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.
- 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.