Another sort of Pulp campaign – the cases of Doc Turner

When most people think of pulp heroes, they imagine a few various archetypes: a masked hero lurking in the darkness, a famous super-scientist, perhaps a muscled figure raised by the beasts of some far-off wilderness.

Imagine instead, a elderly, kindly pharmacist who rarely leaves their Lower East Side neighborhood.

Let me offer an alternate kind of pulp hero and pulp RPG campaign, based on the exploits of a very real but very forgotten character from the pulps – Doc Turner.

The Doc Turner stories, all written by Arthur Leo Zagat, appeared in 70 stories that all were published exclusively in the Spider magazine. They ran from 1934 to 1942.

Andrew Turner was a pharmacist, who owned a small shop on “Morris Street”, in a crowded New York immigrant neighborhood. Locals would come to him for help, or strange situations would appear on his doorstep. Turner would investigate, usually have to escape from some kind of jam, and using his wits, would ultimately defeat the evil doers.

Though an aged man, usually unarmed, who had no special combat skills, Turner’s sharp mind made him formidable. He was always using his chemical skills to make small explosives, acids to burn through ropes, and other clever bits of alchemy.

Turner had two assistants: Jack Ransom, a burly red-handed mechanic who handled most of the physical action, and his young stock boy Abie, who was always secretly shadowing bad guys, or following Doc Turner into danger without telling him.

The stories are breezy and fun, though some of the old ethnic stereotypes are a little awkward, and Zagat doesn’t shy away from the violence and squalor of living in the slums. Zagat also had a unfortunate habit of trying to phonetically write out accents and dialects. One gets used to it, but it never really works.

The stories’ distrust of authority figures, especially the police, feels somewhat modern, and I think Zagat’s compassion and sympathy for ordinary people do come through in these stories.

It’s also nice to have a pulp hero who isn’t a wealthy, carefree playboy.

The Doc Turner stories are currently in print as e-books, and audiobooks from Radio Archives.

On the Internet Archive you can see the original Doc Turner story, Deadlock in the April 1934 issue of the Spider (page 95).

Campaigning in the Doc Turner way

The Turner stories provide a template for a different kind of pulp campaign. Instead of having your players wander all over the city, or trot across the globe, have the campaign take place in one particular neighborhood. It needn’t be a pharmacy; perhaps a bar (or speakeasy in the 30s), a union hall, or barber shop.

The convenient thing about a neighborhood-based game is that you wouldn’t have to constantly come up with new and exciting locations – the danger comes directly to the player’s doorstep. A GM could build up a whole local cast of NPCs, who could serve as the focus of plots, victims to be avenged, or just local color.

Here’s an example of a Turner-style pulp setting

The Adventures of Granny Leitchner

The neighborhood popularly known as Docktown is mostly populated by immigrants or people down on their luck – easy prey for criminals, gangsters, and other various villains. The local police and city government aren’t particularly trusted by the Docktowners, with good reason. So when trouble happens, most locals know where to go – Granny Leitchner’s Delicatessen!

Granny Leitchner – Silver-haired old woman, wearing a tattered apron. She’s run Leitchner’s Delicatessen for longer than anyone can remember. Knows everyone in Docktown, and everyone comes to her for help. She presumably has a first name, but no one seems to know it.

Granny has a friendly, maternal personality, that often disguises her razor-sharp analytic mind.

Ulysses Stern – Veteran of the Belleau Wood. A former boxer (“washed-up stumblebum” in his parlance), Granny was able to free him from an obligation to a local crime syndicate, and he’s become her assistant, bodyguard, and loyal right hand man. He also slices and delivers meat. Prone to lash out with violence if he thinks Granny might be in danger.

Mabel – Granny’s 10-year old tomboy niece – quick as a hummingbird, always getting into some kind of jam. She delivers packages for Granny, mostly cold cuts, but often messages as well.

