Review: Thrilling Tales

This is a 257 page PDF (or hard copy) setting book from Adamant Entertainment for 1930s pulp fiction – my version is for Savage Worlds, but this is a conversion of Adamant’s d20 materials.

I’ve parked it in the THW slot this week, because THW games like Larger Than Life are also an homage to the pulp tradition.

CHAPTER ONE: PULP ADVENTURE (11 pages)

This introductory chapter explains pulp genres and their history, focussing on the ones that would make a good RPG – it thus mentions only sports pulps in passing, for example. It also explains what pulps are not, namely superhero stories.

The genres considered for Thrilling Tales are crime-fighting, air heroes, foreign adventure, espionage, horror, weird menaces, jungle stories, SF, westerns, lost worlds… As you can see, this setting book covers a wide range of adventure types.

It doesn’t cover Sword & Sorcery or planetary romance pulps; the former is already well-served by a wide range of existing games and settings, and the latter is covered in another Adamant release, Mars – which will be reviewed separately here in due course.

CHAPTER TWO: A TIMELINE OF THE 1930S (5 pages)

Exactly what it says on the tin; what actually happened in the 1930s, year by year.

Why only the 1930s? I refer you to Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull or The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor. Pulp is very much a child of its time, and once you leave the 1930s, it really doesn’t work so well.

CHAPTER THREE: CHARACTERS (47 pages)

The advice here is to create teams of complementary specialists, each of which is a strong archetype who can be described in a single sentence. The book suggests that PCs start at Seasoned rank, or better, and offers several approaches to gaming the typical pulp setup of a single hero with a group of sidekicks.

Archetypes are presented, but not detailed; you’re given a short summary of each one, with suggested skills, edges and hindrances, but not a full-fledged character ready to use. Unusually, this section includes stock villains as well as typical heroes.

The archetypes are the Ace Reporter, the Air Ace, the Big Game Hunter, the Boxer, the Femme Fatale, the Fortune Hunter, the G-Man, the Gumshoe, the Gun Moll, the Mad Scientist, the Man of Mystery (e.g. the Shadow), the Mastermind, the Mesmerist, the Mobster, the Noble Savage, the Paragon (think Doc Savage), the Rocket Ranger, and the Trusted Sidekick.

Making a hero follows the standard Savage Worlds approach; buy attributes, skills and edges with points, take hindrances to get more points. As usual, the book provides a handful of new hindrances, and a wider range of new edges, for this is how SW settings are differentiated mechanically.

CHAPTER FOUR: EQUIPMENT (16 pages)

This is a relatively short section, focussed on weapons and vehicles not found in the SW core rules, and assumes that the GM will do his own research on mundane items from the period, which is after all well documented in real history books.

You’ve seen the movies, I assume? If Indy or the Nazis shot it, drove it, or flew it, it’s in here, or something close enough to reskin with trappings is. There’s even a U-Boat.

CHAPTER FIVE: PULP GAMING RULES (6 pages)

There are a few key rules changes to reflect the pulps properly, and this is where they are defined.

Firstly, heroic survival. A pulp hero or major villain is very rarely killed, which requires changes to the Incapacitation rules.

Second, bennies flow more freely in a Thrilling Tales game than a normal one. Whenever a PC does something with spectacular style and panache – a “stunt” – he is rewarded with an extra benny. The example given? Boarding an airship is normal. Leaping aboard from a speeding motorcycle at the last possible second is a stunt. Players can also spend bennies to gain small amounts of narrative control – maybe there is something useful in that closet, maybe the waitress has a crush on you and knows where the back door is, that kind of thing.

Two additional levels of NPC are added: Henchmen, which are Extras who roll Wild Dice but only have one Wound, and thus stand midway between Extras and Wild Cards; and Mooks, hapless NPCs who are even less sturdy that the usual Extra, being incapacitated if Shaken.

Villains who capture the PCs must make a Will save to avoid a gloating soliloquy explaining their evil plot in detail.

