The name’s Davenport. I review games.
So the other day I’m just sittin’ at my desk, mindin’ my own business, when my pulpy pal Doc Average, the Man of Blahs, comes crashin’ through the window.
“Hello, friend!” he says. “Prepare yourself for the Incredible Adventure of Two-Fisted Tales!!”
I dunno what’s wrong with knockin’ on the door and sayin’ “Hi, I got a game for you to review.”
Anyway, he says the game’s an all-purpose pulp dingus... says it can cover everything from monsters to gumshoes to cowboys to oversized morons who don’t know how to use the front door. I’m always up for pulp, so I says that I was happy to take the gig.
So long as he was up for the Incredible Adventure of Payin’ for My Damn Window, that is.
Chapter 1: Introduction
This chapter serves as an introduction to both the game and the pulps themselves, doing an excellent job in both capacities.
Chapter 2: Heroes & Heroines
In particular, the chapter describes the history of the pulps, from their inception to feed the literary cravings of poor immigrants near the turn of the last century to their post-WW2 demise at the hands of comic books and paperback novels. Along the way, the text covers the various genres found in the pulps, including fantasy, horror, sci-fi, hard-boiled mysteries, and, of course, the two-fisted hero pulps of Shadow and Doc Savage fame.
As to the game, the chapter offers the obligatory “What Is Roleplaying” bit as well as a quick introduction to the system and game terminology.
So far, we’re off to a great start.
The game dives right into the system with pulp-like vigor.
Chapter 3: Schticks
We’re told that heroes in the game have eight abilities with a human scale of 1-20 but no hard upper limit: Brains, Luck, Mind (perception and willpower), Muscle, Reflexes, Savvy (style and social finesse), Status, and Weird (how far the character varies from “normal”). To reflect the remarkable versatility of pulp heroes, these stats function not just as attributes, but also as hyper-generalized skills. Yes, this means that when it comes to reflexes, any hero can, in theory, fly a plane. Didn’t know he could fly a plane? Well, I guess it just hadn’t come up yet...
This design appeals to me in several ways. I’m a big fan of the 1-20 scale, which hits my sweet spot for crunch. I love the fact that the scale isn’t artificially “closed” at the top end. And I think the game’s approach to skills perfectly suits the pulps.
Each ability has at least one table with a corresponding value of some sort. For muscle, for example, this takes the form of how much damage the character can soak and how much extra hand-to-hand damage he can dish out, as well as a separate table providing such figures as lifting ability, swimming speed, and jumping distance.
Luck and Weird merit special attention in this regard.
Luck determines how many playing cards the character gets. These function as the system’s “Drama Points,” adding to rolls, reducing damage, earning “lucky breaks,” or even “stopping the clock” when the GM is forcing the players to make a quick decision. Now, in theory, I love the fact that all characters aren’t equal in this department, and that characters of “average” luck and below get no cards at all; however, in practice, I found that the number of cards offered made players very reluctant to burn them, which in turn detracted from the high-octane feel of the action. I ended up increasing the number of cards by five, which proved to be much more to the tastes of the group.
As previously mentioned, Weird determines how, well, weird the character is. In addition to certain powers having a required level of weirdness, the Weird ability determines the minimum and maximum scores in all other abilities. So, you want to be the pulp’s answer to the Hulk, with a feeble mind but superhuman strength? Better pump up that Weird score, buddy. This serves as a great balancing mechanism, allowing “normal” and proto-super characters to fight side-by-side.
Specialities and Masteries
In lieu of skills, the system offers specialties and masteries. Specialties are relatively broad skills such as “fencing,” which covers all long, bladed weapons, and masteries are more specific skills, such as “saber.” Players must first purchase a speciality before an associated mastery, and each speciality and mastery gives a flat +4 bonus to actions involving the associated ability. For the most part, I like this simple approach, although part of me laments the inability to make a “super-skilled” character like, say, Green Arrow, without boosting his overall associated ability.
While the chapter points out that pulp heroes aren’t known for their vulnerabilities, such things show up in the pulps often enough to warrant their inclusion, with each vulnerability giving points to spend on the character’s positive aspects. It strikes me that some of these go too far in the other direction, as I have a hard time imagining a blind, cowardly, or crippled pulp hero. Still, I’m all about having more options.
