangsters and hoodlums perfectly, allowing them to conduct their nefarious criminal activities practically unchecked by the local law enforcements who would be almost as afraid of the night horrors as the rest of the civilian populace. And if a few hoods went missing from time to time, no doubt caught and dragged back into the swamps by the zombies - well then, it was a small price for the rod wielding dressed up thugs to have to pay to keep their pandered and paranoid egos in check, by providing a cocoon of loose women, cigarettes, Columbian cigars, and cheap whisky... all provided by the indulgent crime lords.
...Enter the heroes; the only individuals tall enough to stand up to the kingpins and take them on, on their own home turf.
However, I also knew that creating a game in either of these locations might prove to be extremely difficult if I was to achieve anything like the terrain settings I so lavishly envisaged in my head. And it soon became clear looking at the Mean Street building sets (my chosen purchases) that there was very little there I could use to create this sort of a film set.
So what do you do when the wonderful things you half imagine in your head don't quite fit the reality of the situation? Well, with skirmish wargaming and my RPG games, I tend to fudge and twist things that don't sit well in my mind until they do work the way I want them to.
The buildings I have ordered are truly wonderful - thanks again to Patrick Wilson, the Virtual Armchair General himself. Yet the fine crafted cardboard models look like they would be far better suited if I used them in a less exotic surrounding: the streets of Chicago, maybe: or the eclectic harbour fronts of New York? So I decided to compromise and build my game in a generic, totally fictitious urban sprawl... set in a semi undefined part of real life America, and which could be dropped into just about any Pulp action setting the imaginative gamer could possibly desire.
.... And just like that, my very own imaginary Angel City was first conceived and born.
For my campaign, I have decided to base AC fairly close to the real life Los Angeles; as a sort of down town urban sprawl and poor relative to its more grandiose and larger LA cousin. This also allows me to design my very own city from the ground up, using its rich historical counterpart as a model and an architectural example.
I decided to place my second self contained Pulp venture in a mythical region somewhere along the jungle infested Chang Jiang River, way inland of Shanghai, and hundreds of miles below Xi'an. This would allow me to create an isolated (and lawless) hotbed of conflict and adventure which could remain completely divorced from real life external events; ideal territory for nefarious villains to hatch impossibly complex plans for world domination and indulge in general mindless megalomania.
I'd like to explain my figure purchase s a bit more, if I may. The reason for this is not to bore you with a gamer's personal diary of cluttered thoughts, but ideally I want to show you one person's perspective of the hobby, and to highlight the fundamental disciplines required to create a new game from the foundations upwards. Hopefully this will be of interest to other enthusiasts who wish to create similar campaigns for themselves. For me, if a game is to last, it has to be robust enough to withstand anything that I throw at it, yet still come up smelling of roses. Obviously, once the terrain has been decided upon, the figures needed to populate the streets themselves are going to be the next major consideration.
As I've already hinted, I want to include a lot of gangster elements into one of my game settings. To do this, I have to be fairly open minded about stretching the time line and lumping it into a collective whole. There's a lot of stuff from the early 1920's right through to the mid 1930's that I wish to include, from cars, trucks, weapon types, and archetypal personality figures from history. Of course, with vehicles I can use contraptions from a lot earlier on if I want, because (in an age where everything tended to be better made) there would still have existed a lot of older things - a bit like seeing farmers today driving about in 30 year old tractors.
I know many people, when they think of Pulp fiction, summon up images of Buck Rogers, Space Rockets, Giant Mechanical Robots, Ray Guns, and Lost Treasures of the Jungle. I think of these things too, and will definitely want to include these in my own games as time goes on. But I also need to create a stable infrastructure for my imaginary Pulp world; a fairly low fantasy setting I can branch out from when I desire to add the more fantastical elements into the game. For this I can take the game to Tibet, India, The Nepalese jungles of Tarai, and the Tong filled streets of China. My "Angel City" has a vast harbour front area, and from there my ships can sail anywhere.
Naturally there are also airports, so I can fly my cast of bad guys and heroes just about anywhere I desire. But I do intend to maintain a strong tone throughout of Gangland Justice and an intense feeling of Cultural Depression blues brought on by mass unemployment, Prohibition, and the social slide America was feeling after the First World War, as the country tried desperately to heave itself out of the slump, yet still unaware that a Second World War was just round the corner and waiting to happen.