CHAPTER SIX: PULP VILLAINS (12 pages)

Opening with a discussion of the pulp villain in general, this chapter then moves on to provide statistics and background on a number of arch-enemies for your PCs, together with adventure seeds for each villain. Doctor Sin and his Qing Ri assassins; the Master of the World, white slaver extraordinaire; the Mafioso Vinnie Five-Angels; and German businessman Otto von Hubel.

CHAPTER SEVEN: PULP VILLAINS – THE NAZIS (20 pages)

You can’t do proper pulp without Nazis, I’m afraid. (See the aforementioned Crystal Skull.) There’s an extensive discussion of the Nazi rise to power, and archetypes for both Wehrmacht and SS troopers, German officers, Gestapo agents, spies, scientists and sorcerors, each with a full statblock and descriptive text explaining their role in scenarios. And, of course, the obligatory Nazi Temptress.

Towards the end of the chapter is a discussion on the type of adventures best suited to use of Nazis, namely espionage, military, weird science and the supernatural; and an admonition not to over-use them.

CHAPTER EIGHT: PULP VILLAINS – THE THUGEE (20 pages)

This chapter supposes, as did some of the pulps themselves, that the thuggee cult wasn’t stamped out in the 19th century, but continued as a secret society well into the 20th. The cult itself and its history are first described; then outlines for several different campaigns featuring thuggee, each with background material, NPC statblocks, and adventure seeds.

First, an historical campaign, giving statblocks for Ameer Ali and William Sleeman, both key figures in the cult’s story, and adventure hooks. This is a bit of a departure from the book’s stated scope, not that it couldn’t make a good game.

The Cult of Personality is up next, a story arc in which a crooked businessman reinvents the cult for his own purposes. He is described and given a statblock and nefarious schemes.

Ancient Survivors offers a more supernatural take on the cult – another story arc in which Kali herself reinvigorates the cult to its original purpose and spreads it beyond India, with a few sample NPCs and adventure hooks.

Insurgent Fighters pictures an Indian independence movement working to slaughter British rulers under the cover of a revitalised cult.

I’ve gone into a bit more detail than usual here, because players who read this won’t find it easy to work out which of these campaigns they are in, and to avoid “thug fatigue” I don’t expect a GM to run more than one thug game with the same group.

CHAPTER NINE: PULP VILLAINS – PERILS OF THE ORIENT (27 pages)

No examination of pulp would be complete without the Yellow Peril, and here it is in all its sinister decadence. Its history in the pulps and both the flat-out racist and more reasoned adversarial views of the oriental mastermind are discussed, along with a review of American Chinatowns and how they formed. Stereotypical NPCs are offered – ordinary and veteran tong soldiers, assassins, the Dragon Lady.

Next comes an overview of the Orient as it was in the 1930s, done with broad brush strokes as indeed was all of pulp. More NPC stereotypes from the broader orient; dacoits, Mongolian warriors, ninja, martial artists, jungle tribesmen, evil monks; then an oriental armoury, replete with Chinese, Indian and Japanese hand weapons.

Finally, the oriental bestiary proper contains creatures an oriental mastermind might use in his death traps; Mongolian death worms, buru lizards, abominable snowmen, each with their own statblock and descriptive text.

CHAPTER TEN: ADVENTURE GENERATOR (15 pages)

This uses a selection of tables and dice rolls to generate a random scenario for your PCs, based on Lester Dent’s Master Plot Formula for pulp fiction.

The GM uses these to identify the villain, his fiendish plot, and the chief location for the action. Next, the first act, which brings the heroes into the story via a hook, and introduces the supporting characters, before a randomly generated action sequence and the plot twist table send the story zooming off in an unexpected direction. This is repeated for the second and third acts, but the fourth act must be adjudicated by the GM depending on what the PCs have done so far.

Examples are provided throughout.

CHAPTER ELEVEN: THE CRIMSON EMPEROR (70 pages)

This is a Plot Point campaign in 15 scenarios (“episodes”), taking the PCs around the world to various exotic locations in a bid to identify and thwart the dastardly schemes of the insidious Crimson Emperor. ‘Nuff said.

The book concludes with a character sheet.

CONCLUSIONS

To my mind, Savage Worlds is perfect for pulp adventure, and I got this mostly to see how that combination would work.

