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Essential Reference Library for Pulp GMs (and others): 7th Shelf


Another monster post (18,400 words), another late posting.

I once swore that I would never be involved in anything this large and complicated on a weekly deadline again; but every two or three years, it seems, overconfidence or hubris combine with a really good idea, and before you know it…

Three things in particular caused this particular post to be delayed.

First, I discovered, backed up to a completely unrelated file, in a completely unexpected location, a whole bunch of links that had been listed to include but not written up. About 2/3 of the links in this post, in fact. There are also a few for later posts, but not even close to the scale of the impact on this one.

Second, I make it a point of making sure that there is some content of value to most GMs even if they don’t run Pulp campaigns. Normally, I can rely on the content to do that for me; this time around, that wasn’t going to cut it. So I decided to insert an extra, bonus, post-within-a post that would both be relevant and would fulfill that brief.

And third, Tuesday I got absolutely nothing done; it was one of those days of interruptions that come along every now and then. It was 7:30PM before I even finished my “breakfast” routine. It didn’t hep that I underestimated the scale of the additional work required on the post, either, but had I been able to work on it all Tuesday, it still would have gotten done in time – barely.

So that’s my tale of woe – a perfect storm of complications and setbacks. LUckily, such things are usually rare events!

The Seventh Shelf: Hardware II: Vehicles – Introduction by Mike

The quality and capabilities of transportation does more to define the shape of a society and a culture than just about anything else you can point at, with the possible exception of mass communications. Transport capabilities define how dependent populations are on local produce, define what exotic foodstuffs can be shipped in at what price, and how much produce costs. In fact, because raw materials have to be transported to where they are needed for manufacture of goods which then have to be transported to points of distribution, there are amplification effects and secondary impacts all over the sociological map.

During the California gold rush, it was routine to ship dirty laundry to Hawaii for laundering and back. Before electrical refrigeration became practical, frozen lakes were carved up and shipped south for use in New York City iceboxes. The mid-20th century was profoundly shaped by the reliability and affordability of motor vehicles, and even the design and shape of cities evolved throughout the 20th century to accommodate traffic.

In medieval times, it was routine practice for cities to have enough stored food on hand to feed the population for a year, and to supply the grain for planting the following year. At the start of the Pulp Era, this had declined to having sufficient food on hand for three or four weeks, a testament to the increased reliability of mass transport of groceries. By the 1950s, that was down to a fortnight, in the 70s or 80s, it declined to a week; and by the turn of the century, the average was three to five days. It is now two or three days, thanks to an increased focus on the desirability of fresh produce.

Similarly, as lifestyles have changed, waste generated has risen, making cities increasingly dependent on the sanitation departments that remove this to ever-expanding refuse piles. Transport is a defining factor in societies and business operations, and every time you think you finally have a handle on all the ramifications, a new one emerges to startle and confound. Think, for example, about the simple fact of where people work relative to where they live; without mass transit, suburbs are all-but impossible.

The Pulp Era is a pivotal point in the history of transportation. Commercial aviation has become a reality, albeit an expensive one. Commoners still rely on trains, an 18th century technology that was steadily improving in speed, reliability, and capacity. The motor vehicle has been mass-produced for a while, but outside the cities, infrastructure has not yet caught up; few roads are paved save in the most progressive and wealthy locations – the north-eastern United States, for example, and highways are strings of local back-roads. Submarines are making the transition from primitive to reliable, and in marine technology, the diesel engine has replaced the steam engine. Airships ply the skies, offering luxurious travel to the uber-wealthy and well-connected. The Jet engine is on the cusp of becoming a reality, and simple experiments in rocketry have been underway for a decade or more.

On top of this array of transportation possibilities and their impacts, they provide a irresistible splash of color; many of the vehicles were works of modern engineering art, as beautiful to look at as they were dangerous and often difficult to drive.

Relevance to other genres

For some genres, the relevance is fairly obvious. Late-era Cthulhu and Steampunk, for example. Post-apocalyptic genres may have deteriorated roads and dilapidated vehicles that don’t provide much better performance than the vehicles of the pulp era. For other game genres, it becomes less so, or at least, less directly so. Understanding the impact on society of transportation of people and goods remains directly relevant. Some of the techniques that we employ and have described below will be adaptable – for example, Mike uses the same basic technique to determine how far and how fast riders can move in his fantasy campaigns as the one described in the appropriate section on road trips. In fact, in an attempt to ensure that there is something of interest to most readers, he has gone somewhat overboard in that section, incorporating what could well have been a separate article into the text, which won’t surprise anyone who’s been reading Campaign Mastery for very long.

Shelf Introduction


towering old shelves of books

Image Credit: / steph p

The seventh shelf has 116 references divided into 10 categories of transportation and related fields. There are undoubtedly others that we could have chosen – we didn’t search for a history of cable cars, for example, and the Melbourne (Australia) section lists a book on trams. We might have gone hunting for books on special-purpose modes of transport, like tugboats and submarines, or the river-craft that ply the Great Lakes, or the fishing boats of the Gulf, but we ultimately determined that there would have been too few books on the subject with a substantial relevance to the pulp period. And all those pre-Depression ships would not have vanished; many of them would still be working hard for a living, but we have chosen to disregard those as well, just to keep the topic range manageable.

Zeppelins & other Airships – We start with what are probably the most iconic form of transport in the Pulp Era – airships and dirigibles. Lighter-than-air craft that use great bags of gas to carry a gondola suspended beneath and are propelled by powerful diesel engines, these were luxurious and even opulent – in the passenger areas at least. Books on them seem hard to come by, these days, but we have found a few.

Aircraft – commercial & military – Airship references are few because airships didn’t really last as a commercially-viable mode of transport. Aircraft books are numerous, because they lasted; and yet, we struggled to find recommendations in this section, simply because most of them are too tightly focused to be relevant, or material on the pulp era gets drowned out by the decades of subsequent air travel. But we were convinced that there had to be a few gems amongst so many offerings, and persisted until we had found at least some of them.

Air Routes & Commercial Aviation – And, if you thought general books about the aircraft of the 1930s were hard to find, books regarding how they operated are like hen’s teeth. Nevertheless, this category contains some prizes.

Rocketry – We thought seriously about including books on early rocketry, but ultimately these were inadequate to carry a payload of substance; either they were disqualified as a mode of transport for that reason, or any books we selected would hold little relevance. We found one offering that is worth your while – hopefully quality will make up for the lack of quantity.

Naval Power – Naval Power, as a subject, suffers from two major problems as a subject: the technological developments of World War II and subsequent periods tend to drown out the pulp era, as do the eras of steam and sail that preceded it. It’s a real problem when paradigm shifts bookend both ends of your time period; during World War I, the battleship was King, and World War II elevated the aircraft carrier to primacy. The pulp era is neither one nor the other, and as a result, tends to fall between the cracks. There are any number of books that we looked at that dispose of World War I in one chapter and move directly to World War II in the next, as though the years in between didn’t happen at all. And, of the few that we found, a number of them were far too expensive to list. As a result, to have anything to list in this section, we necessarily had to compromise our standards somewhat.

