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

Friday , 24, March 2017 9 Comments

“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.

  • deuce says:

    That sounds like a fun session! I’ve had a lot of luck using Wellman’s “John the Balladeer” tales as one night sessions. Of course, there are plenty of other authors to plunder. I just find that Wellman’s simple but quite solid plots are very easy to adapt.

    • cirsova says:

      Yeah, the main trick with one-offs is trying to figure out a way to funnel folks in the direction of you have prepared, especially for a group that is prone to free-range exploration. Sometimes the plot needs to be able to adapt and follow the party.

  • Rawle Nyanzi says:

    Using short stories as the basis of RPG games…why didn’t I think of that? Sure beats the hell out of supplements and lists. Go homebrew or go home, indeed!

  • Gaiseric says:

    I think the market niche that splatbooks cover actually has very little to do with the actual playing of the game. I find that in my own gaming, I’ve migrated more and more to using less; extremely rules-lite games, an OD&D free-wheeling paradigm, and homebrewed adventures, if you want to call them that.

    But the market for splatbooks—and why I still enjoy good ones—has relatively little to do with what I’m playing; it’s all about READING them. In fact, I think that the primary market is for people who are into the hobby but NOT gaming as much as they’d like. Reading splatbooks is a surrogate for actually gaming.

    A good splatbook can be entertaining, and it fires the imagination. You can read some esoteric character class or concept and think about; hey—that’d be cool to play someday. Or read about some setting element and think about how to tinker with it and use it in some way.

    But I use relatively little of my splatbooks in actual gaming. Heck; I don’t even use the system that most of them are in. I just like reading a good splatbook as an activity in its own right.

    My real inspiration for ACTUAL gaming tends to be more fiction than splatbooks or modules.

    • cirsova says:

      It’s true, that a lot of that stuff can be entertaining material, but creating products that were meant to be read rather than used was probably a part of what killed D&D in the 2e days. Die, Vecna, Die was a perfect example. That shit was clearly sunday reading and not meant to actually be run.

      • Gaiseric says:

        Was it though? I mean, I know that’s the accepted narrative, but I wonder what else TSR was supposed to publish after a certain point. I think the demand for the basic rulebooks matured at a certain point, and sales were only going to fall to a steady replacement and a few new guys here and there rate, and then… well, what else are they supposed to sell at that point?

        In other words; did that really CAUSE D&D to die, or was it a symptom of the fact that D&D was dying anyway due to completely different causes, and they were trying to prolong the inevitable as long as they could?

        Besides, in the 2e days, the rumor was that White Wolf was eating TSR’s lunch (I have no idea if that was literally true, but lots of people seem to believe it) and White Wolf published almost nothing BUT splatbooks.

        • cirsova says:

          Well, I didn’t say that it WAS the reason D&D died but only probably a part of it.

          The splatbook model is about selling a product to players to force upon their GMs; White Wolf, and now Paizo, milked that for all it was worth. Part of that benefit is that you’re potentially able to sell to a wider market (3-6 players in a group as opposed to one GM).

          A product like Die, Vecna, Die, however, probably required fairly significant development resources to create, but could only be sold to a tiny segment of the player-base: it was a high-level adventure that was written in such a way that it would likely see very little play at the table and would appeal primarily to DMs (and I suspect those who enjoyed reading modules but had very little time or desire to actually run games).

          My suspicion is that by devoting resources to products that were of little practical use to gamers and would see very little use at the table, TSR was spending a lot on things that would neither make them money nor grow the hobby.

          Saturation very well could have been an issue, but if the new content was usable, it could’ve helped prop the hobby up a bit more.

        • Gaiseric says:

          That’s a good point; there’s splatbooks and then there’s splatbooks. If you’re going to write them to sell to the readers because there isn’t enough demand from the players, then you should make certain that your splatbooks 1) have wide appeal rather than narrow, 2) are useful to occasional players, to encourage them to feel like they got more value for their money than just something to read, and 3) ideally offer value to regular players, but at least don’t hinder them by offering them products that aren’t worth anything to them.

          White Wolf seems to have stumbled upon the formula that worked for a while; they produced very few modules/campaigns, but had lots of alternate rulebooks, and lots of setting material, that almost anyone who played, or even thought they might play someday, could buy.

          Paizo—I’m not quite sure how their model works. I buy very few of their modules, because of what’s mentioned in the original post here, but that seems to be their bread and butter. I do buy some of their setting material here and there if it looks like it might be somewhat interesting. And I do buy some of their rulebooks even if I don’t use their rules, because frankly, at $10 a pop for the pdfs, then they’re worth it for the artwork alone.

          • cirsova says:

            The thing that always bothered me about White Wolf was their tendency to sell incomplete games that inextricable from their settings.

            While Vampire: the Masquerade could be run from its corebook, Exalted’s core book only provided enough for the creation of a party, but didn’t provide any stats or rules for creating the factions that would be the party’s primary antagonists. In fact, the Abyssal book, which gave stats for the one race/whatever that were the only enemies who could really square off against the core character race 1-on-1, was one of the last faction core books released. While you don’t need all of the splat books to run Exalted, you at least needed Dragonbloods and Abyssals. Ever since the Summer I spent playing Exalted, White Wolf games always remind me of the old “One Piece at a Time” song by Johnny Cash…

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