April Fool’s Day on the Intrawebs really sucks. On this day each year you have to sift through mounds of stupid crap to get to a small portion of worthwhile stuff. I suppose one could argue that such is the case every day, but it’s especially true each April 1.

So please allow me to try to present something at least marginally useful on this day: a list of “essentials” for gamemasters who wish to run roleplaying games set during the heyday of the pulps, the period from (roughly) 1931 through 1946 or 1947.

Most of the suggested material will not be directly game-related. Neither will this be an exhaustive list; it’s physically impossible to create or maintain a complete list of pulp era source material. My list will, however, be highly subjective and highly opinionated. But, as I’ve previously mentioned in this blog, I’ve been a “pulp era hobbyist” since I was a tadpole so I suppose that entitles me to at least a semi-informed opinion on the basis of my sheer longevity if nothing else. However, your mileage may vary, and I’m interested in your ideas, too – which is why the “Comments” boxes have never been disabled at the end of my posts. I invite and encourage you to use them.

Not everything I’m going to mention will be easily available (and I’m going to at least try to categorize my suggestions by availability), but half the fun of being a 1930’s-1940’s hobbyist is the thrill of the hunt and of occasionally cadging that obscure item you’ve spend years seeking.

Before we begin in earnest, let me say that the numero uno essential is a basic working knowledge of United States and world history and technology between the years 1931 and 1947. Many of these materials will provide some of that (through osmosis, if no other way). But you’re going to have to crack a history book or ten if you want to do it right – there’s no other way.

I’m not going to attempt a bibliography of history books covering the Great Depression and World War II; that era (especially the war) has been one of my hobbies since the 1970’s, and though I have a nice-sized reference library on the period, most of my collection consists of books which are long out of print. I will, however, highly recommend one relatively recent book: David M. Kennedy’s excellent history Freedom from Fear: The American People in Depression and War, 1929-1945 (Oxford University Press, 1999).

Easily Available Materials

Movies:

Raiders of the Lost Ark – Although Raiders was made a half-century after the pulp era began, the movie is a great homage to the pulps and serials of the 1930’s and, as far as costumes, vehicles, etc. are concerned, Spielberg got it right. The second and third movies are optional, as neither came close to measuring up to Raiders. (The fourth movie doesn’t even count, as it takes place well after the end of the pulp era.)

King Kong (the 1933 version, not the two dreadful remakes) – I will steadfastly maintain with evangelical fervor to my dying day that the original King Kong is unquestionably the single greatest adventure movie of all time. I’ve watched it more than fifty times, and I still catch things I previously missed. No one can properly gamemaster a pulp adventure RPG, regardless of genre, without first watching King Kong at least two or three times. And the New York scenes at the beginning and end of the film are a great “crash course” in cars, clothes, and the general ambiance of a 1930’s metropolis.

The Maltese Falcon – For all intents and purposes, Humphrey Bogart was the living embodiment of an urban pulp hero. He’s the benchmark by which all “hard boiled detectives” have been judged ever since this movie was made. The Maltese Falcon is a “globetrotting adventure” story that never leaves San Francisco; that sounds weird, but once you’ve seen the movie you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about. The Maltese Falcon will also provide some “osmosis insight” into clothes, buildings, cars, telephones, hairstyles, etc. from the period around 1940, as well as illustrate exactly how a pulp campaign set in a sprawling metropolis ought to be run. (Optional: The other great Bogart detective film The Big Sleep, “optional” mainly because to this day nobody knows what the hell is even going on with that convoluted Byzantine labyrinth of a plot. But it’s still a great movie and a whale of a good time regardless.)

To Have and Have Not – Another Bogart film and another personal favorite of mine. There are just two (very short) “action” sequences in this movie, but it’s still an adventure story; the plot is driven by extreme jeopardy and how one really smart, resourceful man circumvents dangers which would prove fatal if tackled directly. It’s another great “GM crash course” on how to drive a danger-filled plot without necessarily putting characters in immediate face-to-face jeopardy every minute. To Have and Have Not heavily influenced the TV series Tales of the Gold Monkey (below), and also launched the career of a smokin’ hot nineteen year old Lauren Bacall; it was her first feature film, and the chemistry between Bacall and Bogart (on screen and off) has never been matched.