Commercial Shipping & Passenger Vessels – Only slightly better served. Large passenger vessels take so long to construct that the basic models of the pulp era are actually the embodiment of pre-depression thinking – ships like the Titanic and her sister ship – and not much changed until the post WWII boom that produced vessels like the Queen Elizabeth II, launched in 1969. And yet, this is the beginning of a time that would have a transformative effect on commercial shipping of all kinds; in order to compete with air power, ships grew ever-larger in capacity, and ocean liners ever more tourist-oriented. As with military maritime vessel design, the pulp era tends to fall between the cracks.

Trains – The dominant land-transport systems of the pulp era so far as most citizens were concerned was the same one that had dominated since the mid-nineteenth century. Steam engines may have been superseded by diesel locomotives, but not much more had changed. It would not be until the diesel-electric and fully-electric created modern suburban rail networks in the 50s and 60s that any real change would occur; until then, it was simply a matter of giving the consequences and repercussions of the changes that had already taken place time to integrate themselves into society. And yet, trains of the period were faster, more powerful, more reliable, and more efficient than those that been in extant during the Great War and early years of the 20th century, and that had vast knock-on effects; it’s just hard to find any books that discuss the subject as anything more than a footnote regarding a trend that had begun before and continued long after the period in question.

Trade – There aren’t many entries in this section, and one of the biggest ones has already appeared in the list – but it’s getting a comeback appearance here, with an additional link.

Cars & related Road Vehicles – It’s probably not going too far to define the 20th century as the age of the motor vehicle and the aircraft. Throw in the space capsule and shuttle, and you have covered the 4 most influential factors in everything else that happened. When you mention a 1920s or 1930s vehicle to someone, it’s a good bet that the first thing that comes to mind will be one of the automobiles of the period. Later, the Yankee Clippers might come up, or the DC3, but a car will take the first honors almost every time. We had a lot of trouble in this section; our preferred references were too few in number, too expensive, or both, and we had to winnow through mountains of references in search of alternatives to recommend.

Motorcycles – Mike was talking to an old friend the other day and made the mistake of mentioning that these two- and sometimes three-wheeled vehicles were included in the section on Cars (then entitled “…and other Road Vehicles” and copped an earful on the differences in culture and lifestyle even back then between the two for almost half an hour. Accordingly, Bikes are now in a section on their own.

Tanks & other armored vehicles – Mike suggested that the term “tracked vehicles” be used, but Blair quietly shot his arguments down in flames. These are military road vehicles and while some of them – staff cars for example – would be covered under the previous section, there’s plenty of variety to go around. Existing in a kind of half-way house are armored cars, and they too have been placed in this category, both to distinguish them from the standard automobile and to ram home the fact that this category contains more than just tanks.

A Recurring Note On Images:

Wherever possible, we have provided an illustration showing the cover of the book or DVD under discussion scaled to the same vertical size (320 pixels for Recommended Books, 280 for DVDs, 240 for items in the ‘For Dummies’ Sections). Where there was none available, we have used a generic icon.

Prices and Availability were correct at the time of compilation.


But First…

Before we actually start this shelf, Mike wants to add a book discovered after the previous shelf was published but which he considers too enticing to refuse. So, into the weapons section of the previous shelf, he is adding:

Spacer the-worlds-worst-weapons

632. The World’s Worst Weapons (From Exploding Guns to Malfunctioning Missiles) – Martin J Dougherty

We’ll let him explain why:

It doesn’t matter how much of this book relates to the Pulp Era. The concept of experimental and prototype weapons fits so perfectly into the Pulp Genre that this book is 100% relevant – and the notion that such weapons carry a fatal flaw is a great way to ensure that they don’t take over the campaign if the PCs fail to regain control over them. 320 pages, which is more than 3 times the size I was expecting. Reviews are a little scathing – “I would have thought I would have learned my lesson by now with their series of “the World’s Worst” but I got suckered into buying this at a local store due to its extremely low price. Well, you get what you pay for… To be fair, there are a couple of valid entries – perhaps half of them, however there are a number that just absolutely boggle my mind.” The commenter then goes on to offer examples of inclusions that he disagrees with, one way or another. And more examples. And still more examples. And, to be fair, I agree with a lot of his criticism. But if you cherry-pick from the entries, do a bit of appropriate due diligence and external research, you might just find the perfect experimental weapon to give your would-be world conqueror.

41 used copies starting at one cent, 18 new starting at $3.24.

And with that, let’s move on to this week’s actual content :)


Books About Zeppelins & other Airships

Airships in the real world come in two varieties: Rigid Dirigibles and Non-Rigid Blimps. The former are much larger and as a design, largely discredited by time of the outbreak of World War II – but were alive and well throughout the Pulp period. The latter have survived but are, in flavor terms, as interesting as soggy cardboard – in comparison with their more iconic kin.


633. Dirigible Dreams: The Age Of The Airship – C. Michael Hiam

This is a great general introduction to Airships and the many roles they played from the 19th century through to the imminent World War II.

“…fascinating stories of exploration, transatlantic journeys, and floating armadas that rained death during World War I. While there were triumphs, such as the polar flight of the Norge, most of these tales are of disaster and woe, culminating in perhaps the most famous disaster of all time, the crash of the Hindenburg…”


634. The Giant Airships (Epic Of Flight) – Douglas Botting

This is part of a series by Time-Life, and as anyone who has ever bought one of their books knows, they have production values that put everyone else to shame. It may lack in detail compared to the Hiam book, but it makes up for it with the lavish use of photographs and illustrations, perfect for taking your players inside one of these great machines.


635. Lighter Than Air: An Illustrated History of Balloons and Airships: Tom D. Crouch

This volume focuses on the people behind lighter than air flight – “flamboyant and daring, heroes and scoundrels” – which makes it tailor-made for use as a Pulp Reference – but at least half the volume will be on ballooning, which is not so useful.


636. Transatlantic Airships: An Illustrated History – John Christopher

While much of this volume treads similar territory to others already mentioned, this book is notable in focusing on the speculative use of airships that was envisaged post-war, making it a perfect reference for what might exist in a pulp world. It contains a comprehensive look at the history of the airships and the role that many experts predicted they would play in the future – Atomic Powered airships! 192 pages, 19 used and 29 new, both starting at $16.98 and there are more copies at


637. Flying Hookers For The Macon: The Last Great Rigid Airship Adventure – Thom Hook

The lurid title gives completely the wrong impression. Two American airships, the Akron and the Macon, were aerial carriers, providing long-range transport for bi-wing fighters. Long before the term became associated with less reputable professions, the pilots of these aircraft were known as Hookers. Like the author of the “most helpful” review, we had high hopes for this book as a result. To quote it: “Spurred on by the title I was somewhat disappointed by its contents. Mr. Hook provides excellent coverage of the how, where, and why the USS Macon crashed but very little as to the day to day operations. You will not find any details of the hanger where the Sparrowhawks were kept or how and what kind of aircraft maintenance could be performed there. There is no step-by-step description of aircraft recovery or launch…

“There is … an abundance of filler type material. Is a biographical chapter on Ernie Pyle really necessary? There is also a chapter on the Japanese balloon bombs of WWII and the future of lighter than air vehicles.

