The name’s Davenport. I review games.
And today, I'm wearin' my usual trench coat and trusty fedora, so that makes my Armor Class 13. But if I was to throw on my fancy duds and a nice pair of gloves, why, I'd be Armor Class 16.
At least, that's what Jason Vey tells me. Seems he wrote this game he calls Amazing Adventures, where he took the Castles & Crusades system, which is a streamlined version of Dungeons & Dragons 3rd edition, or maybe more like Basic Dungeons & Dragons with more bells and whistles, and turned the whole works from a fantasy game to a 1930s two-fisted pulp adventure game.
Got all that? Good.
Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm gonna go grab my scarf so's I can up my Armor Class another point. It's feelin' kinda fighty outside.
Introduction: A Pulp Roleplaying Game
First off, I have to give the author kudos for acknowledging that "pulp" has come to mean something much more specific in gaming circles than its technical definition of magazines printed on cheap paper. Amazing Adventures makes no bones about its focus on two-fisted action-adventure tales of the 1920s-1940s, with only passing mention given to other pulp genres like swords-and-sorcery.
The introduction does make a distinction between "Literary Pulp" (the dark, gritty, film noir-like variety) and "Serial Pulp" (over-the-top action). The author lumps Lovecraftian forbidden magic in the with former and flashy spellcasters in with the latter. To be honest, I’m not convinced that magic of the D&D sort has a place in pulp of any sort. More on that in a bit.
Book One: Characters
Amazing Adventures uses the standard D&D attributes of Strength, Dexterity, Constitution, Intelligence, Wisdom, and Charisma, with the standard scale of 3-18. Unlike D&D, the scores are assigned rather than randomly rolled, with each score starting at 6 and being increased by a pool of 45 points. I think that was a very wise choice -- weak characters generated for fantasy games are bad enough, but pulp characters are probably second only to superheroes in being the very antithesis of weakness. The Amazing Adventures method ensures that even the most "average" heroes will be more capable than the average Joe across the board.
The core mechanic of the game will be familiar to fans of Castles & Crusades (the "SIEGE Engine", to be precise). Attributes translate into attribute modifiers ranging from -4 to +3, and this modifier is added to a d20 to attempt to beat a target number. Unlike Castles & Crusades, which changes said target number depending upon whether the attribute in question is "Primary" -- 12 for Primary, 18 for Secondary -- Amazing Adventures has players choose three Primary attributes, for which they get +5 in an attempt to beat a flat 15 difficulty. This works for me in two ways: not only is it more transparent than the C&C method, but it also makes heroes more competent, and hence, more pulpy.
Speaking of Primary attributes, each character class has a Primary attribute as a prerequisite. The classes are:
- Arcanist (wizard, cleric, and illusionist, sort of... see below)
- Hooligan (thief)
- Mentalist (psionic)
- Pugilist (essentially a modern-day monk)
- Raider (of the Lost Ark, vaguely ranger-like)
- Socialite (filling the bard niche)
A few observations here...
Arcanists have access to three distinct spell lists based upon their Primary attribute chosen for spellcasting: Intelligence, Wisdom, or Charisma, roughly corresponding to wizards, clerics, and illusionists. That's a nice touch.
The Pugilist shows his monkish roots in some higher-level abilities, such as slowing falls, feigning death, fast healing via meditation, and the dreaded "quivering palm" death strike. These work fine if you're going for a mystical martial arts type with this class but doesn't make a lot of sense for some palooka from the Bronx.
Socialites have some cool bard-like abilities to influence people and support their allies. My problem with them is the fact that some of these abilities have limited uses per day. I can buy that when you're talking about magical powers, but these are supposed to be mundane abilities. The author describes this more in narrative terms, saying that pulp heroes seldom rely on the same trick twice in a story, but I'm not sure that will sit well with those used to more "gamist" d20-based games.
The chapter includes rules for multiclassing, but this is limited to two classes. I'm told that this will be expanded to three in a future supplement -- a good move, in my opinion. I can't imagine even beginning to create a Doc Savage-style polymath with less than three classes.
The game offers the full range of D&D alignments on the Good/Evil and Law/Chaos scales. I'm fine with that, since the natures of pulp characters tend to be pretty clear-cut, in my experience.