Plot Seeds

  • A shadowy figure is murdering and slicing open recent immigrants. Some locals think its a devil-worshiping cult, but the culprit is actually a ring of diamond smugglers killing their poor, desperate couriers.
  • Granny notices someone has been ordering too much meat. A local gangster is keeping a pet tiger to dispose of his victims, and someone Granny cares about is next.
  • One of Mabel’s little friends has been snatched, along with a number of other children. All of their fathers are members of a local dockworker’s union. A local crime syndicate is trying to infiltrate or destroy the union.

The Pulp Hack: Mini-review and custom Character Sheet

There’s a simple pulp RPG put out a few years ago by Scott Malthouse (creator of Romance of the Perilous Land) called the Pulp Hack. It’s an adaptation of the OSR Black Hack rule system to run 1930s pulp adventures.

The Rules

The Black Hack system is an OSR-based class and level system. Pulp Hack characters have the traditional STR, DEX, CON, INT, WIS, CHA stats, and hit points.

Any action a player might take is resolved by selecting a stat and rolling a D20. If the player rolls under the stat, they succeed. For example, a character with a STR of 13 is trying to force open a tomb door. If they roll a 12 or less, they succeed.

Combat rolls are either STR or DEX rolls. GMs don’t roll for enemies. Only players roll to attack and to defend against attacks.

Some rolls can be rolled with advantage or disadvantage depending on the situation.

The Pulp Hack includes the following classes: Adventurer, Private Investigator, Masked Vigilante, Jungle Master, Mystic, Scientist. Each has special abilities, and a specific damage type.

When a character does damage to a foe, the specific weapon doesn’t matter. Each class has a specified damage die for both armed and unarmed attacks.

It’s been my experience that most Black Hack-based systems are quick and easy to run, and the Pulp Hack is no exception. Players usually pick up the system very quickly. However, I’m not 100% sure the whole OSR class/level system is the best fit for a pulp game, at least for longer campaigns. Most traditional pulp heroes don’t actually change or “level up” in the original stories. Doc Savage started and ended his run pretty much exactly the same. It’s still a fun little game, and worth looking at.

The Pulp Hack is short (only 20 pages), but clearly presented. GMs will have to provide all of the pulp setting background on their own. A short list of magic spells and foes is provided.

It’s currently only one dollar over on DriveThru, so it’s worth picking up.

Character Sheet

There’s no official character sheet for the Pulp Hack, so I’ve made my own. It’s pretty much an adaptation of the OneDice Pulp character sheet I recently made.

It’s two pages, fillable and will allow you to import a character image by clicking in the upper right hand corner. I’ve made both A4 and US letter versions.

I’ve added this to my list of custom character sheets over on my other RPG blog.

Villain’s Toolbox – a list of deadly methods for murder

How does a fiendish master criminal eliminate his enemies? Guns? Bombs? Too pedestrian. Here’s a list of fictional methods of assassination taken from actual pulp novels. Add any of these to your pulp villain’s arsenal.

Note: I’ve identified the source of most of these, so there may be spoilers for some books that went out-of-print well before you were born.


Two darts made of frozen snake venom, that will kill nearly instantly. Fired from a blowgun disguised as a common cigarette. Leaves two small wounds on the victim, which to the non-expert appears to be a snake bite.

from The Three Just Men (1925) by Edgar Wallace


An ordinary-looking vinyl record, with a recorded message from a criminal mastermind. The surface of the record has been treated with both a deadly poison and a protective coating. The record is harmless until it is played. When the needle of the record player heats up the coating, the poison is slowly emitted as a gas. As the record plays, enough poison gas is released to kill everyone in a medium-sized room.

from Scarlet Ace (1933) by Theodore A. Tinsley, originally published in All-Detective Magazine, February 1933


A small seed from an genetically engineered Australian thorn bush. When a victim is induced to inhale it, it takes root in the poor devil’s brain. After an hour, the victim suffers intense headaches. After two hours, the victim collapses, dies, and a small thorny tree bursts forth from their skull.