The book is acceptable if you are after information on the crash of the USS Macon and general information regarding lighter than air vehicles. There is also a very decent bibliography and a detailed crew list. However, if you’re like me, thinking that this book is just about the Sparrowhawks you’ll be greatly disappointed.”

Nevertheless, the book is not without value to the Pulp GM, and even though the title is misleading in multiple ways, it deserves its place in our recommendations.

Paperback, 192 pages, 20 used copies from $4.80. New copies are outside our price limits and probably not worth the value to be gained from the book, especially since Wikipedia has excellent articles on the Macon and Akron.


638. The Hindenburg – Michael M Mooney

The most famous dirigible of them all, and in many people’s minds, the one that did the most harm to the perceived viability of this mode of transport. In fact, it had no such effect; Both Britain and the US pressed ahead with airship projects following the Hindenburg disaster, the latter especially confident because they had more or less cornered the world manufacture and supply of Helium (which was the reason the Hindenburg was lifted with explosively-reactive Hydrogen instead). Nevertheless, all of these projects met with disaster of one form or another, and those more than this more famous incident caused the demise of the rigid airship. We have linked to two editions (but there are more copies out there as well). The first (pictured) is “Illustrated with Photographs”, the second is available in vast numbers – but makes no promise of photographic content.
Link 1:
Link 2:


639. The Golden Age Of The Great Passenger Airships: Graf Zeppelin and Hindenburg – Harold G Dick and Douglas H Robinson

“Drawing on the extensive photographs, notes, diaries, reports, recorded data, and manuals he collected during his five years at the Zeppelin Company in Germany, from 1934 through 1938, Harold G. Dick tells the story of the two great passenger Zeppelins. Against the background of German secretiveness, especially during the Nazi period, Dick’s accumulation of material and pictures is extraordinary. His original photographs and detailed observations on the handling and flying of the two big rigids constitute the essential data on this phase of aviation history.”

It’s the offer of operational information that is most valuable to the Pulp GM – the procedures and techniques employed in actually flying such an airship. Not many books go into that aspect of the subject at all, so this book definitely earns its place in the list.

We aren’t sure the cover image isn’t a generic placeholder, it seems remarkably plain, but we’ve given it the benefit of the doubt. 226 pages, published by the Smithsonian; 28 used copies from $2.99, 19 New from $16.82.


640. RPGNow: Modern Floorplans: Airship From Fabled Environments

This is an inexpensive offering from RPGNow at $3.76 for the PDF. We picked up a copy a year or two ago, and were profoundly disappointed by the lack of detail. While passenger areas are reasonably detailed, as are the crew quarters, there’s virtually nothing of the internal structure. The product description is confusing as well – is this a modern-day version of a luxury airship or is it a “Modern” day fictitious example supposedly from the 1920s? We’ve bought the product, and still aren’t sure.

Quite frankly, if there had been an alternative, this wouldn’t have made our shortlist, never mind actually being listed here – but there isn’t, making this the only game in town of it’s type.


641. The Great Texas Airship Mystery – Wallace O Charlton

The ultimate in ringers? During 1896 and 1897, mostly in the west and Midwest and Texas, came a sudden series of reports describing a cigar-shaped Airship, complete with crew, long before man mastered heavier-than-air flight… or so the histories of aviation would have us believe. In modern times, this would be an Unidentified Flying Object, but that term was fifty years or more into the future.

“Chariton provides his reader with a chronology of events, maps and excerpts from the newspapers of the day and places you right in the middle of the events, as if you were there, one of the befuddled witnesses,” writes one reviewer. He “…writes about this great mystery with a sense of fun, awe and intrigue.” As you would expect, the newspaper reports oscillated sharply between skeptical dismissal and credulity.

Another reviewer criticizes the book for an over-reliance on anecdotal information (what other kind is there regarding unlikely events of this vintage, we wonder?) and was also put off by the inconsistency of viewpoint, completely missing the point. But that reviewer also hints at content that could be directly pulp-relevant while considering follow-up investigation: “Has anyone attempted to search for any mysterious explosions that might have occurred soon after these sightings? If there really was a mysterious inventor named Wilson in NY or Iowa or wherever, perhaps his lab was destroyed in an accident that might have been recorded subsequently.” That sounds to us like the basis of a good pulp adventure, because it immediately begs the counter-question, “what if it weren’t?”…

Hardcover, 272 pages, 23 used copies from $10.24, 6 new from – well, let’s just say, too much.


Documentaries About Zeppelins & other Airships

Readers may be wondering why there is no mention of any of the TV documentaries investigating what ‘really destroyed the Hindenburg?’. There was a reasonably good documentary by that name that examined a number of the leading theories, dismissing some and judging the others on their plausibility that would have been compelling – an essential inclusion – if there were not an episode of Mythbusters that directly contradicted their findings in an even more compelling manner.

So far as we’re concerned, the jury is still out on the subject, and none of the theories should be taken as a definitive explanation, and none of the documentaries that are available are sufficiently comprehensive, authoritative, and unbiased. That includes the favorite theory espoused in “Hindenburg” above, which focuses on the suggestion that the explosion was caused by a crewman committing sabotage.

We thought about linking to both documentaries, but felt that there was too great a risk that readers would buy one and not the other, yielding a biased understanding. So we haven’t listed any. Just thought we’d clear that up.



642. Airships: Dirigibles and Blimps

Eighty-seven minutes of black and white historic films and newsreels about dirigibles and blimps, including “History of Heavy Airships”, a US Navy documentary that showcases the flying aircraft carriers USS Macon and USS Akron, and “Goodyear Aircraft at War” which describes the building of aircraft and scouting blimps. DVDs are manufactured to order when you order a new copy. Used copies for $14.85, New for $16.95, Amazon’s price $24.99.


Books About Aircraft

There may be additional resources on the forthcoming “Crime, Police, and Militaria” shelf.


643. Chronicle of Flight: A Year-By-Year History of Aviation – Walter J Boyne

At 512 pages, this is as comprehensive as you could possibly wish. Chronicle of flight itself into chapters, three of which deal with the pulp era: 1914-1923, 1924-1933, and 1934-1943. Each chapter contains a timeline of important developments, a two-to-four page summary of the events of the decade, and a boatload of high-quality photographs of hundreds of aircraft, airships, helicopters, designers, pilots, military commanders, and aeronautical events that start with Icarus and end in early 2003. Reportedly, there are more than a few incorrect captions, but that’s only a minor detraction from the value of this book. Best of all, it’s bargain-priced and in reasonable supply: 29 used copies from $0.46 and 11 new from $4.99. P&H will probably be higher than normal, however; the book weighs 4.4 pounds without packaging materials.