The Buster Crabbe Flash Gordon serials – While Flash Gordon is sci-fi and thus not technically “pulp”, the overall “feel” of these serials is very much pulp oriented. Arguably among the best made cliffhanger serials (the Flash Gordon trilogy actually had fairly large budgets), all three serials can be had in a $15 boxed set, and every one of the three clocks in at over four hours total – so you get twelve hours of kickass action/adventure for a very low price. They’re heaping gobs of fun to watch, the rocket ships are delightfully cheesy, the awesome Charles Middleton (as Ming the Merciless) is a pure joy, the women are gorgeous, the episodes are “kid friendly” (so the whole family can enjoy them), and (if nothing else) you’ll definitely learn how to end every gaming session with a cliffhanger to keep your players eager to come back week after week.

The Mummy (1932) – This, kids, is how it’s done. Horror movies of the pulp era didn’t have insane garden-weasel wielding slashers in catcher’s masks killing nubile teenagers in buckets and droves; horror in the 1930’s was personal. The reanimated walking corpse Imhotep (played by the always incredible Boris Karloff) discovers that young Helen Grosvenor is the reincarnation of his lost love from ancient Egypt, so he embarks upon a campaign to kidnap, kill, and resurrect her to be his bride for all of eternity. For my money, this is one of the greatest horror movies ever made and it’s not to be missed by any fan of 1930’s genre fiction.

The Mummy (1999) – If you’re going to remake a classic, be sure your remake doesn’t suck. The 1999 remake of the Karloff classic hits it out of the park, damn near topping the original with its perfect blend of action, humor, special effects, and period ambiance. Brendan Fraser pulls off the really tough job of playing a two-fisted, wisecracking, smartassed hero who remains entirely likeable throughout the film – I’d love to knock back some beers and swap stories with Rick O’Connell. And dark-haired, dark-eyed beauty Rachel Weisz is positively adorable as Evie Carnahan; I think Rachel as Evie might be my favorite movie heroine (but I’m a real sucker for dark-eyed or green-eyed brunettes).

The Shadow (1994) – Anybody who says this movie “sucks” can go straight to hell. It’s a cool, fun, pulp adventure film which remains strangely creepy even though it never really seems to take itself especially seriously. Even though the “1930’s villain creates an atomic bomb” trope has been done to death and beyond, The Shadow not only gamely trots it out like it’s never been done before, but also pulls it off with some real panache. John Lone as Shiwan Khan is not to be missed – the dude really sells it. (And the movie has my all-time favorite final line of any film ever.)

The Phantom (1996) – May the God of your choice bless Lee Falk; the Phantom ranks with Flash Gordon and Steve Canyon as among the greatest newspaper comic characters of all time. While the 1996 movie isn’t perfect (the whole “horse chasing the plane” thing was pretty dumb), they get it mostly right. My favorite aspect of The Phantom is that Billy Zane (as Kit Walker/The Phantom) looks like he’s having the time of his life making this film. Also, the pre-Michael Douglas, back-when-she-was-still-delectable, Catherine Zeta-Jones makes an early film appearance as a trés hot “bad girl”.

Television:

The pulps have not been well-served by TV; in fact, most of TV’s attempts to re-create the feel of the 1930’s have completely and totally missed the mark. There is, however, one sterling exception:

Tales of the Gold Monkey – This series ran for a single season (1982-83) on ABC. The ratings were respectable but not high enough for the network to justify the $1,000,000 per episode price tag, so the plug was pulled at the end of the season. Too bad, because in my opinion Tales of the Gold Monkey is one of the coolest TV series ever (possibly the coolest, period). Despite the fact that they got the historical chronology wrong (the show is set in 1938 with the hero as an ex-Flying Tiger, but Chenault didn’t form the Tigers until later), the show couldn’t possibly be any more “1930’s”, right down to the clothes and props. The show follows the adventures of Jake Cutter (the aforementioned pilot), his alcoholic (but lovable) mechanic Corky, his kinda-sorta girlfriend Sarah (who happens to be an American secret agent), and the real star of the show, his one-eyed terrier named Jack, as the whole kit’n’kaboodle of them encounter German agents, Japanese samurai, hostile natives, supernatural menaces, dangerous wildlife, hurricanes, lost treasures, “cargo cults”, and a gorgeous Asian princess (who just can’t seem to keep her clothes on) in the late 1930’s South Pacific. If you have any interest in or affinity for the pulp era whatsoever, Tales of the Gold Monkey is quite possibly the most fun you can have in front of a TV without having sex. The show is now (finally!) available in a “complete series” boxed set; I bought mine months ago and I’m still watching it, one episode every few weeks, savoring it and making it last (kind of like sex in front of the TV…hmmmm…). Believe me, Tales of the Gold Monkey is pure gold.