Two-Fisted Tales uses a template-based character creation system: 20 pulpy archetypes with pre-set base scores in abilities and a few specialties. Each template also has a quantity of Hero Points spent to customize characters, the amount of which varies by template and by the one of four power levels selected for the setting: Gritty, Escapist, Fantastic, and Amazing. More powerful templates get fewer Hero Points, and higher power levels provide more Hero Points.
- Amatuer Detective
- Costumed Vigilante
- Ethnic Sidekick
- Feisty Heroine
- Flying Ace
- Hardboiled Detective
- Psychic Investigator
- Scientific Detective
- Spunky Kid
- Tough Scientist
- Wild Man
In addition, the chapter offers a 21st “template,” the Everyman, who starts out with dead average scores across the board in abilities, no specialites, and the highest number of Hero Points.
All of this adds up to a character creation system that moves very quickly and creates thematic characters with a fair amount of customization, still leaving room for dedicated do-it-yourselfers. Very well-done.
Schticks are the game’s term for the weird proto-superpowers sometimes found in pulp heroes. The book divides these into gadget schticks, martial arts maneuvers, hypnotic disciplines, magic spells, animal schticks, and “other” schticks. Every schtick has a Hero Point cost and some form of minimum ability rating (often combined with a speciality or mastery) required to purchase the schitck. In order to make higher scores more meaningful, the Hero Point costs drops by 1 if the ability rating beats the required score by 5 and by 2 if the ability rating beats the required score by 10.
Chapter 4: Money & Equipment
Each gadget schtick represents a single invention with an associated science Mastery score required to create it.
I have two issues with this section.
First, the game doesn’t offer an actual gadget creation system, per sé -- instead, it just offers a list of pre-made gadgets. This wouldn’t be a huge problem, except...
...Second, about ⅓ of the gadgets are enormous, fixed devices, like the mind-transfer machine and the earthquake machine -- gadgets more suited to cackling mad scientist antagonists than to adventuresome types. And about another ⅓ are gadgets that would only be handy in fairly specific circumstances, like the portable canoe and the space helmet. Are you really going to burn your precious Hero Points on keeping a canoe handy...?
Martial Arts Maneuvers
The book devotes a surprising amount of space to over-the-top martial arts powers after stipulating that no true-to-the-pulps hero would possess them. Still, I’ll file that under “options are good”.
Surprisingly few of these powers are what I’d call “maneuvers,” even by wuxia standards. There are the powerful blows and death strikes and bullet blocks and water walking and super leaps, to be sure, but the section also features a large number of body mastery techniques that allow the hero to control his own bleeding, breathe underwater, resist heat, cold, hunger, thirst, and fatigue, and even stop his aging altogether.
That doesn’t really concern me all that much, though. What does concern me is the ability score requirement of these powers, which is based on Mind alone. That’s thematic, certainly, but also pricey, considering how high many of these scores are and the fact that any martial artist worth his dojo will be spending a load of points on Reflexes. Factor in the cost for buying up Weird in order to get to the above-average Mind scores required, and you end up with a martial artist who won’t have that many points left over to buy maneuvers in the first place.
The required score for hypnotic powers is, unsurprisingly, based on Brains and the Hypnotism speciality.
For the most part, these powers feel nicely authentic, at least from a pulp perspective. They aren’t particularly easy to use, as they first require the hypnotist to enthrall the victim with a great success (see below), then spend a number of rounds hypnotising the victim equal to the Hero Point cost of the power -- not really the stuff of combat.
A few of these powers go well beyond what might be considered “hypnotism” -- among them, the abilities to read the victim’s mind, see through the victim’s eyes, and turn invisible. That last one targets all viewers and doesn’t require an enthrall attempt, making it seem not to be a hypnotic ability at all, the Shadow notwithstanding.
The target number to learn spells is based on Brains and the Occult speciality. The listed Hero Point cost is for memorized spells. Library spells cost half as much but (obviously) require access to a library and include variable forms magical backlash that occur on a fumble. I like that the game accommodates both forms of spellcasting with such a simple rules distinction.
Players expecting to play a fireballs-and-lightning-bolts type will be disappointed, as there are only really two offensive spells -- one ranged and one melee. The latter involves summoning a demonic sword, while the former involves, strangely, animated tattoos.