644. Atlantic Fever: :Lindbergh, his Competitors, and the Race to cross the Atlantic – Joe Jackson

For five weeks–from April 14 to May 21, 1927–the world held its breath while fourteen aviators took to the air to capture the $25,000 prize that Raymond Orteig offered to the first man to cross the Atlantic Ocean without stopping. Atlantic Fever tells the story of the race to achieve this milestone, who the participants were, and what befell their respective attempts., as well as the stories of those who subsequently attempted to emulate Lindbergh’s successful crossing – and, in many cases, failed.

544 pages, Kindle ($5.87), Hardcover (40 used from $0.01, 22 New from $5.71), Paperback (29 used from $0.01, 32 new from $2.95).


645. Grand Old Lady: Story of the DC-3 – Lt. Col. Carroll V Gines and Lt. Col. Wendell P Moseley

The DC-3 was arguably the most successful aircraft of the Pulp Era. Noisy, Drafty, Easy to fly, and Utterly reliable, the DC-3 became the luxury airliner of it’s day as we;; as being recast in dozens of other roles – the C-47 cargo plane aka the “Gooney Bird”, the R4D Naval Aircraft, and the Dakota amongst others. More than 11000 were built for the military during World War II, but the ultimate citation as to its status in aviation history has to that there are several hundreds still in service around the world, delivering passengers and cargo. At the time of its creation, it was widely held that two engines were not enough to provide stable flight if one failed; when he bet the business on the creation of the DC-3, Donald Douglass was convinced that these pessimists were wrong, and demanded of his designers that the DC-3 be able to hold its altitude on a single engine. Although development was a far rockier road than he expected at the time – see the documentary listed later in this section – the aircraft went on to exceed his every expectation. A true classic, we had good reason to focus on it in this list.


646. Douglas DC-3 Dakota Owners’ Workshop Manual: An insight into owning, flying, and maintaining the revolutionary American transport aircraft – Peter Blackah

One of the benefits of the aircraft still being in service is that maintenance manuals are still in circulation, giving the GM everything he needs as background material for an airfield maintenance hangar – even if the model of aircraft being maintained is different, this book will provide the language and foundation for the GM to “fake” it enough for plot purposes.

And yet, the title is misleading; while it contains anecdotes, stories, pictures and illustrations including technical drawings that can’t be found anywhere else. This wouldn’t actually give you the expertise needed to maintain or operate a DC-3, not the way an equivalent manual on maintaining a specific model of motor vehicle would. It’s more general and accessible by the layman than that – and that works in favor of our purposes.

So don’t be scared off.

160 pages, 14 used from $8.99 and 11 new from $27.13 – so this doesn’t meet our usual criteria, but it’s so different and useful in its subject matter that we’re listing it anyway.


647. DC-3 and C-47 Gooney Birds: Includes the DC-2, DC-3, C-47, B-18 Bolo, B-23 Dragon, the Basler turboprop Goonies, and many more – Michael O’Leary

This 128-page paperback examines the many variations of the DC-3 that evolved over the years. Notable for it’s high-quality photographs. 30 used copies from $7.64 and 13 new from $23.96.


648. Douglas DC-3: 80 Glorious Years – Geoff Jones

Published in 2014, this is a celebration of the aircraft and its history. 288 pages, hardcover and kindle, 11 used copies from $15.90, 27 new from $16.10.


649. The DC-3: 50 Years of Legendary Flight – Peter M Bowers

But, if that’s too expensive for you, consider this book from 1986 which might even have a greater focus on the pulp era (simply because that gets less drowned-out by the later history). The actual number of pages per year of history is not all that different (3.84 for this book, 3.6 for the previous one). 39 used copies starting at one cent, 11 new copies from $17.95.


650. Pan American Clippers: The Golden Age of Flying Boats – James Trautman

To only model of heavier-than-air flying vehicle that can come close to the iconic status of the DC-3 during the pulp era are the Yankee Clipper flying boats operated by Pan-Am in the 1930s, and the similar services operated by Britain’s Imperial Airways. We could hardly devote so much attention to the DC-3 without giving the flying boats their due as well. Which brings us to the contents of this book. “Illustrated with rare period photographs, vintage travel posters, magazine ads and colorful company brochures, [it] covers every aspect of the fabulous era of Pan American’s graceful clippers.” Full of diverse tidbits that only the “exceptionally well-informed” would already know, according to one reviewer, but most single out another aspect of the content for the highest praise: 200 color images and 100 historical black-and-white photographs, all of the highest possible quality, and many pf which had never been published before. 272 pages, Paperback; 17 used copies from $19.50 but start with one of the 28 new copies from $16.96.


651. The Pan Am Clipper: The History of Pan American’s Flying-Boats 1931 to 1946 – Roy Allen

A similar book to the previous one listed, few photographs and less than half the length, but makes up the deficit with era-original charts and diagrams. 28 used copies from $5.69, 2 collectible from $14.00, and 15 new for more than our price limits at $29.95. Hardcover, if that makes a difference.


652. Wings to the Orient: Pan American Clipper Planes, 1935-1945: A Pictorial History – Stan Cohen

Two reviews are pertinent: “This book is one of the finest collections on information regarding Pan-Am’s famous flying boats. Loaded with old photos, classic ads, maps and much more.”

And, “Cohen’s book is among the better works to document the short but exciting history of Pan American’s pacific clipper operations, providing insight into the pilots and aircraft that flew it and the route they took. My few complaints were with the relative dirth of information following the outbreak of World War II, some speculative accounts which have been correctly described in other books, and a lack of color photos.”

Which means that it focuses completely on the flying boats during the pulp era. 214 pages, Paperback (47 used from $0.01, 15 new from $29.99).


653. Pan American’s Pacific Pioneers: The Rest of the Story, A Pictorial History of Pan Am’s Pacific First Flights 1935-1946, Vol. 2 – Jon E Krupnick

We were unable to locate Volume 1 anywhere; if we had, this two-volume double-act might have been at the head of the list. In fact, it was while searching for Volume I that we discovered the books listed previously.

There are, in fact, two editions of this book; we have linked to the older (24 used copies from $15.85, 13 New from $49.22) because the prices for the new are out of the question (20 used from $34.14, 6 new from $72.15, 1 collectible at $125.01).

At 315 pages, and only covering half the history of the aircraft, this is going to be the most comprehensive book on the subject, but, is a book with only limited coverage of the period in history worth those prices? We weren’t sure, though inclined to think not; ultimately, we have left the decision to the individual purchaser.


654. Warplanes Of The World 1918-1939 – Michael J H Taylor

Detailed reference on the history and capabilities of the aircraft in question. 192 pages, 20 used copies from $4.73.


655. Jane’s Fighting Aircraft of WWI by W. E. De. B. Whittaker

Includes a lot of information about non-military aviation of general use, up to 1919. Not enough cheap copies available but worth the extra price, especially since the WWII volume (below) makes the cut.