from Doctor Satan (1935) by Paul Ernst, originally published in Weird Tales, August 1935


Red Snow – A mysterious radium-derived chemical contained in a grenade. The explosion creates a red cloud that crystallizes into flakes that rain down from above. The flakes change the molecular structure of matter, stopping all molecular motion. Anything the flakes touch appears to be frozen. As soon as the frozen victims are touched, they crumble to dust.

from Red Snow (1935) by Lester Dent


The Zayat Kiss – A letter is placed in an envelope perfumed with the scent of a rare orchid and sent to the victim. The scent clings to whomever opens the envelope. A venomous red centipede is released in the vicinity of the victim. The creature is drawn to the scent of the orchid on the victim, and will almost certainly bite him. The bite is almost always fatal.

from The Mystery of Dr. Fu-Manchu (1913) by Sax Rohmer 


The wallpaper of the victim’s house is treated with arsenic. The water heater is modified to break down the water and release hydrogen gas. The hydrogen reacts with the arsenic-laced wallpaper to produce arseniuretted hydrogen, which will slowly poison anyone in the room.

from The Exploits of Elaine (1915) by Arthur B. Reeve


Smoke of Eternity – An air pistol fires a canister filled with grayish vapor that crackles with electric flashes. Even a small amount of the vapor will disintegrate anything on an atomic level – human bodies, bank vaults, etc. It can only be contained with a rare and mysterious metal.

from The Land of Terror (1933) by Lester Dent


A mysterious ray that can produce wild extremes of emotion in its victims, starting with wild laughter and ending in extreme panic, which often leads to accidents and death. It also causes anything made of bronze to glow an eerie green.

from Slaves of the Laughing Death (1940) by Grant Stockbridge


The Frosted Death – A mold that grows on living flesh. It will grow into the victim’s pores and lungs, suffocating them to death. It gets its name by leaving a powdery sugar-like coating on the victim’s corpse, that appears similar to frost.

from The Frosted Death (1940) by Paul Ernst


Two strange mechanisms on tripods are activated. A shimmering curtain of atomic energy appears between them. Any living being within or entering the curtain of death will soon die.

from Python Men Of Lost City (1938) by Chester Hawks

Yesterday’s Faces

I’ve abandoned this blog for a bit, but I’ve been recently inspired to start posting again by a book series I’ve been reading – Robert Sampson’s Yesterday’s Faces. It’s a study of the various characters that thrived in the pulp magazines of the early twentieth century.

Cover to Yesterday's Faces Volume 1 - Glory Figures

The post-World War I era of pulp magazines was like a Cambrian Explosion of popular culture. A endless number of new tropes and characters blossomed. Virtually every fictional hero of today can be traced in some way to those early figures, perhaps in cruder form, but if you look, the lineage is there.

Only a few survivors of that ancient age still have any presence in 21st century imagination. Conan managed to battle his way out. Lovecraft was right – Cthulhu can’t really die. Doc Savage and the Shadow still have some faint hold in some quarters.

However, the survivors of the age of pulp are far outnumbered by the army of the forgotten.

Who remembers the exploits of Nick Carter?
Hopalong Cassidy and the men of the Bar 20?
Jimmie Dale, the Gray Seal?
The Four Just Men?
The super-spy Operator 5?
Professor Augustus S.F.X. Van Deusen, better known as the Thinking Machine?

All heroes who thrilled the nation, now lost.

My plan is to excavate these lost strata of pop culture, and dig up some of these lost ideas and characters for use in pulp RPGs.

I’m going to try to keep everything system-neutral, as there’s not really any one universal, or even most-popular pulp RPG system.

Mugshots of the 1920s – Photos for CoC or Pulp games

Polyhedral Nonsense

Here’s a good resource for running a RPG in the 1920s. It’s a collection of mug shots from 1920s Sydney. They’d make great portraits for players & PCs for Call of Cthulhu, pulp games, or any 1920s based game.

Apparently, the New South Wales PD had a really great photographer back in the day. The pictures are, of course, more than a little sad.