There’s really not much to say about these, aside from the fact that I’m glad they were included. There are only two of them, both Tarzan-ish powers: Animal Speech and Animal Companion. The former grows more expensive based on the scope of the animal category, the latter based on the strength of the connection and the size of the critter.
And here we have a group of weird abilities that fall into none of the previous categories, most of which could be considered low-grade superpowers. The target to obtain these powers is a flat Weird score, and the level required seems awfully high in some cases. Appearance Change, for example, requires a Weird score of 30. Some of these powers are pretty generally useful, such as Clinging (a.k.a. wall-crawling), Darkvision, and Thick Skin (a.k.a. natural armor); others are terribly specific, like immunity to one disease, poison, or martial arts attack and the ability to shriek loudly enough to break ordinary glass. And some of them are just flat-out strange, like the power to create a clone from someone after touching the target’s head for an hour or being a plant person (and therefore photosynthetic).
Since pulps aren’t usually about killing things in order to take their stuff, it probably makes sense that Two-Fisted Tales uses a fairly abstract wealth system. Basically, if a character’s Wealth rating is higher than the expense level of the item, he can purchase it automatically. If the Wealth rating is less than the expense level, he can’t purchase it at all. If the Wealth rating equals the expense rating, he can purchase it, but his Wealth rating drops by a level.
Chapter 5: Resolving the Action
Of course, it’s possible that our heroes might see windfall profits from their endeavors, and the system accounts for that as well. The GM assigns a value to a stash of loot. If the value exceeds the character’s Wealth, his Wealth becomes that value. If the value is lower than the Wealth, the Wealth remains unchanged. If the values are equal, the Wealth goes up by one.
Now, that mechanic means that it’s a lot easier for people with low Wealth to benefit from loot, so the game offers an optional mechanic: Roll 1d10 (treating the 10 as 0) and add the result to the pre-loot Wealth level. If the result is greater than the post-loot Wealth, the Wealth stays at that level; otherwise, it drops to the result. In other words, if you start out with more Wealth, you’re more likely to save new Wealth. That’s a very slick mechanic.
As to the equipment itself, strangely, the chapter only includes weapons, armor, and vehicles. Granted, it’s a good selection of all three, but I’d have liked to have seen a price list of everyday goods from the 1930s.
I should also mention that vehicles don’t come with any sort of maneuverability rating, so don’t expect a fighter/zeppelin battle to even remotely resemble reality.
Chapter 6: Developing Characters
To resolve an action, the player rolls 2d10, counting 10s as 0s and treating one die as positive and the other as negative. Both open-end. The result is added to the relevant ability rating, and if the result beats the GM-assigned target number, the attempt is a success.
Degree of success matters. If the result is less than 0, a Fumble occurs. If the result equals the target number, a Close Call occurs. If the result is 10 greater than the target number, the result is a Great Success. If the character has a Luck rating of less than 10, a Close Call becomes a Fumble if the result is less than or equal to the character’s Luck.
Weirdly, a Close Call also occurs whenever the player rolls doubles, making them a totally random event, independent from ability level. This made no sense to me and my players.
Remember the playing cards I mentioned earlier? Here’s how they work with a basic action.
Before a roll, a player can play a card and add its face value to the roll. Jacks, Queens, and Kings can either add 10 or multiply the value of other cards by x2, x3, and x4, respectively. Aces can either add 10 or be combined with another card that’s being modified by a face card.
All of which is great, except that as previously mentioned, my players found the system to be far too stingy with cards to make them the kind of factor the rules seem to expect them to be.
Combat works as per the basic mechanic, with a few tweaks. Attacks are resolved as opposed Reflexes rolls. Weapons have a base damage rating -- a flat score for ranged weapons and a bonus to Muscle in the case of hand weapons -- and this is the amount of damage done on a normal success. Close Calls do half damage; Great Successes do +2 damage (+4 in the case of automatic weapons or bare-handed Boxing attacks). Honestly, I’m not a fan of that cap of +2/+4 -- I prefer characters who get a really fabulous roll to be able to get more bang for their buck. The character’s Resistance rating and any armor points subtract from damage.