656. Jane’s Fighting Aircraft of WWII – Bill Gunston

Includes a lot of information about non-military aviation in the final years leading up to the War.


657. Jane’s Encyclopedia of Aviation – compiled by Michael J H Taylor

The history of aviation from hot air balloons to late in the 20 th century. We’re referring to the older edition, published in 1989 (960 pages) – expect postage to be relatively high – – but if it’s no longer available, there is a newer version called “Jane’s Encyclopedia Of Aviation Revised Edition” with a different cover – and fewer cheap copies available!


658. Last Talons Of The Eagle: Secret Nazi Technology Which Could Have Changed The Course of World War II – Gary Hyland and Anton Gill

Nazi experimental and proposed aircraft from late in WWII – Jets, Helicopters, VTOL Aircraft, etc. These make great Pulp Vehicles if you assume (a) that they work, and (b) bring them forward a few years as prototypes.

Paperback (pictured), Kindle


659. Strange and Wonderful Aircraft – Harvey Weiss

We close out this section with a number of books on strange and dangerous aircraft, some of which even date from the Pulp era – but which (even if they aren’t period-correct) can make great vehicles for PCs and NPCs – whether they work as advertised or not. The first of these, and the one that inspired the inclusion of this subsection, is this book for children which examines some of the stranger byways and failed attempts in the history of aviation both before and after the Wright Brothers. To be honest, we were sold by the cover. 64 pages, ages 8-12 years, hardcover, 25 used from $0.01, 10 new from $14.99, 3 collectible from $8.50.


660. The World’s Strangest Aircraft: A Collection of Weird and Wonderful Flying Machines – Michael Taylor

A reviewer wrote: “This is just a scrapbook of some interesting aircraft, more than half of which really are not that “weird,” but are commonly included in many other books about “regular” aircraft. In fact, many other “weird” aircraft that could have been included are not. The textual commentary on the aircraft is extremely limited and not very interesting nor does it provide information that is not readily available online.” To which, we respond: the visually-interesting or unusual is always a popular inclusion in such general books because they catch the eye, so we aren’t too bothered by the first criticism; and that it’s always easier to find information on the internet when you know exactly what to look for.

The pages are reportedly thick and glossy, giving the impression that there are more than the actual 112 pages. That should make it more robust, but it may also increase postage. 57 used copies from $0.01, 13 New from $9.10, 1 Collectible from $18.00.


661. Weird Aircraft (Flexi cover series) – Peter Henshaw

The contents range from the sublime (the flying boats) to the ridiculous (the Junkers G38 and Spruce Goose) and way, way, waaay beyond. 256 pages, 27 used from $0.01, 7 new from $32.50.


662. The Strangest Aircraft Of All Time – Keith Ray

Most of these are strange aircraft that actually flew. There are a few minor errors that should have been caught but weren’t – the commentator who referenced this problem points to the entry for the Arup S1 which reportedly had a 26 hp motor and a top speed of 607 mph. As always, do your due diligence – Wikipedia confirms the size of the motor, and points to this being a modified glider (but has no performance information), so we suspect that a decimal place should go somewhere in that 607. After the 6 seems too slow, after the 0 seems too fast – but the date of 1926 suggests that “6.07 mph” might in fact be the correct number.


663. The World’s Worst Aircraft – Jim Winchester

The first of three different books with exactly the same name, but fortunately one of the reviewers at Amazon have two of the three and was able to compare them to educate us. Both this book and the other (Yenne, below) are good reads, “injecting humor into the subject”. This book covers a greater number of aircraft from a greater number of countries, Yenne covers fewer entries from his “Hall Of Shame duds” in greater depth. The reviewer recommends buying both; who are we to argue? 324 pages, hardcover, 29 used from $3.62, 8 new from $15.000


664. The World’s Worst Aircraft – Bill Yenne

See comments above. 160 pages, 99 used from $0.01, 17 new from $4.18.


665. The World’s Worst Aircraft – James Gilbert

This book has three strikes against it. First, we have no such comparison available to distinguish it, only a single review which gives it high praise; Second, that review leavens its praise with a complaint about appearances over functionality in terms of inclusions, which raises a slight question-mark about the content; and Third, do we really need a third book covering the same territory as the previous two?

On the other hand, there is the chance that it will cover something that the others won’t, and the pages look a lot bigger, meaning that hopefully the photographs will be, too. So it might be able to hold it’s own.

Hardcover, no page count, 12 used from $4.99, 6 new from forget-it; paperback, 15 used from $2.82, 5 new from forget-it-even-faster.


Documentaries About Aircraft



666. Planes That Changed The World ep 2: the DC3

The first half of this program is pure gold for the pulp GM, with information on flying times, costs, capacities, etc. The documentary is not available on DVD anywhere except in Australia (Amazon UK lists one imported copy at a high price £45 (
)) but that isn’t enough to keep us from making it available to readers!

Amazon US has both the series and individual episodes available through its streaming service for $2.99 an episode or $7.99 for the whole season ( and also lists a book on the subject from $5 a copy

Once again, Canadian readers get the short end of the sharp pointy thing; there are limited copies of the book (NOT the DVD) available at quite exorbitant prices.

However, we did also find the episode on YouTube:, and it’s definitely worth your effort to watch it.


Books About Air Routes & Commercial Aviation

There may be additional resources on the forthcoming “everyday life” shelf, and are certainly a few others scattered through earlier parts of the series.


667. Picture History of Aviation on Long Island 1908-1938 – George C Dade and Frank Strnad

Over 300 rare photographs, with detailed informative captions, recall Long Island’s crucial role as center of early aviation. Exploits of Lindbergh, Curtiss, Doolittle, other pioneers. First “blind” flights, seaplanes, endurance records, technological breakthroughs, much more including a map. 160 pages. 43 used copies starting at $0.01 and 19 new from $18.93.


668. Long Island Airports (NY) (Images of America) – Joshua Stoff

“Long Island is a natural airfield. The central area of Long Island’s Nassau County?known as the Hempstead Plains?is the only natural prairie east of the Allegheny Mountains. The island itself is ideally placed at the eastern edge of the United States, adjacent to its most populous city. In fact, nowhere else in America has so much aviation activity been confined to such a relatively small geographic area.” Some of which we already knew, and all of which makes this book relevant to any Pulp Campaign set in the US – or that even visits there. 128 pages, Kindle ($8.11) and paperback (27 used from $4.49, 26 New from $10.99).


669. Turbulent Skies: The History of Commercial Aviation (Sloan Technology)

This is a book more about the Aircraft and their makers than about the Airlines. That said, that is useful information for the Pulp Referee – but this book won’t supply all your needs. 1st Edition


670. Conquest of the Skies: A History of Commercial Aviation in America – Carl Solberg

Written from the customer point of view, which makes this a valuable resource. 441 pages, hardcover, 44 used copies from 1 cent, 13 new from $20, 8 collectible from $11.99.


