From Pulp to the Gaming Table: Running Short Fiction as RPG

[originally posted here at Castalia House]

“The Third Reich has fallen, but one of its chief scientists, a Dr. Karl von Mark, has been on the run. He was tracked down to somewhere in Africa where he left Earth on a rocket ship. A crack team (you guys) has been sent to pursue him in its own craft. The team followed him to the far side of the moon, where another body, a second moon hidden in a synchronous orbit behind the moon we can see, appears to be his destination. As you close in on the Dr’s ship, he fires a weapon at your ship, causing critical damage; you’re forced to make a crash landing in the jungle of the hidden moon.”

In the past, I’ve made the dangerous claim that good short fiction, like the kind you read in the pulps or in Appendix N, poses a threat to a product-driven OSR whose focus has moved away from systems and into settings materials and modules. My reasoning is that a short story is far easier to digest and build a game around than your typical Gazetteer-style setting product with its oodles of townships, kingdoms, persons of personage, blah blah blah. There are many reasons behind this—a big one is that a good short story only contains details that drive the action. A party may never meet or care about Sir Guy of Thistledown Barrow in the Valley of Dalemorrow, Pop: 1513, Econ: 2, Env: Temperate, but if you read a story about Sir Guy wrecking some three-armed monster in the nearby swamp, all you have to do is swap out Sir Guy with your players’ characters, give the monster a stat bloc and you’re good to go!

As I said, though, this was a dangerous claim, and one I needed to see if I could test. My DM wanted to take a break to work on his game; he offered me a chance to fill in with a one-shot, and I knew exactly what I wanted to do. When I reviewed Basil Wells’ Raiders of the Second Moon, I included sample stats for the cultists of Uzdon and the attributes of their magic garb. I even showed how the Temple of the Skull could be used as a gateway to the Holmes Skull Mountain megadungeon. I already had the groundwork in place to run Raiders of the Second Moon.

The whole thing only took a few hours prep spread over three days. I showed a lot of my work here, but I didn’t realize until after I’d run it that I had accidentally created a fully functional rules-lite World War II RPG.

The biggest change I implemented storywise was replacing the protagonist, Captain Dietrich, aka “Noork”, with the party of PCs. The amnesiac angle would not really work, either. It was a personal hook relevant to that character that would not be relevant to the PCs in any meaningful way. Noork was gone, out, blipped out of existence, which had an interesting impact on the story’s outcome, but I’ll get to that later.

There needed to be more than just the Misty Ones in the Jungle; the Spotted Narl was mentioned by name, so I statted one up with claws and bite attacks (I assumed they were some kind of jungle cat, but I told players they also had crocodile heads, because why not?). I also included a stat bloc for a big jungle snake and for some of Dr. Mark’s mooks he showed up with at the end. One of the women in our group had recently painted a “Lisa Frank giant beetle” miniature and asked that night if we’d be using it, so I said sure and added it to the random encounters.

Those stat blocs were easy. The hardest part was rolling up and writing down pre-gen characters on index cards. I probably should have used 4d6 drop the lowest, since these were America’s finest we were talking about, but I’ve become a stickler for the Old Ways. I made 14 pre-gens so that there would be enough if everyone in our group (we’ve had upwards of 10 in a given night) showed up and some extras for when folks died. I wrote down everyone’s stats, HP (a full fighter’s hit die), attack mods, and saves, so that we could start almost as soon as everyone showed up.  I also made a stack of equipment cards, detailing everything they needed to know about the items, which I gave to the “Captain” to hand out. This worked nicely as an in-universe/in-game process, where soldiers appealed to their commanding officer for which equipment in the salvage they should be parceled out. Also, by making one character “Captain” (pre-gen with highest CHA score), I was able to reinstitute the role of “Caller” – any time I needed the group to regain focus, I only had to turn to the “Captain” and ask her what her soldiers were doing.

To create the geography I doodled a little hex-map showing the crash site, the surrounding jungle, the Vasads’ village, and the Lake/OutlyingFarms/SkullTemple area. There are other locations mentioned in the story and that were mentioned by characters, but I didn’t map them out, because they weren’t germane to the adventure. I drew sticky notes which I could put out on the table to serve as a map, using the “Captain’s” mini to show where the party was.

The last piece of prep was taking a few lines of dialogue from the story that could serve as a framework for the NPCs or writing up something with just enough exposition to get the ball rolling. For instance, in the story, Noork has met and been friends with Gurn, the human living in exile among the Vasads, for some time, but the party would have to actually meet and possibly befriend him.

This all sounds like a lot of work, but really it wasn’t. I was able to run the entire adventure off two single-sided sheets of paper. If you’re interested, I’ve attached my notes(though they don’t contain my hand-drawn map, which was just terrain type letters connected by lines).

The party crashed, doled out equipment and set out to explore the jungle and look for the Nazi doctor’s ship. They met some Vasads, who were going to investigate the crash site, and were led to Gurn’s village. There was only so much wandering around in the jungle I wanted the players to do, so I noted a few dynamic encounters , including Vasads “looking” for them so they’d get what information they needed to go forward. Gurn gave some backstory on the setting and answered questions about Uzdon and the Temple of the Skull; since they made a bee-line for the village and met the first Vasads looking for them, they didn’t have an opportunity to meet Tholon Sarna in the jungles. This worked out well, though, since I could have Gurn tell the party in the morning that his sister was due at the village but never came back; he had scouts looking for her, but promised to help find Dr. Mark if they’d look for Tholon.

In the original story, Rold the slave wants a dame like Tholon Sarna, but with Noork around, he’s never going to get her. Of course, without Noork, he may have a chance! After sneaking the PCs into the temple, where the team began taking out cultists in a firefight, Rold got his own moment to shine by leading a slave rebellion. After being mowed down by tommy guns and blown up by grenades, the cultists declared the Americans to be avatars of the blood gods and allowed them to take what is rightfully theirs – the captured women of the villages, including Tholon Sarna. On the way back, they encountered Dr. Mark and his minions – after his villain speech, the sniper put a bullet between his eyes, and between the party and Gurn with his ape warband, they made short work of the last remnants of the Reich. It all fit pretty snugly in a 4 hour session.

Ironically, several folks were more interested in trying to seduce Gurn than the dames; “Well, you’ve described him as a golden god; he’s a jungle prince—it was worth a shot!”

The party took Dr. Mark’s spaceship and bullet-riddled body back to Earth, where they received commendations from Harry Truman and Eisenhower. If they’d wanted to stay on Sekk, the world could’ve easily been expanded. There were cities mentioned in the story that I didn’t map out because I didn’t want to blow up the scope of a one-shot, but there were enough adventure hooks that could be used to launch an ongoing campaign. It’s clear from the story that there are other slavers besides the worshipers of Uzdon. And the Temple of the Skull COULD be used as the top of a megadungeon leading into the heart of the second moon.

I also said that I accidentally created a rules-lite WW II system without even realizing. While I’d used B/X as a base for the characters, the inclusion of some WW II era hardware changed the characteristics of play more than a little. I used Star Frontiers’ order of battle, which I detail in my crib notes for running the game. It’s a great system for anything that uses ranged combat and fixes the issue I see a lot with individual initiative where people say “I go first—I wait and see what everyone does!” Winning initiative means getting to see what the other side is doing first and pre-emptively responding to it.

Between the handful of weapons I statted and the simple fusion of the two basic RPG systems, I could easily run more games in a World War II setting, fantastic or otherwise. Perfect for a Zone Troopers-style “Punch Hitler” type game!

For further reading, I’d suggest this post by Bradford C Walker.

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