Game Day: The Weird Pulp Campaign

After a successful playtest of Savage Worlds, my gaming group — the Blackrazor Guild — decided to launch a short-to-mid-range Weird Pulp campaign. The campaign began in early Spring 2014, and we’re expecting it to run through at least Summer 2014.

Weird Pulp will follow the adventures of a group known as the Wardens, a loosely-knit secret society with offices in Bombay, Cairo, New York, London, San Francisco, and Hong Kong. It is an organization comprised of men and women of action — troubleshooters, adventurers, and mystics — who have sworn an oath to protect the innocent from threats both mundane and magical.

Defining the Weird

The Weird Pulp campaign is unique: it’s the first time we’ve adventured in a world entirely of our own making. All of our previous games were set in someone else’s sandbox: Greyhawk, Temple of Elemental Evil, Second Darkness, Knights of the Old Republic.

Not so Weird Pulp. The campaign draws inspiration from the expected pulp sources, like Doc Savage, The Shadow, and their Mystery Men contemporaries. The literary weird in the campaign comes from a touch of H.P. Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard. We also draw heavily from cinema, with inspiration drawn from Indiana Jones trilogy, Hellboy, The Usual Suspects, Batman, and even the pulpier sides of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (Ironman 3, Captain America).

The specifics of the campaign — the fictional world that the characters move through, the enemies they go up against, the building where they hang their hats — is all us.

The initial challenge was to figure out exactly what “Weird Pulp” meant, because it could (and did) mean a lot of different things. Was it going to be a strident heroes battling against Cyclopian horrors (a la the never-released Pulp Cthulhu)? Or was it going to be something a little less weird, more Indiana Jones with just a touch of the strange thrown in?

The pulp part was fairly straightforward — we wanted two-fisted heroes, fledgling mystery men, neophyte sorcerers, and other lesser heroes, rather than following the archetype of a powerful hero (Doc Savage) and his side kicks.

The weird was a harder to pin down. We could have gone full out Weird Tales and embraced Lovecraft’s vision of secrets men was not meant to know, but we decided early on that we didn’t want anything that horrifying. We didn’t want to play a game where people constantly feared for their sanity and spent more time running from threats than fighting them.

At the same time we wanted some magic in the world, but didn’t want the arcane to overwhelm everyday life. Hellboy and Indiana Jones were certainly influences here: we wanted magic in the world, hidden just out of sight.

With our influences identified, we had to start building the world. As Game Master, I have to say that this gave me a “oh boy” moment when I realized just how much of this was on us.

Research? I need to do … research?

It’s easy enough to lift tropes, and hell, entire stories, from the source material, but there’s so much more to building a campaign world than that. The sort of things that were easily answered in Greyhawk or Star Wars now required actual research. Fortunately running a real-world analogue campaign means that the entire World Wide Web is your sourcebook … but it’s not the same as flipping open the Knights of the Old Republic Campaign Guide and reading about Mandalorians.

For example, I knew that our current adventure would involve a London Royal Society expedition to Antarctica. That seems simple enough … until I realized I had to figure out when the Society first went to Antarctica, what regions they’d explored, and hell, what it even meant to be a Fellow of the Society.

In other games I could either look it up in a source book or, even better, just make it up on the fly. This being the real world — and knowing my history loving players — I felt I needed to do some actual research.

This is in no way a complaint — I was a history minor in college, and I love this stuff, but I also quickly realized I couldn’t do this all on my own. Every game seemed to spawn a dozen new questions, when I hadn’t finished answering the previous dozen.

So I took it to the players. I needed help researching the New York Police Department; they gave me police maps and helped me identify the precincts the PCs were interacting with.

The Wardens needed a headquarters, they came up with a half-dozen architects, brainstormed NPCs and rooms for the building.

I needed examples of cars for the PCs to drive; I got cars and photos of said cars, which we quickly added to our Pinterest page.

It’s been like working on a group history project in college, only one in which everyone’s actually contributing to the research. This has been my favorite part of the campaign — it’s fantastic to be able to draw from real-world resources, like pictures of cars, buildings, and other artifacts, and then use them in the game.

Building the Toolkit

As I discussed in my “Return to Weird Pulp” column, we tried to run this sort of campaign before, but it sputtered out.

This time around we had a much better foundation for running a campaign because we had far more experience playing Savage Worlds.

We also have a lot more books.

I kept up with Savage Worlds thanks to my lunchtime “Day After Ragnarok” campaign, and kept up a slow-but-steady stream of purchases to support that game (any my own growing interest in all things Savage).

This included Reality Blurs’ Realms of Cthulhu and Agents of Oblivion, Pinnacle’s own Horror Companion, Fantasy Companion, Super Powers Companion, and Weird War II, and anything that Atomic Overmind put out for The Day After Ragnarok.

That meant that we had a significant collection of rules to pull from when assembling our campaign. We settled on the using Savage Worlds Deluxe (a slightly revised version of the core rules that had just been released in a handy Explorers Edition), with the occasional edge and hinderance drawn from the Horror Companion. In keeping with our heroic take on Weird Pulp, we decided against a Sanity system and not to include the Guts skill.

As a game master I’ve delved more deeply into the other rulebooks, in particular the magic items and monsters in both the Fantasy Companion and Horror Companion. They’re both excellent for idea delving and both are quickly becoming well-worn tomes in my RPG library. I also rely on Weird War II quite a lot, though that’s usually for weapons and military hardware.

It’s all come together very nicely, and I’m looking forward to building out its shared mythology over the next few months.

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