671. From Airships to Airbus: The History of Civil and Commercial Aviation (Vol. 1: Infrastructure and Environment) – William M Leary

Between this volume and the next, this seems to be both authoritative and comprehensive. 256 pages, published by the Smithsonian. 21 used copies from 76 cents, 12 new from $20.97.


672. From Airships to Airbus: The History of Civil and Commercial Aviation (Vol. 2: Pioneers and Operations) – William F Trimble

Refer above. However there are only limited cheap copies available. 384 pages, 19 used copies from $1.58, 9 new from $28.97.


673. Sky as Frontier: Adventure, Aviation, and Empire (Centennial of Flight Series)

This seems more related to the social impact of aviation than about Aviation itself. But that is valuable in its own right.


674. Footsteps in the sky: An informal review of US Airlines in-flight service 1920s to the Present – Helen E McLaughlin

These days stewards and stewardesses are largely considered part of the furniture that comes with an airline, but when aviation was in its youth, this was almost as glamorous a profession as being a Hollywood star, and the standards, expectations, and lifestyles were unbelievable. This book was published in 1994 so take the “to the present” part of the title with a grain of salt. It is not only a comprehensive history of flight attendants, but of commercial aviation in general, and is strongly illustrated with photographs. 352 pages.


675. Long Island Aircraft Crashes: 1909-1959 (NY) (Images of America)

There were more aircraft manufacturers and airports located on Long Island than in any other part of the United States. Due to the extraordinarily high volume of air traffic, Long Island also led the country-if not the world-in aircraft crashes. As a result, it also led the world in the development of safety systems like air-traffic control systems, airport lighting, aviation weather reports, paved runways, and professional flight schools. This book not only captures images of some of the aviation disasters, but documents the evolution of safety as a result.


676. Transatlantic Flight: A Picture History, 1873–1939 – Joshua Stoff

The title is slightly misleading because there’s a lot more content in this book than it suggests. The author is the Air and Space Curator of the Cradle of Aviation Museum in Garden City, New York, and in these pages he chronicles all the drama of the international race to make transatlantic flight a reality with over 250 rare photographs, many previously unpublished. He traces a host of flight attempts, including a number made in lighter-than-air balloons and in huge “flying boats” developed by the Curtiss Company and the U.S. Navy.

Also documented here are Alcock and Brown’s difficult crossing from Newfoundland to Ireland in 1919, an around-the-world flight in 1924 by the U.S. Army’s “world cruisers” (which took five months, 22 days, and 72 stops!), Charles Lindbergh’s celebrated solo flight from New York to Paris in 1927, and Amelia Earhart’s ill-fated circumnavigation attempt in 1937.


677. Britain’s Imperial Air Routes 1918-1939 – Robin Higham

This remarkable book pictures the growth of British civil air transport from its inception in 1910 through to the formation of Imperial Airways in 1934 and then the beginnings of British Overseas Airways Corporation, better remembered by its initials, B.O,A.C. This is the birth of the aviation industry in Britain, a very different story to that of the US. Included in the book are comprehensive statistical appendices and a complete bibliography, and that last item is a major plus in our valuation. Hardcover, 384 pages, Kindle ($9.11) or Hardcover (9 used from $23.26, 22 New from $19.26.


678. Airways Abroad: The Story of American World Air Routes – Henry Ladd Smith

WWII created modern intercontinental aviation. Initially, this business was greeted with much of the wariness today’s World Trade Organization engenders. Anglo-American unity broke down over aviation even before the war was over. The negotiations required to resolve these conflicts, especially the famous Chicago Conference of November 1944, are detailed in some depth by University of Wisconsin lecturer in journalism Henry Ladd Smith in this 1950 book. But we’re more interested in the situation that these negotiations were intended to manage – an extrapolation of the world Pre-WWII – because that is going to be closer to the world of a Pulp Campaign.

355 pages. Hardcover: one used copy from $17 (we also found a signed first-edition copy being sold on e-bay). Paperback: 22 Used copies from $3.40, 5 new from $17.96.


679. Pilot’s Directions: The Transcontinental Airway and it’s History

This is a concise book on the origin and operation of the first transcontinental air route under Post Office auspices, based on a reprint of the instructions manual for air mail personnel. 16 pages, so very short. 6 new copies from $12.95; 17 used from $5.24; 1 collectible from $19.95.


680. SFO Museum Website, Aviation Museum & Library Collection

The page to which we have linked contains a high-resolution map (shown on the page at greatly reduced size) of the Pan American Airways clipper service across the Pacific with an indicator of Flight Time Required which has been useful on more than one occasion.


681. NickGrantAdventures dot com

The same Pan American Airways map, but we aren’t sure which has the better resolution, this version or the one linked to above. But we are including this link for the map below it, which was produced for an April 1936 article in Fortune Magazine on Pan American which is full of delightful anecdotes and trivia that makes great campaign color. “Pan Am bought the Alaskan airways chiefly for strategic purposes. To get mail contracts they had to bid against dog-sled owners.” But it also shows major connecting routes flown by other national airlines, and the thickness of the lines indicates the number of services a week, making this map absolutely loaded with valuable and hard-to-find information. Be prepared to lose a lot of time scrolling around examining it! As an absolute bonus, the page also has a map of the various pacific islands and who claimed them prior to WWII.


682. David Rumsey Map Collection

The page to which we have linked contains a zoomable high-resolution map of Imperial Airways air routes through Europe, the British Empire, and Across the US. You will need other maps to identify where some of the stops are.


683. Wikipedia

The Imperial Airway’s page at Wikipedia contains a link to a high-resolution 1935 map of the routes to Australia and South Africa.


684. Cool Old Photos

This site collects exactly what the name says. It’s a great place for photographic reference, though you can sometimes spend a long time looking for just what you want. Buried away on the site is the page we have linked to, where they provide two maps: one of US Air Mail routes across the US in the 1920s, and another from August of 1928.


685. Gizmodo / Pale Of Future: “What International Air Travel Was Like in the 1930s” by Matt Novak

This article provides lots of flavor text and photos, both of which will be of massive benefit the next time your players want to fly somewhere.


686. The Daily Mail Online

An article on the same subject (“Nervous flyers look away: What air travel was REALLY like in the 1930s when planes were so loud cabin crew needed megaphones and flights from the UK to Australia took 11 days” by Georgia Diebelius) from a British Newspaper’s online site, with many of the same photos – but in much larger sizes.


Books About Rocketry



687. Rocketship Galileo – Robert A Heinlein

If rockets are part of your game plan, there is only one reference that fits the bill. This is a science-fiction novel aimed at juveniles – but if you ignore the “nuclear power” aspects of the plot, and the unlikely plot device of the juvenile crew, the rest is very much an extrapolation of the experimental rockets of the era, and therefore is a model to be used for any rocket transportation in your game world. It even has Space…, no, mustn’t give away the plot twist. Suffice it to say that it’s a very pulp one.