Thrilling Tales has obviously been written by people who love the pulps, and have thought about them at length. I enjoyed it as an insight into the genre, in particular understanding for the first time how I have merged the Air Hero and SF genres in my own games, and the difficulties that has caused; but in places (notably around Chapter 8) you can see the joins between the different authors.

I don’t see myself running a full-on pulp game (although one never knows), but I do see myself lifting the archetypes and some of the setting rules for other campaigns. Nice work, useful work, just not really my cup of tea in its raw form.

Review: Necropolis 2350

While I’ve temporarily stopped buying new games stuff (I think we all know me better than to think this is permanent), I still have quite a few lurking on the hard drive which haven’t been reviewed yet. Next up is Necropolis 2350 by Triple Ace Games, a Savage Worlds setting book by the prolific Paul “Wiggy” Wade-Williams; 180 page PDF file or hard copy.

IN A NUTSHELL: Knights Templar vs Zombies in Spaaaaace.

WELCOME TO HELL (23 pages)

This chapter introduces the setting, explains how to create setting-specific characters, and describes the organisational structures into which they fit. This is a military-themed setting, and Warhammer 40,000 players will feel very much at home.

It’s 2350 AD, the Earth has been destroyed, and the only habitable planet left to mankind is Salus, more commonly known as Necropolis, a colony world dominated by Church and Corporate interests. Unfortunately, Salus is being overrun by undead armies. To fend them off, the Church has established orders of warrior monks – that’s you, that is.

The organisation and financial clout of the Holy Orders is similar to that of the historical Knights Templar, who also served as the original model for W40K Space Marines. Indeed, the description of life in an Ordo, the rivalries between them and so on reminded me strongly of the background information on Space Marines.

In general, character creation follows the usual Savage Worlds process. All characters are human, and must use their initial attributes and skills to meet the requirements of various character types such as artillerist, assault knight or chaplain. Each must also choose an Ordo, which grants particular benefits such as +2 on certain skills; in a sense, these replace the races of most settings. Gear is assigned by the Ordo rather than being bought as normal.

Some Hindrances (e.g. One Leg) are not permitted, as they would have prevented the PC’s selection or training by the Ordo. There are a handful of new and modified Hindrances appropriate to the setting, such as Bullet Magnet or FNG; likewise there are 5 pages of new Edges, including Nepotism and Media Star.

Powers in this setting naturally flow from Arcane Background (Miracles), and in consequence there are a few paragraphs clarifying what counts as a minor, major or mortal sin, and a handful of new powers.

The focus of the campaign is on the challenges of leadership. The group of 4-6 PCs will have a chain of command; one member is in charge, and the others have to follow his orders. There will also be at least a handful of Extras, and the group might well be in platoon strength with vehicles and off-table fire support.

ARCHETYPES (8 pages)

This is a selection of pregenerated PCs; I cannot overstress the value of these in the sort of campaign I run, or quick pickup games, and urge any game designers reading to include them in their products.

The archetypes presented are a Chaplain, five sample knights (one from each Ordo), and a Knight Penitent (one whose failures were sufficient to merit reassignment to a punishment battalion).
Each is a fully generated and equipped PC, with a typical quote and an introductory paragraph that can be read out to the rest of the party to explain the character’s role in the group.

CHURCH HARDWARE (13 pages)

This section explains the armour, weapons and other items favoured by the Knights of the Church; primarily standard SW armour types, molecular blades and flechette rifles, each of which has several variants defined for it. We also find man-catchers, sledgehammers, and a handful of others, including my personal favourite – the bolt rifle, which fires 5cm steel bolts for use against vampires.

The section also describes the Church’s standard armoured vehicles and anti-vehicle weapons. It concludes with a one-page summary of Salus history, from the first manned mission to Mars in 2012 (hey, that’s next year! Mind you, this was written in 2008). Personally, I would have put this in the Guide to Necropolis section, but sometimes the vagaries of layout force this kind of decision on one.

SETTING RULES (4 pages)

There are few setting-specific rules; they cover awards, promotions and transfers, fire support, and air support.