Fate points represent a particularly pulpy addition to the SIEGE Engine. Characters start with 1d4+1 fate points, gaining more from level increases and good roleplaying and seeing their power increase with level as well. These points can be spent to alter a roll, make a single mighty blow, double the character's movement, cheat death, and gain plot breaks. This may be my own personal bias, but I can't imagine playing a pulp game without a mechanic of this sort. So, well done.
Amazing Adventures plays fast-and-loose with equipment, the rationale being that pulp adventures generally aren't about acquiring and spending loot. With that in mind, the chapter suggests that the GM simply assume that the characters can purchase within their means as suggested by their respective classes. While I usually prefer hard numbers when it comes to cash, I'm fine with this method.
What really stands out here is the concept of "pulp armor".
D&D-style armor reduces the chance of being hit rather than reducing damage. That makes armor pretty important in D&D-related systems. However, it doesn't make sense for pulp-era heroes to be running around in full plate armor. With that in mind, the author had what I consider to be a stroke of genius: "armor" in Amazing Adventures consists not of actual armor, but rather of stylish outfits. Every stylish bit of clothing appropriate to a character's class adds to his Armor Class: +1 for a fedora, +1 for a mask, +2 for a trench coat, and so on. Once again, this is a narrative conceit that may not sit well with some players, but it's certainly a clever and fun idea.
The only drawback I see is that the system punishes characters who don't "max out" on their class's accoutrements. If your class allows for masks, for example, but you don't see your character as wearing one, well… you're just out of luck.
The chapter includes a nice list of firearms. The game keeps damage pretty much in line with melee weapons but adds stats for recoil, accuracy, and rate of fire -- the latter making guns particularly dangerous.
Book Two: Advanced Character Customization
Amazing Adventures does not have a "skill system," which poses the danger of PCs of a given class looking an awful lot alike. This chapter offers several ways to tweak characters in order to prevent that problem.
Generic Class Abilities
These are abilities that may be swapped for standard class abilities in order to further refine the character. Unfortunately, there are too few of these, in my opinion:
- Ace (driving/piloting)
- Animal Handling
- Use/Brew Poisons
- Weapon Finesse
These are abilities that the PC picked up before becoming an adventurer and resemble holistic skills that start at a +2 bonus and can improve with experience. For example, a character may have been a chef and would therefore get a bonus to cooking a meal. I really like this mechanic, as it efficiently plugs what I would see as an otherwise large hole in character creation.
Ordinarily, characters get a number of languages equal to their Intelligence bonus. Optionally, players may substitute a language for knowledge from a specific field of study, such as architecture, geography, or history. When tapping into such knowledge, the character gets adds a flat +3 to the roll that does not improve with experience.
What puzzled me was the fact that backgrounds and knowledge skills do not stack, meaning that a character who was a historian would not gain any extra benefit from having a History knowledge skill -- he would only be able to apply one or the other. As it turns out, however, the GM option to allow backgrounds and knowledge skills to stack appears in the errata.
Characters can start play with up to two of these aspects of their natures, be it personality, physique, or background. Each trait offers a bonus and a penalty as well as roleplaying suggestions; for example, a character who is Muscle-Bound will do better than average at strength-based tasks but worse than average at dexterity-based tasks and is likely to solve problems with brute force. I like this option, although I don't follow how some of the pros and cons are supposed to relate. In terms of the Muscle-Bound character, for example, the strength bonus is +1, but the dexterity penalty is -2. For other traits, the relationship is +1/-1 or +2/-2.
Optionally, the game allows sanity loss from cosmic horror to play a part in adventures. These rules are almost identical to those found Call of Cthulhu, with the author taking the "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" approach. That being the case, I'm not going to look at these rules in detail. If you're unfamiliar with CoC, suffice it to say that there are Things Man Was Not Meant To Know, and the more your character does know about such things, the faster he will go insane. It's a mental death spiral that's definitely not appropriate for high-flying, two-fisted adventure, as the chapter wisely points out.
As mentioned previously, Amazing Adventures takes a very freeform approach to wealth by default. Optionally, characters can have a Wealth rating based on class that adds to the character's level in a roll vs. a target number based on the expense in question. I like the fact that the system allows for circumstances beyond level to impact the Wealth rating, be it finding a hoard of treasure or falling prey to a stock market crash. Furthermore, the Wealth Generic Class Ability not only gives a +5 to Wealth rolls, but also allow for the automatic purchase of even the priciest of commonly-available items, thus allowing even low-level characters to be high rollers.