Cheap copies:
More copies (Pictured):
Bundled with three other (enjoyable but not relevant) Heinlein novels:


Books About Naval Power

Additional resources may be found in the forthcoming “Crime, Police, and Militaria” shelf.


688. Hitler’s Naval War – Cajus Bekker

Describes the development of the German Navy up to and into World War II. Actual War period information predominates, unfortunately limiting it’s value to the Pulp GM interested in pre-war information.


689. The Metal Fighting Ship in the royal navy 1860- 1970 – E.H.H. Archibald

A wide ranging survey of every of every stage of development of the metal-hulled warship.


690. The Encyclopedia of the World’s Warships – Hugh Lyon & Consultant Captain J.E. Moore R.H.

In many respects not as useful as the Archibald volume as a general reference, but has (small) deck plans, comparative stats, specific ships of interest, and a listing by country. Great as an index of Wikipedia entries thanks to it’s listing of specific ships by ship class (and Model), eg the Kagero Class lists 18 named vessels, their fates, and when they met those destinies.

Available with two different covers, some at this link and some at this link Some new copies of this book come in at over $2000 bucks, but we haven’t linked to those!


691. Sea Power – a modern illustrated military history – Anthony Preston & Louis S. Casey, authors, & John Bachelor, illustrator

Especially valuable for the chapters on Submarines, useful reference for other subjects as well. Also covers foreign navies. Has more deck plans and some cross-sections.


692. Jane’s Fighting Ships

Any era-specific volume that has been reprinted. NB: sections dealing with the war years (from either World War) contain many inaccuracies. Aim for a volume from 1920-1935 – these are all around the $30-$60 mark. Exception: Jane’s Fighting Ships Of World War I, lots of reasonably-priced copies at this link and a few more at this link – so that’s what we’re recommending.


693. Tramp: Sagas of High Adventure in the Vanishing World of the Old Tramp Freighters – Michael J. Krieger

A lavishly-illustrated book with photographs and blueprints detailing tramp freighters from the turn of the century to the modern day. This was actually lent to us by the player whose PC owns and operates such a vessel in the Adventurer’s Club pulp campaign.

We did find one alternative that looked promising, but copies were too expensive. Look for it in the honorable mentions when that list gets published.


694. Gunboats of World War I – Angus Konstam

Detailed technical guide to the gunboats of all the major navies of the war. Many of these vessels would still be In service here and there in the Pulp Era, some converted to commercial purposes.


695. Naval Policy Between the Wars: The Period of Anglo-American Antagonism 1919-1929 – Stephen Roskill

The first of two volumes published in 1968 and 1976 respectively that in combination still constitute the only authoritative study of the geopolitical, economic, and strategic factors that shaped the Royal British Navy and the US Navy during the inter-war period. During the decade examined in the first part, the two navies are rivals and the governments antagonists, due to the aftereffects of the Armistice that ended the First World War, the struggle to prevent a new arms race, the rise of Japanese influence and power, and the attempts at peacekeeping through the fragile and ultimately doomed vessels of diplomacy and the League Of Nations. In particular, the transition from Empire to Commonwealth in Britain and the Isolationism and Empire-building of the US put the two on collision course politically even as both pursued peace through their own disparate methods. On top of that, you had the challenge to the authority of Battleships from air power, and the internal struggles of the US Military as the Navy struggled with the Army Air Corps (later the US Air Force) to obtain aviation assets for the fleet – a struggle that some say continues to this day, behind closed doors in appropriations committee-rooms. The 1920s may be ignored by most naval historians but clearly there was plenty going on.

672 pages, Paperback (7 used from $20.62, 26 New from $18.22) and one copy of the book in Hardcover costing $75. Published by the British Naval Institute Press just two days ago as this text is written (and almost sold out already), so there may be a reprinting at some near-future point, and British readers may find more copies available from local sources.


696. Naval Policy Between the Wars: The Period of Reluctant Rearmament, 1930-1939 – Stephen Roskill

The second volume of Roskill’s inter-war history is marked by increased commonality of interests between the two Navies and the governments of the day as exemplified by treaties such as Lend-Lease. 544 pages, Paperback; 9 used from $30.91 (beyond our standards), 20 new from $18.73. See comments above regarding publication/reprinting.


697. The Royal Navy, Seapower and Strategy Between The Wars – Christopher Bell

This book offers a counter-point to the two-volume official history by Roskill. Drawing on a range of unpublished sources, Bell challenges the accepted view that the intellectual shortcomings of Britain’s naval leaders resulted in poor strategic planning , instead pointing the finger at differing views between the British Navy and the civilian decision-makers regarding the role of sea-power in the post- Great War era. This book is essential for a GM to get the full picture. Strictly speaking, we should not list it; it violates both limits of price and availability, but it is too important a reference to ignore. 256 pages, 10 used copies from $39.95.


698. The Treaty Navy: The story of the US Naval Service Between the World Wars – James W Hammond Jnr

After three books from the British perspective, we could hardly ignore this book on the US position. Takes the position that the US Navy knew that war in the Pacific was coming and spent the inter-war period preparing to meet the challenge, “despite treaty limitations, pacifist opposition, a parsimonious Congress and public neglect”, a position with which we have several bones to pick; first, it smells very strongly of revisionism and prescient abilities on the part of Naval Commanders; second, it completely miscasts the isolationism that was the predominant political and social policy of the day; third, it seems to assume that money grew on trees during the great depression, or that the Navy should have been exempted from the belt-tightening that everyone else needed to accept in the period.

It is, perhaps, worth noting that the author is a post-war graduate of US Naval Academy, leading to suspicion that it might not be him reinventing history but the official naval “recollections” of the period. While in active service, he was editor and publisher of the Marine Corps Gazette, and after his service he edited another pro-Navy magazine. So there is a definite possibility of bias toward the official US Navy position in his interpretations and reporting.

Which does not mean that this book is without merit or value to the Pulp GM; even if it is judged inaccurate or distorted from a real-world perspective, it would be quite in keeping in the pulp era for it to be the foundation of the game version of the US Navy, and furthermore, it intersperses verifiable history, interpretation, and “sea stories” from the era. Furthermore, some of the content, such as the discussion of “Battleship Admirals” vs “Carrier Admirals”, can be characterized as insightful – rather than regarding the former as out-of-date fossils of a past era of Naval Strategy, Hammond suggests that the two were eying different strategic targets (Europe/Atlantic vs Japan/Pacific) and viewing the two classes of vessel from the perspective of being the most appropriate ones for dealing with the enemy on whom they were focused.

A potentially flawed book, then, but one that definitely has something to offer the Pulp GM that he can’t get elsewhere. Paperback, 294 pages, 15 used from $14.89, 20 new from $14.90, 1 collectible from $16.01.