These Guns For Hire, The Bugs Malarchy Mob, and Sinister Spies seemed the ideal sets of Pulp Figures for me to include in my collection. Naturally at least one set of Boys in Blue was a prerequisite to the theme. No Mob style game would be complete without at least a few of these to thwart the gangs from time to time.
My Gangsters and Hoodlums will be a central running thread in my world, and I figured I'd need quite a few of these at any given time on the table top. The Sinister Spies set fit in well, either as gang bosses, underworld contacts, or exactly as it says in the title... as spies.
The world of the 30's was a culturally paranoid era, seemingly ever poised on the brink of conflict from various real or half imagined foes. Naturally, with a few tweaks these dangerous individuals and groups could be used to expand the game in all sorts of interesting directions... especially as the spies would almost definitely be in fairly close contact with the underworld and its crime bosses, through a mutual beneficial interest in one another. For example, the initial rise to power of the Brown Shirts could be moved forward a half dozen years into the latter half of the twenties, and suddenly you could include a tyrannical cult and occult magic into your games. The She Wolves and She Wolves Unit Builder sets seemed a good place to start... an early Nazi Feminist group of radical extremists fitted my intentions nicely, and I simply had to include a few sets of these.
Femme Fatales is another obvious set I have included in my Pulp Figures purchase. What game in any genre of Pulp would be complete without this integral group of women to liven the show. After all, The main heroes have to fall for at least one fatally flawed but beautiful female, at least once in a while.
Tramp Steamer Sailors was a considered purchase. The reason for these is simply that I intend to purchase the appropriate Mean Streets docks, key-side building sets, and a few Steam Sternwheelers over the coming months, and I will need some old sea dogs to man the tramp vessels. Naturally, I can also have the seamen propping up various bars and standing about on street corners to add a bit of atmosphere to the game from time to time.
Tropical Castaways may seem my strangest and most ill advised purchase, considering the rest of my picks. But I did think long and hard about getting this set.
Eventually I decided I could use these models to help flesh out the game; and let's be honest here, I fell in love with this set because, for some reason, the sculpts reminded me so much of the characters from the old Bogart movie Key Largo.
The retired and slightly lame old sailor... probably the owner of a tired guest house by the waterfront: his adopted half Hawaiian daughter, replete with flowery dress and flower strewn hair: The Happy Joe and his infernal love for crazy golf: The Mysterious White Suited Gentleman with umbrella... obviously on the run from something, but always very polite and courteous: and the 'easy come, easy go'bar prop who always seems to be somewhere, just passing through in which ever scenario is being played.
Dangerous Dames, Tong Gangsters, The Court of Sinister Dr. Koo, Yangzee Gang members, Dime Store Tough Guys, Gumshoes... even a Camera Film Crew for reenacting scenes from King Kong, all these got added either to the to the shopping list, or the "next time" wish list.
My initial order complete, this gave give me plenty of figures to play around with, providing me with more than enough stuff to play a multitude of skirmishes and semi role playing style set ups and cameos. To this, I can add more sets as time, cash, and patience allows.
One final purchase I made, as a last moment though, I might add was a small collection of vintage period cars and trucks. I really liked the look of one on-line company in particular (called 'Allsorts') who sold exactly what I needed to get started, and I was very much taken by their collectors range of 20's and 30's 1/43 scale model vehicles. The models are utterly beautiful, and will grace my shelves as fine ornaments in their own right - when not being used on the games table....
All in all, I could hardly wait to get started with this little lot, and I will have my time cut out for me assembling the sturdy card stock terrain and painting the figures. For now, I have to make time to study my chosen mythos, re-watch all my old black and white Pulp era serials and movies over again, and plan my soap like campaign with meticulous care and attention.
I greatly look forward to sharing the rest of my endeavours with you, and hopefully, I will be able to bring the game to life with continuing articles and battle reports, in a way that is both interesting and enlightening for everyone.
Thank you for reading.
© 2008, Stephen A Gilbert.