Review: Thrilling Tales

Posted: 31 October 2011 in Reviews

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.

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