Book Three: Paranormal
This chapter covers psionics and magic. Gadgeteering appears under the the Gadgeteer character class description, but due to its relationship with magic, I'm going to cover that here as well.
Psionic powers are activated with an attribute check -- usually, but not always, Wisdom. Failed rolls result in the user taking subdual damage and losing access to the power in question for 24 hours. So far, I am fully on board.
The section offers a generous selection of 16 basic and 6 advanced psionic powers, with the latter having prerequisites from the former; e.g., you have to learn the basic powers of Mental Stun and Biokinetic Heal before you can learn the advanced power of Biokinetic Harm.
Despite the jarringly scifi names of some of the powers, the selection serves its pulp function quite well. I can see running a highly effective pulp game using these powers alone, especially since the mechanics include a method for using certain pulp powers to mimic specific spells -- Pyrokinesis to create a fireball, for example. And several of these powers seem tailor-made to fit iconic pulp heroes like the Shadow (Mesmerism, Obfuscation) and Mandrake (Telemagry).
As mentioned, magic comes in three varieties, based upon its prime attribute: Intelligence, Wisdom, or Charisma. The chapter offers three huge spell lists for each variety -- 60 pages of spells, in fact.
That's not what impresses me most about this chapter, though. No, what I really like the most is the changes the game makes to spellcasting. Instead of Vancian "fire-and-forget" spellcasting, which generally annoys me to no end, we're given a magic point system that refreshes with meditation or rest. True, magicians must prepare specific spells out of their grimoires each day, but as long as they have enough magical "juice" left, they can cast those spells with impunity.
Furthermore, Amazing Adventures adds a spellcasting roll into the process, with the level of the spell determining the difficulty of the roll and with the outcome of the spellcasting roll determining the difficulty of the save against the spell's effects. What this means is that spellcasters can vary by their skill at spellcasting rather than just by the size and potency of their magic arsenals.
The only drawback I see here is not in terms of the system, but rather in terms of the implied setting. While I wouldn't call myself a pulp expert, I don't know of any 1930s adventure pulps that include the sort of powerful, flashy magic shown here. That being the case, including this magic in your pulp game will result in a sort of Harry Dresden-like pulp hybrid. That may well be cool, mind you -- I would just strongly suggest making the setting clear to prospective players who may be expecting "pure" pulp (insofar as there is such a thing).
Gadgeteers have devices with powers based upon magic spells -- a "raygun" might be a gun with the equivalent of the Lightning Bolt spell, for example. Gadgeteer players purchase these devices with "gadget points" starting at 1d6+1, plus their Intelligence bonus (if the Gadgeteer builds his own devices) or their Charisma bonus (if the Gadgeteer has a friend who builds the devices). The gadgets cost a number of gadget points equal to either the minimum Arcanist level required to cast the spell in question plus one (for self-created gadgets) or the level of the spell plus one (for friend-created gadgets). Obviously, Gadgeteers who make their own devices pay more for them but can tweak their devices or create new ones without the need for their inventor friends. Either variety of Gadgeteer will have fewer "spells" than an Arcanist of equivalent level but will have the advantage of being able to use his "spells" whenever he likes, with no preparation or magic point limits.
After giving this a lot of thought, I'm okay with this system insofar as it's a means to applying D&D tropes to mad science. However, overall, I find it unsatisfying. I want my Gadgeteers to be able to cobble together devices that are their own unique things, not highly specific magic spells with the serial numbers filed off. The fact that many examples of art in the book show creations that simply aren't possible with the system as written -- robots, for example -- is salt in this particular wound.
On the other hand, if you agree with me that flashy D&D-style magic doesn't fit with 1930s pulp, you can still get full use of the game's generous spell list by applying it to flashy mad science, which does fit with 1930s pulp. The inclusion or exclusion of any paranormal abilities is entirely up to the GM's discretion.
Book Four: Rules of the Game
I'm not going to go into detail about this chapter, because that's exactly what it is: details. The core mechanic is as I described above, with this chapter showing how it's applied to combat, saving throws, and damage from various sources, as well as offering guidelines for awarding experience and the rules for level advancement. None of this will come as a big surprise to anyone remotely familiar with D&D-based games.