Now here’s where the rules may throw pulp fans for a loop: wounds. Take 5 or more points of damage from a single attack, and you’re either bleeding uncontrollably or are knocked unconscious, depending upon the type of attack. Take sustained damage equal to half your Mind rating, and you get an extra penalty die to all actions. Take sustained damage equal to your Mind rating, and you’re unconscious. Take 10 points of damage from one attack or 20 points of damage from repeated attacks, and you’re dead.
What this means is that combat is very fast and unforgiving. Consider that the average person will do 6 points of damage with a billy club -- enough to knock out the average person (Resistance: 1) in one blow. And while a typical pistol won’t kill that same person with a single shot, it will leave him bleeding uncontrollably. And if someone’s pointing a Tommy gun at you, you’d better take cover or kiss your ass goodbye.
To be fair, I get what the author was going for here. Contrary to popular belief, “real” pulp heroes weren’t Hong Kong action types in masks and fedoras who would charge through a hail of hot lead. As the book points out, even the mighty Doc Savage would throw up his hands if a goon got the drop on him. So in that sense, it’s only right and proper that getting hurt should be A Bad Thing.
The problem that I discovered was that when it is time for action, these rather fragile heroes are in deep, deep trouble. I only avoided wiping out the party several times over by fudging the rules, in fact.
Again, cards come into play, but it’s just not enough. Cards can be played to reduce damage equal to their face value, with face cards and aces negating all damage from a single blow. If there were more cards at play, that might make up for the fragility of the characters, but there aren’t. (I should also mention that heart cards can be played to reduce damage inflicted on other characters, and clubs can increase damage from an attack.
There’s not a whole lot to say about a chapter devoted to improving characters’ abilities, but Two-Fisted Tales does offer some interesting takes on the subject.
Chapter 7: Driving the Stories
Specifically, the chapter points out that pulp heroes seldom seem to benefit from experience; however, readers do learn new facts about them. Accordingly, the system makes it easier for a hero to “gain” new specialities, masteries, and schticks than it is to improve existing ones -- the rationale being that these “new” abilities are actually ones the hero has had all along that just haven’t come up before. In fact, this can happen right in the middle of play, so long as the circumstance is the first time that the ability could have been useful. That’s rather cool.
Also cool is the methodology used to gain schticks that are literally new to the character. In the case of gadgets, for example, the inventor may accidentally produce a “mystery flaw” in the device that doesn’t show up until its first use, and a magician seeking a new spell will find it in a randomly-determined location and written in a randomly-determined language.
The semi-obligatory “GM Advice” chapter can be a real yawner. Such is not the case here. The chapter not only offers solid advice for creating and running adventures, but it also features randomizers for pulp locations, pulp MacGuffins, and full-blown pulp adventures.
What’s more, the chapter has 18 templates for classic pulp villains (including a bug-eyed monster from outer space!), simple stat blocks for 24 animals, 7 dinosaurs, skeletons, vampires, and zombies, rules for swarms, and not one, but two methods for creating giant versions of normal animals. I felt that stats for antagonists were sorely lacking from the game’s first edition, and this is a welcome change.
I wouldn’t call the writing particularly stylish, but it’s clear and concise, which I’ll take over stylish and verbose any day of the week. No typos stuck out to me.
Most of the artwork doesn’t do a whole lot for me, to be honest. It’s workable, but doesn’t feel particularly “pulpy” beyond the subject matter. Some of it, however, knocks the pulp feel out of the park. The layout is easy on the eyes, with great use of strategically-placed tables.
And speaking of tables, the book features an appendix that includes the most important ones. Like all proper RPGs, it features an index as well. There’s even a small sample of Disposable Heroes.
Two-Fisted Tales isn’t my ideal pulp game. I’d need to tweak the basic mechanic, the damage system, the gadget rules, and (especially) the playing card economy. (In fact, I did exactly that for a while in my playtest game before switching the whole thing over to Strands of FATE to playtest that system.)
It is, however, so close to being my perfect pulp game that I can taste it. Which tells me that it may well be the perfect pulp game for someone else -- especially if that person wants a pulp game to feel like the actual pulp stories and not just over-the-top action with a 1930s flair. So if you’re a pulp gaming fan, you owe it to yourself to add this one to your collection.