Books:

Aside from general history books, you’ll also want to check out some illustrated books on automobiles and aircraft of the 1930’s; if you don’t know what an “autogyro” is, you’re definitely not ready to run a 1930’s pulp RPG.

As for other books, you’ll need to read a few of the pulps yourself. What you’ll read will depend in some measure on what sub-genre you’re playing, but there are a few “can’t miss” choices.

Doc Savage – whether you’re reading one of the 181(!) original 1930’s-1940’s pulp novels (which were originally published as magazines) or the newer dozen or so (I lost count) 1990’s pastiches (by Will Murray, under the traditional Doc pen name of Kenneth Robeson), you can’t go wrong with Doc – even the handful of books which were bad are good. There’s one notable exception: Escape from Loki by Philip José Farmer is one big ol’ steaming pile of suck (which is unfortunate, because his fictional biography of Doc, called Doc Savage: His Apocalyptic Life is almost required reading for pulp fans). While the Bantam paperbacks can still occasionally be found in used book stores, the newer reprints (in their original magazine-sized format) by Adventure House (though a tad pricey) are your best bet for readily-available Doc adventures (and, if you go this route, I recommend #1, #9, #14, and #17). You should read a minimum half-dozen or so of the Doc novels, both for adventure ideas and to get an overall “feel” for the genre.

By the way, comic book versions of Doc Savage are generally to be steadfastly avoided, since almost all of them are horrible. The two exceptions are the one-and-only issue of Doc Savage published by Gold Key Comics in the 1960’s (a pretty faithful adaptation of The Thousand Headed Man) and the 1970’s magazine-sized black and white comics published by Marvel Comics (and about to be republished in a single volume Showcase edition by DC Comics this coming June).

The Caspak books by Edgar Rice Burroughs – There are three novels in this “lost continent” series: The Land That Time Forgot, The People That Time Forgot, and Out of Time’s Abyss. Although they pre-date the actual pulp era by more than a decade, Burroughs is the de facto father of the pulp genre and I would argue that only a mere handful of pulp writers came anywhere near his level of craft as a storyteller. And, if you’re going to run a “lost world” pulp campaign, you’ll find a boatload (perhaps a U-boatload) of ideas in these three short novels (and I do mean “short” – if it takes you longer than two hours to read any one of them, it’s only because you weren’t really trying to finish it). These books are easily found in any decent used book store, and might even be available online from Munsey’s or Project Gutenberg (I’ve not checked).

Robert E Howard’s El Borak stories – Howard is another “can’t miss” writer. Of course, I’m biased – he’s my all-time favorite fiction writer. You can read almost anything by Howard and get a wealth of ideas for a pulp campaign. But I recommend the El Borak stories, simply because they’re set during the actual pulp era instead of during the Middle Ages or some antediluvian era. And (lucky you) they’ve also recently been reprinted in a single volume edition from Del Rey, called El Borak and Other Desert Adventures. What the heck are these stories about? If Lawrence of Arabia had been a rip-roarin’, two-fisted, sword-swingin’, pistol-packin’ Texan instead of an Englishman, he’d have been El Borak. ‘Nuff said.

There are plenty of other books you could read: The Shadow, The Spider, and The Avenger, not to mention the horror stories of H.P. Lovecraft and Clark Ashton Smith, plus the mysteries of Dashiell Hammett. But I’m assuming you’re going to be running an Indiana Jones/Doc Savage style of globetrotting adventure, which is probably the most accessible starting area for a GM new to running 1930’s pulp RPGs.

This post has already run about three times longer than I’d intended, with about a third of the information I’d wanted, so we’ll come back to this topic sometime soon.

But right now, I’m tired of typing. And that’s no April Fool joke.

Have fun! – Steve

Copyright 2011, Steven A. Lopez. All rights reserved.

Edit (4/3) – Fixed an incorrect comic reference. Hey, sometimes even I forget a detail or two.

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