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 Black Bat (Hollow Earth Expedition)

This is my third version of the Black Bat. This time I’ve statted up the Black Bat and friends using Hollow Earth Expedition. To match the pulp abilities of the Bat, I’ve given him a lot of extra experience for buying talents and skills.

Anthony Quinn, The Black Bat

Archetype: Vigilante Motivation: Justice
Body: 2 Charisma: 2
Dexterity: 4 Intelligence: 4
Strength: 2 Willpower: 3
Size: 0 Initiative: 8
Move: 6 Defense: 6
Perception: 7 Stun: 2

Style: Health: 5

Skill Base Levels Rating Average
Stealth 4 4 8 4
Athletics 2 2 4 2
Investigation 4 2 6 3
Crimes 4 2 7 3+
Intimidation 2 2 4 2
Firearms 4 2 6 3
Brawl 2 2 4 2
Bureaucracy 4 1 5 2+
Drive 4 1 5 2+
Science 4 1 5 2+
Chemistry 4 1 6 3

Talents:

Dark Vision (Custom) – Can see in near total darkness, as if it were daylight. No darkness penalties.

Fearsome

Resources:

Contacts (Law Enforcement): +4 Contact Bonus

Flaws:

Criminal (Under Suspicion from Sgt. McGrath)


Silk Kirby

Archetype: Criminal Motivation: Justice
Body: 1 Charisma: 4
Dexterity: 3 Intelligence: 3
Strength: 1 Willpower: 3
Size: 0 Initiative: 6
Move: 4 Defense: 4
Perception: 6 Stun: 1
Style: Health: 4
Skill Base Levels Rating Average
Stealth 3 5 8 4
Disguise 3 5 9 4+
Con 4 4 8 4
Streetwise 4 2 6 3
Larceny 3 1 4 2
Drive 3 1 4 2
Brawl 1 1 2 1
Firearms 1 1 1 1

Resources:

Contacts (Criminal Underworld) +2

Flaws:

Criminal – Former Criminal


Jack “Butch” O’Leary

Archetype: Adventurer Motivation: Honor
Body: 4 Charisma: 1
Dexterity: 2 Intelligence: 1
Strength: 5 Willpower: 2
Size: 1 Initiative: 3
Move: 7 Defense: 5
Perception: 3 Stun: 5
Style: Health: 6
Skill Base Levels Rating Average
Brawl 5 5 10 5
Athletics 5 3 8 4
Intimidation 1 3 4 2
Drive 2 2 4 2
Melee 2 2 4 2

Talents:

Staggering Blow


Carol Baldwin

Archetype: Adventurer Motivation: Love
Body: 1 Charisma: 6
Dexterity: 2 Intelligence: 3
Strength: 1 Willpower: 3
Size: 0 Initiative: 5
Move: 3 Defense: 3
Perception: 6 Stun: 1
Style: Health: 4
Skill Base Levels Rating Average
Con 6 1 7 3+
Diplomacy 6 3 9 4+
Empathy 6 3 9 4+
Investigation 3 3 6 3
Firearms 2 2 4 2
Drive 2 2 2 2

Talents:

Attractive

The Black Bat (OneDice)

This is a continuation of my post on the Black Bat. Here are the stats for the same characters in OneDice Pulp. Clearly we have a lot less detail to work with, but I think I’ve still managed to capture the essence of the characters.

Anthony Quinn – The Black Bat

Strong 2, Clever 2, Quick 3
Health 6, Defence 9, Move 30
Skills Sneaky 2, Shooting 1, Bruiser 2, Investigation 1
Talent Dark Vision

Silk Kirby

Strong 1, Clever 3, Quick 3
Health 3, Defence 9, Move 30
Skills Disguise 8, Shooting 1, Bruiser 1, Drive 1, Dodgy 1
Talent Doppleganger (+6 to disguise)

Jack “Butch” O’Leary

Strong 3, Clever 1, Quick 3
Health 9, Defence 9, Move 30
Skills Drive 2, Bruiser 4, Intimidate 2
Talent Martial Artist (+2 to Bruiser)

Carol Baldwin

Strong 1, Clever 3, Quick 3
Health 3, Defence 9, Move 30
Skills Investigation 1, Perception 1,  Negotiate 1, Sneaky 1, Psychology 1, Research 1
Talent Contacts

Next, I’m going to get a little ambitious and try to create the same characters in a more complex system – Hero Games’ Justice Inc.

The Black Bat (Spirit of the Century)

I’ve been trying to replicate some old pulp characters in various RPG systems. My main goal is to get familiar with a few game systems I’ve only had a chance to skim. My plan is to try creating the same characters in a few different systems.

It also gives me the excuse to read a little deeper into the pulp literature, especially some of the more obscure figures.

I’m going to start off with a character I like, along with the system I’m most familiar with:

The Black Bat, as generated in Spirit of the Century.

blackbatThe Black Bat is a somewhat obscure figure, despite the fact he had 60+ stories. He came a little later than some of the more famous heroes. He first appeared in Black Book Stories in 1939, and ran to 1953.