GUIDE TO NECROPOLIS (6 pages)

This is the overview of the PCs’ homeworld, covering its geography, ecology, climate and political structures, with a gazetteer of important locations. There is also a paragraph or so on the system’s star and the other planets nearby, although these are likely only to be peripheral background detail in most campaigns.

It’s worth noting that this is a “points of light” setting – 75% of Salus is uninhabited wilderness, and national borders represent no more than how far the relevant military could project power if it really wanted to.

MOTHER CHURCH (9 pages)

Since all PCs work for the Church, and it is one of the major governments on Salus, there needs to be an explanation of its structure and how it operates; those are presented here. Like any government, the Church has a civil service (the Curia), a treasury, secret police (the Inquisition) and so on; but unlike some it controls all education and media. The organisation, activities and interests of each are defined at a high level.

The Church governs roughly 400 million people, making it very roughly the same size as the EU or USA. Most of these live a life of rural poverty.

While not a direct analogue of the Catholic Church, the Church on Salus is headed by a Pope, who is elected by the Cardinals; all other officials are appointed by the Pope.

Salus has its own calendar. Personally I never use these, as I find them too much work for too little benefit, but Your Mileage May Vary.

We also learn about the Church’s laws, policing methods and trials, although since Knights are exempt from local laws and taxes these are of only indirect interest to PCs – mainly as sources of scenarios. Trials are handled by the local bishop or his nominated representative; juries and lawyers as the players know them are absent.

The other major powers on Salus are the Corporations, but the Church-controlled media says little of them, and consequently players don’t know much about them. For those details, you need to be the GM.

WAR MASTER’S SECTION (12 pages)

The book so far could be read by the players without revealing any secrets; from this point on, it is for the GM’s eyes only. For that reason I’ll try to avoid the more egregious spoilers, but some light in the darkness is necessary.

This section kicks off with a description of life in the Corporate city-states, which is not as opulent as the pirate soap operas Church citizens can sometimes watch illegally would suggest. While urban industrial workers rather than rural peasants, Corporate society is just as divided into the Haves and Have-Nots as the Church. Each of the five major and six minor corporations is described, outlining its background, industries, and relationship with the Church. There are also sections on Corporate armed forces, their equipment (including vehicles) and mercenaries.

The total population controlled by the Corporations isn’t explicitly stated, but it seems to be about the same size as the Church.

THE REPHAIM (13 pages)

Here are the Bad Guys, with an explanation of where they come from, what they want, their buildings, their Arcane Backgrounds and powers, and their internal politics. All of these are unknown to the players, the Church and the Corporations, but help give structure and motive to the forces opposing the PCs. Their more grisly equipment may or may not be known initially, but the PCs will soon learn its capabilities the hard way.

Everyone on Salus knows that the undead armies are composed of skeletons and zombies, with the occasional vampire. They may know that captured vampires have spoken of greater undead, but no-one alive knows what those actually are. (Naturally, in this GM-only section, that is explained.)

DANGEROUS SECRETS (6 pages)

While the Rephaim – and to a lesser extent, the Corporations – are the obvious opponents for the PCs, there are also heresies and conspiracies within the Church itself, reaching up to the highest levels of the government. This chapter describes half a dozen, each of which could be the central story arc for a campaign.

OPERATIONS (8 pages)

This is a collection of GM-only setting rules, covering buildings, defensive works, alertness of undead sentries, and tweaks to the standard mass battle system. The meat of the chapter, though, is the adventure generator, which uses die rolls to create missions, each with its own objectives, support, opposition, and complications. This is followed by a simple random encounter table and notes on how to use it.

Most of this would be useable in any military-themed campaign.

BATTLE FOR NEW BUDAPEST (26 pages)

This is a campaign in a number of mandatory “Plot Point” scenarios, focussed on liberating the city of New Budapest from its undead invaders. There are 16 classic military scenarios – the advance, the ambush, gathering intelligence, rescuing wounded and so forth, each with its own briefing for the players, background information, map, opposition and tactical problems.