What might surprise such gamers is the addition of "exploding" and "imploding" die results. On a natural 20, the player rolls 1d6 and adds the result to the total, continuing to do so as long as the 1d6 keeps coming up "6". Conversely, on a natural 1, the result of 1d6 is subtracted from the total, again rolling-and-adding on sixes. I'm all for this for the same reason that I'm all for the addition of Fate points: It makes the game that much pulpier.
Book Five: Bestiary
The book sports a generous selection of monsters -- 57 in all. Of these, the vast majority are simply copy/pastes of standard D&D monsters that could reasonably serve in a pulp setting. Of course, it helps that many of these standards are pulpy enough already, including dinosaurs, assorted giant creepy-crawlies, and blobs. In fact, this might be mistaken for a fantasy game's bestiary, were it not for the absence of any of the usual humanoid creatures.
Lovecraftian creatures make a strong showing as well, including Fish-Men (Deep Ones), Night-Hants (Night Gaunts), Shen-T’aqs (Shantak Birds), Shoggoths, Snake Men, and a very interesting take on the Spawn of Shub-Niggurath.
I'm happy to say that Gigantopithecus, the prehistoric Sasquatch-like ape, makes an appearance, although regrettably, really gigantic Kong-scale apes do not (aside from one piece of art). The author stats up the Gray aliens to fill the "Invaders from Mars" niche, although I think he'd have been better served with some form of "bug-eyed monster". The whole "UFO/missing time/cattle mutilation" thing seems far more appropriate to the 1950s onward than it does to the 1930s.
Two entirely new creations appear in the bestiary as well.
One, the Flamehood Stalker, is a giant bipedal rat-thing with combustible skin and a poisonous stinger that feeds on both the dead and the undead. (Why a creature with such dietary habits would have a poisonous stinger, I don't know.) It seems a lot more like the sort of cool oddball creature you might find in a Fiend Folio-type bestiary than it does a custom-designed pulp creature.
The other, the People of the Worm, are a truly inspired (and disturbing) alien species of psychic hive-minded body-snatching maggot-like things that devour their hosts (starting with the brain) and replace every inch of the host body with more worms to produce a worm colony doppleganger. This one's worthy of the great Lovecraft himself.
Book Six: Running a Pulp Game
This chapter includes three sections.
The first does an outstanding job of translating the storytelling rules of pulp author Lester Dent (creator of Doc Savage) into pulp adventure creation guidelines.
The second contains more general advice on running a game, including issues like railroading, tweaking the rules, and dealing with history. Nice, but nothing mind-blowing.
And the third consists of an introductory first-level adventure, "The Heart of Yhtill" -- a globetrotting Lovecraftian romp in the vein of the 90s "The Mummy" remake. It looks enjoyable enough, although it does have some of the flaws that plague so many pregen adventures, among them pivotal rolls for clues and assumptions of PC behavior. (Assuming that the PCs will recognize an unbeatable foe and retreat is always a biggie.)
The art has a nice sketchbook look to it and is generally of good quality, although some of it looks more modern than 1930s and (as previously mentioned) other examples show things that just aren't possible based on the rules.
The writing has a nice conversational tone throughout. I did run across several errors, many of which appeared to be of the copy/paste variety.
I make it my job as a reviewer to judge a game not just on my personal tastes, but also (and more importantly, in my opinion) on how well the game does what it seems to set out to do. I say this because in my estimation, Amazing Adventures sets out to be a pulp game that sticks as close as possible to its D&D roots -- or, more accurately, to its SIEGE Engine roots -- stretching out a bit in some respects (such as its abandonment of Vancian magic) but holding true in many others (such as the use of classes and levels). The reliance on fantasy spells for gadgeteering effects only reinforces this view.
So, would I, personally, use this as my go-to pulp game? No, probably not. The use of levels alone in a pulp game turns me off. The author argues that players shouldn't expect to be playing Doc Savage straight out of the gate. Fair enough, but that's level-based thinking talking. Other non-level games can at least give it a go -- the ability of a player to play the Doctor from the get-go in Doctor Who: Adventures in Time and Space proves that this is possible.
On the other hand, the class/level format is the one used by the first and most popular roleplaying game, so clearly, if there's a market for pulp games at all (which I sincerely hope and believe there is), then there's a market for pulp games using D&D as its basis. And in that regard, Amazing Adventures does very well indeed.
So if you're looking for a new pulp game, you might well enjoy Amazing Adventures. If you're a fan of D&D-based games and are looking for a pulp game with familiar rules, however, you will definitely enjoy Amazing Adventures.