With his black costume, cape, and, obviously, the name, he seems very similar to Batman. His origin, however, is lot closer to the Batman villain Two-Face.

In the first story, “Brand of the Black Bat”, Anthony “Tony” Quinn is a successful, incorruptible district attorney. During the trial of a gangster, an assassin hurls acid in Quinn’s face, scarring his face and blinding him.

A mysterious woman offers him a secret operation to replace his eyes, and restore his sight. It succeeds, not only restoring his sight, but gives him the ability to see in the dark. He continues to pose as a blind man, donning the mask and cape to become what the second book – “Murder Calls the Black Bat” describes:

He had become a Nemesis, a dark blot of shadow soon feared by every man who lived by violence or by his wits, and now was a scourge of the underworld of crime.

Anthony Quinn – The Black Bat

Superb (5)   Stealth
Great (4)      Investigation, Alertness
Good (3)       Fists, Guns, Athletics
Fair (2)         Burglary, Contacting, Intimidation, Deceit
Average(1)   Drive, Resolve, Science, Endurance, Resources

Stunts

  • In Plain Sight (SOTC 197)  SOTC: Spirit of the Century rule book
  • Master of Shadows (SOTC 197)
  • Shadowed Strike (SOTC 198)
  • Deadly Shadows (SOTC 198)
  • Uncanny Awareness (STOTC 410) STOTC: Strange Tales of the Century supplement
  • See in Dark (Unofficial Stunt – Darkness aspects can not be used against Quinn, can see normally in anything more than total darkness)

Aspects

  • Fake Blind Man
  • Famous D.A.
  • War on Crime
  • Under Suspicion from Sgt. McGrath
  • Must protect his friends
  • Enemy of the Underworld
  • Marks criminals with the sign of the Bat.

Like many pulp heroes, the Bat has loyal companions. First, his loyal valet, and former con man Silk Kirby.

“And Silk had become invaluable to Quinn, since not only was he a reformed burglar whose loyalty to Tony Quinn now approached fanaticism, but he was also an ex-confidence man, glib as the best in that racket.”

Daniels, Norman A.. The Black Bat Omnibus Volume 1 (Annotated)  Altus Press.

Silk Kirby

Former Criminal, Tony’s Valet
Superb (5)    Deceit
Great (4)       Burglary, Alertness
Good (3)        Guns, Drive, Fists
Fair (2)          Stealth, Athletics, Contacting, Resolve
Average (1)   Investigation, Rapport, Intimidation, Sleight of Hand,

Stunts

  • Clever Disguise (SOTC 135)
  • Mimicry (SOTC 135)
  • Master of Disguise (SOTC 136)
  • Criminal Mind (SOTC 129)
  • Hidden in Plain Sight (STOTC 422)

Aspects

  • Criminal Past
  • Loyal to the Bat
  • Former Valet

He also had the aid of the bruiser Butch O’Leary. A brawny, but dim ex-boxer who was one of Quinn’s most loyal companions.

“…a tremendous hulk of a man who had attracted Tony Quinn’s notice during a bank robbery when Butch had leaped at a machine-gun armed thug who was in the act of mowing down a score of bystanders. Quinn had known at once that Butch was a man he could trust”

Daniels, Norman A.. The Black Bat Omnibus Volume 1 (Annotated) . Altus Press.

Jack “Butch” O’Leary

Superb (5)   Might
Great (4)     Endurance, Fists
Good(3)       Athletics, Resolve, Drive
Fair (2)        Alertness, Rapport, Weapons
Average (1)  Stealth, Empathy, Contacting

Stunts

  • Brawler (SOTC 150)
  • Herculean Strength (SOTC 171)
  • One Hit to the Body (SOTC 146)
  • Mix it Up (SOTC 151)

Aspects

  • Slow-witted
  • Strong as a Bull
  • Selfless Bravery
  • Former Boxer
  • Loyal to the Bat

The Bat’s last assistant and love interest was Carol Baldwin, the woman who arranged the operation to restore Tony Quinn’s sight. :

“She was Tony Quinn’s dream of feminine perfection come true. She, alone, had given him back his sight and restored his peace of mind. Her own father had been shot by a criminal. …. It was the healthy corneas from his eyes that had been transplanted in Tony Quinn’s. And her father’s dying wish had been that she in some way ally herself with forces that opposed crime. For this reason she had become Tony Quinn’s capable and trusted assistant.”

Daniels, Norman A.. The Black Bat Omnibus Volume 1 (Annotated)  Altus Press.

Carol Baldwin

Superb (5)    Rapport
Great (4)       Empathy, Investigation
Good (3)        Deceit, Resolve, Contacting
Fair (2)          Stealth, Athletics, Alertness,
Average(1)   Drive, Fists,  Guns

Stunts

Popular Gal (SOTC 182)
Best Foot Forward (SOTC 181)
Five Minute Friends (SOTC 182)

Aspects

  • War on Crime
  • Kidnapping Magnet
  • Murdered Policeman Father
  • Loyal to the Bat
  • Tony Quinn’s love interest