Of particular interest is the campaign flowchart; success or failure in each mission determines what Plot Points are available to play next, and there are six different campaign outcomes depending on the PCs’ overall progress, ranging from total victory to “May God have mercy on your souls.”

SAVAGE TALES (20 ages)

These are the traditional “filler” adventures for a SW Plot Point campaign; they can optionally be run in between any of the Plot Point scenarios. There are 14 of them, ranging from encounters with TV crews to recruitment drives to uncovering heresy.

BESTIARY (16 pages)

This is divided into three sections; Church NPCs, Corporate NPCs, and Rephaim. The Church and Corporate NPCs include a couple of non-combatants and various flavours of military personnel; the Rephaim group includes heretics, and undead both generally known and as yet undiscovered at the start of the campaign. Even the standard models – skeleton, zombie etc. – are slightly modified from the SW core statistics. Some of the non-standard undead will look familiar to players of zombie-themed FPS video games.

The book concludes with a glossary, mission and vehicle forms, a character sheet, and an index. Each chapter starts with a framing quotation from the Bible, which is a nice touch.

CONCLUSIONS

Combined with the SW core rules, there’s enough material here to keep you playing for years, and Triple Ace Games have supported it extensively with expansions and free web supplements. There are not many changes from the core rules; the focus is on adventure material, with one fully-fledged campaign that would last six months or more for a group meeting weekly, and the seeds for half-a-dozen more follow-on campaigns.

Although this is a grimdark world like that of W40K, Necropolis only turns the dial up to about 8, rather than 11. This is a near-future zombie apocalypse, with equipment you could reasonably expect to see in the real world within the next 50 years or so, requiring no real breakthroughs apart from some means of interstellar travel.

This is not a setting for freewheeling individualists, as PCs must demonstrate unquestioning obedience and rigid discipline; for that reason it will not suit all groups, including mine – my players show a distinct lack of interest in military campaigns. The challenge to the GM is to railroad the players into missions while leaving them enough freedom of action to stay interested.

Overall, this is a remarkably good SF Horror setting, which I’d love to GM or play in; sadly, it’s not what my current players want, and as ever who I play with is more important to me than what we play. I will be able to borrow a number of the undead for other campaigns, though, and possibly their entire political structure and some of the buildings.

Drew, 01 March 2013

ATZ in a phone booth again – I like working with the small maps, they’re very convenient for me. Having escaped from Capt. Flack’s team, Drew’s crew need to tool up again. That means it’s back into town… A Discover encounter (p. 41) in daylight. There are 3d6+3 = 14 zombies (p. 29) who are placed 12” away as follows (p. 30): 6 towards the top of the table, 5 towards the left, 3 towards the bottom.

As the table is so small, many of the zombies have to be moved around clockwise until they fit (p. 30). This puts inside a building with no way out, but Our Heroes have to get lucky sometimes.

  • Drew: Star, Rep 5, Star Power 5, Born Leader, Brawler.
  • Vince: Officer, Rep 4, Runt.
  • Sylvia: Veteran, Rep 5, Brawler.
  •  

    The weather is starting to improve a little, and not before time for our heroes, who have been living rough most of the winter and are feeling somewhat the worse for wear. Hungry and weaponless, they decide to try their luck in a nearby city.

    11100101

    Start of Turn 1

    Turn 1

    Activation: Humans 3, zombies 5. Zombies fail to activate.

    Walking up the main drag into town brings Drew & Co. to an abandoned car, which they ignore, knowing how zombies are attracted by noise. Passing it, they see that the building on their left has no doors on-map (probably rubbled) so they turn right towards the nearest door and prepare to stack up for entry. No reason to fast move yet.

    Turn 2

    Activation: Humans 6, zombies 5. Nobody moves.

    Turn 3

    Activation: Humans 5, zombies 4. Both activate, but none of the zombies on the map can get to the humans.

    While Sylvia scans the area behind the team for unseen threats, Drew and Vince get ready to break in the door.

    11100102

    “On three. One… two…”

    Turn 4

    Activation: Humans 4, zombies 1. Both activate.

    Drew and Vince kick down the door and barge inside, improvised melee weapons at the ready.