Honestly, I hesitated before I shared these. These are all real people who lived and died, and happened to have their picture taken on one of the less fortunate days of their lives. None of them actually signed up to be image fodder for some strange future fantasy game.

However, real world stuff, be it actual history or thinly disguised history, gets pulled into games all the time. Also, I didn’t unearth any of these, they’re public records on a museum website. Why did using these…

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Weird Books for Gamers II: Dr. Eckener’s Dream Machine

Here’s a book about Zeppelins that would be useful for any pulp RPG.

Polyhedral Nonsense

41JYH16CWCL._SX310_BO1,204,203,200_If you’re running any RPG set in the early 20th century, it’s only a matter of time before a Zeppelin or other airship shows up. There aren’t a lot of living people who have actually traveled on an airship, so it’d be helpful to have some idea what traveling in one was actually like.

Dr. Eckener’s Dream Machine: The Great Zeppelin and the Dawn of Air Travel (Goodreads)

This book is the story of Dr. Hugo Eckener, who started out as a reporter covering the airship industry, then eventually became an airship captain himself and ended up as the head of the Zeppelin company.

In his time, he was world famous. He commanded the Graf Zeppelin in the first (and only) airship flight around the world.

The best parts of this book are the detailed descriptions of the voyages of the Graf Zeppelin. Here’s some highlights easily usable…

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Noir Hack: The Straight Dope – House Rule (with new character sheet)

Crossposted from Polyhedral Nonsense

Polyhedral Nonsense

47e9c9116aa4f6b6da212fc05aec1885For my one-shot of the Noir Hack, I created a new house rule called the Straight Dope. It’s based on the Flashlight/Smokes idea from the Cthulhu Hack.

The idea is to model the social connections a character might have for particular institutions, that they could use to get information or make things happen.

Each community a character is connected to will be given a usage die. Every time the connection is used the usage die will be rolled normally.

For example – a player is searching for “Geronimo” Johnson, a notorious bootlegger, who is hiding out somewhere in the city. The player has D8 Straight Dope connection with the underworld. They can use that information to get a clue or at least some information. They will roll that usage die normally to see if their connection is downgraded.

Once a Straight Dope connection is used up, the player…

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Noir Hack – New Classes: Reporter, Citizen, & Swell

Crossposted from Polyhedral Nonsense

Polyhedral Nonsense

I’ve just tried running a one-shot of Noir Hack, the film noir version of the OSR RPG Black Hack.

To prepare for my game, I created a few new classes.


ReporterReporter

Ink-Slingers, Gossip Columnists, Muckrakers

Starting HP: d8+4
HP Per Level/Resting: 1d8
Weapon and Armor Proficiencies: Any
Attack Damage: 1d6 Armed /1d4 Unarmed or Improvising
The Darkness: d8

Special Features

  • Rolls with Advantage on CHA tests to wheedle information out of people.
  • Rolls with Advantage when researching public or private records.
  • Rolls with Advantage during an investigation to notice small details that others might miss.

Leveling Up

When Reporters roll to see if their stats increase, they roll twice for either INT or CHA.


potterSwells

Silk Stocking Crowd, Upper Crust, The Well-to-do, Fat Cats

Starting HP: 1d4 + 4
HP Per Level/Resting: 1d4
Weapon and Armor Proficiencies: Any
Attack Damage: 1d4 Armed / 1 Unarmed or Improvising
The Darkness:…

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Boxing Slang for Pulp adventures

circusfistsGiven the prevalence of boxers and ex-boxers in pulp fiction. I’ve found it useful to keep these boxing jargon dictionaries handy whenever I run a pulp game:

https://www.titleboxing.com/boxing-dictionary

https://www.predictem.com/boxing/boxing-terms-lingo-jargon/

The image is from Circus Fists (link to actual story)  – a fun Robert E. Howard story about his boxing sailor hero Sailor Steve Costigan.

Costigan would make an excellent PC in any pulp game.