    I now roll 2d6 on the table on p. 43 to see what’s in the building. 7 + 2 (urban area) –1 (daytime) = 8; 1/2d6 zombies, which turns out to be three. I now roll for surprise; 1d6+3 (one per zombie) = 8, 1d6+Rep for the humans; both roll a 6 so Drew gets 11, Vince gets 10. I also roll for Sylvia just in case, she gets 8.

    “Crap! Zombies! Kill ‘em!” shouts Drew.

    “Aren’t they already dead?” Sylvia mutters; but no-one can hear her over the screams and hacking.

    Drew rolls 6d6 in melee, 1d6 per Rep and an extra one for being a Brawler. Vince rolls 4d6. The zeds get 1d6 each, so getting up close and personal is an acceptable risk with three of them. Drew takes on two zombies and splits his dice evenly between them rolls 3, 3, 4 and gets one success against the one on the left, which rolls 4 and gets one success; that zombie is Out Of the Fight, but ass per p. 35 this escalates to Obviously Dead for a zombie. Drew gets 5, 5, 6 and 3 successes against the one on the right, which 2 and gets no successes – scratch one zombie. Vince rolls 1, 1, 4, 6 and gets two successes, his opponent rolls 1 and gets none – another zed down.

    11100103

    “I can hear some screams and hacking – a definite struggle…”

    I decide the building is a small shop, and roll 2d6 + 2 (urban area) for loot. A 9 means we found some food, not unreasonable for a shop.

    Turns 5-10

    We move up to the next building. Lather, rinse, repeat.

    This took five turns because of some really sucky activation dice. Lucky none of the surviving zombies can get at us.

    “Two more zombies!” warns Vince, but these are quickly smashed down by the experienced detectives, who find more food inside.

    11100104

    “That one must have been here a while, it’s gone green!”

    Turns 11-13

    We break into the third building, but it is vacant. Searching it, we find medical supplies – must be a pharmacist.

    Turn 14

    We move off the board, richer than before.

    Campaign Book-Keeping

    The team started with nothing; it now has 2 units of food and 1 unit of medical supplies, leaving 58 and 19 respectively in the urban area they are now scavenging in. The total cargo value is 2.5, which is quite a bit less than the team can carry – fortunate, as we have no base in which to store it. The team consumes one unit of food each per month, so we don’t have enough – luckily there are 4 encounters per month in an urban area, so we can go shopping again before hunger starts to reduce our Rep.

    Drew and Vince have now met all the requirements to choose a class – see at least 3 zombies, kill one, and fight an armed human (p. 5). Sylvia still has to kill a zombie. Drew and Vince decide they will be Survivors rather than Gangers, and will use those reaction tables rather than the Civilian ones in future.

    Drew and Vince both succeeded in this encounter, and roll for improvement (p. 61); no change for either of them. Sylvia failed (didn’t kill any zombies) and rolled a 1 for improvement, so her Rep is now 4. The team is now:

  • Drew: Star, Rep 5, Star Power 5, Born Leader, Brawler.
  • Vince: Rep 4, Runt.
  • Sylvia: Rep 4, Brawler.
  • Lessons Learned

    • The yellow Cry Havoc! maps work a lot better for batrep photos than the more naturally-coloured Wydraz ones. I should switch back to those.
    • The decision that I could place zombies somewhere they couldn’t get out meant that the team could deal with those they encountered piecemeal, and made it a lot easier for them to clear the board.
    • To avoid characters losing Rep after an encounter, I should have them take it in turns to look for resources and fight – everybody has to find one to avoid the chance of losing Rep. I forgot to let Sylvia do that this game.
    • This session took a couple of minutes to set up and knock down, and about half an hour to play. I’m content with easing back into the game slowly as I haven’t played for a while. It used three human figures and 21 zombie pawns. (This last statistic because a common question on the boards is “How many zombie figures do I need?”)

    One lesson I hope readers are learning is that you don’t need beautiful figures and terrain to have fun, nice though they look. As Ed says, just play the game!

    Credits

    Figures and pawns by eM4. Map by Wydraz. Rules by Two Hour Wargames.