699. Two-Block Fox: The Rise of the Aircraft Carrier, 1911-1929 – Charles M Melhorn

This book is published by the Naval Academy at Annapolis, so it clearly offers the Navy’s views on the subject. The inter-war period is often characterized as a confrontation between an old-guard wedded to their Battleships and a new generation who foresaw the dominance of the aircraft, and therefore of the delivery vehicle that conveyed those aircraft to the battlefield, the carrier. Quite clearly, the carrier won that particular battle and has been the dominant naval instrument of war ever since.

Oh, yes, the title: the term “Two-Block Fox” is believed by some to be a reference to the Foxtrot flag (red diamond on a white background, used to represent the letter F. On US Aircraft carriers, it meant “Flight Operations Underway”. When a carrier got ready to send off aircraft, the signal bridge would be told, “Two block Fox.” Immediately the fox flag would be sent to the yardarm which overhung the ship to provide a visual signal to tell nearby vessels that the carrier was launching aircraft. “Two-blocked” meant raised all the way, or run out to the end.

The alternative meaning is as a naval-service nickname for an aircraft carrier; a carrier is “two blocks in length and at sea using its 40 mile per hour speed, clouds, night, fog and other obscurations — well, the aircraft carrier is as hard to find as a fox.”

Our suspicion is that the first usage is the original meaning, and the use of the “Foxtrot” flag to signal flight operations led to the second usage.

Hardcover, 192 pages, 34 used copies from $5.71, 6 collectible from $15, new copies available but outside our price range.


700. The Rise and Fall of the Aircraft Carrier – Bernard Ireland

An account of the development of the aircraft carrier, from the early experiments and the first flush decked carrier ‘Argus’ in WW1, through to the major carrier to carrier battles of WW2 and subsequent post-WW2 developments, including details about the WW2 CAM ships, merchant conversions and escort carriers, etc. Numerous color and half tone photos, with additional maps and drawings.

We found the title provocative, but were unable to locate any reviews to shed light on the “Fall” of the carrier suggested therein. We certainly aren’t aware of any developments that have overtaken it, strategically, despite attempts by platforms such as the nuclear-powered submarine to do so. Ireland is a British retired naval engineer, editor of Jane’s and a writer on naval matters who has nearly thirty books to his credit. As independent authorities on the subject go, he is clearly amongst the best, so his opinions have weight.

Nevertheless, that’s nothing more than an intriguing side issue; the relevance of this book is in the early part of the history, and the many at-best semi-successful attempts that were made at a viable carrier design in the early post-war period. 168 pages, coffee-table sized hardcover; 30 used copies from $0.58, 2 collectible from $10.80. Published in London, so British readers may find additional copies through local sources.


Documentaries About Sea Power



701. The Ghosts Of The Mary Rose

This is a documentary about Henry VIII’s warship, the Mary Rose, which sank in battle in July 1545. The programme explores the possible causes for the ship sinking and features a computerized re-enactment of the disaster. But what makes it brilliant for Pulp GMs is that they examine ALL possible causes, and that makes this a useful primer on sunken ships (treasure-carrying or otherwise).

There are a handful of copies available through Amazon US for prices that range from the OK to the obscene

There are rather more copies at considerably better prices from Amazon UK;

…and there are less than a handful from Amazon Canada

However, both the US and Canadian copies are described as imports, without listing the region code. Unless you have a universal DVD player and a TV that can handle both NTSC and PAL formats, you need a plan B.

(Hot tip from Mike: it costs money to put region-coding into DVD players. The cheaper the model, the less likely it is to care where the DVDs come from. Before I bought my current previous DVR-DVD-Recorder/Player, I used a AUD$20 compact DVD player – about US$15 – that played ANY disk from ANYwhere).

In this case, Plan B is Youtube, at least as of this writing.


Books About Commercial Shipping & Passenger Vessels



702. The Golden Age of Shipping: The Classic Merchant Ship 1900-1960 – Robert Gardiner

The period covered by this book deals with the development of many specialized forms of merchant ship: the great transatlantic liners, the fast packets and simple tramp steamers, for example. These and many other types are described and analyzed in detail. The Golden Age of Shipping is the ninth in a series of twelve volumes intended to provide a detailed and comprehensive reference work, the essential first stop for anyone seeking information.


703. Great Passenger Ships 1930-1940 by William H. Miller

Describes the vessels, where they operated, and the economic fate that resulted, with internal and external details and photographs that help visualize the experience on board as either passengers or crew.


704. Great Passenger Ships 1920-1930 by William H. Miller

See comments above, most of these would still be in service.


705. Great Passenger Ships 1910-1920 by William H. Miller

See comments above, many of these would still be in service.


706. Workers on the Waterfront: Seamen, Longshoremen, and Unionism is the 1930s (Working Class in American History) – Bruce Nelson

A history of maritime workers, unionism and radicalism on the Pacific Coast, especially San Francisco. There are reviews that suggest that the perspectives of Longshoremen are inadequately represented, and that the text exhibits a bias towards the business owners, and several reviewers would like additional east-coast content. But even taking that potential bias into account, this could still be a useful reference to procedure and practice in a period port.

384 pages, hardcover 24 used from $0.01 and 7 new for $50+, paperback 30 used from $0.01, 14 new from $20.01


707. Floating Palaces: The Great Atlantic Liners – William H Miller

A maritime ‘arms race’ began in the mid-1890s to design and build the most luxurious and fastest ocean liners, each successive vessel trying to outdo the previous one in size and opulence. Everything on board was bespoke designed and custom-built from the cutlery to the paneling, from the china to the bedrooms, from the furniture to the boat-decks. In truth, ignoring the occasional undeclared armistice, you can argue that this arms race continues to this day, though the advent of air power has recast the ocean liner as a “cruise ship”, a mobile holiday destination in its own right. The great ocean liners were floating palaces, as this collection of images clearly demonstrates, showcasing the elegance of an unhurried time when “getting there was half the fun”.

128 pages, Kindle ($7.99) and Paperback (11 used from $14.00, 24 new from $11.44, 1 collectible at $24.95). Page size appears to be typical paperback but landscape orientation has been used.


708. Grand Luxe : The Transatlantic Style – John Malcolm Brinnin and Kenneth Gaulin

Another book of the same type on the same subject. Coffee-table size and 232 pages; unsurprisingly, it costs a little more, but you get more bang for your buck. Hardcover, 19 used from $6.29, 5 new from about $55.


709. Record Breakers of the North Atlantic: Blue Riband Liners 1838-1952 – Arnold Kludas

The author is the former director of the scientific library of the German Maritime Museum in Bremerhaven and has has published more than forty books on maritime history. He is considered one of, if not the, foremost authorities on the passenger liners of the North Atlantic. This 160-page book is more than 10 inches x 10 inches in size, and contains 50 color illustrations and 120 black-and-white photographs. The subtitle refers to the Blue Riband, a mythical trophy for the fastest transatlantic crossing, which fascinated the public during the pulp era and preceding decades and was a subject of interest for almost 200 years while never officially existing. The battle for this non-existent and strictly unofficial trophy was, however, very real, and five maritime nations (England, the US, Germany, Italy, and France) took up the challenge of producing the fastest ship on the high seas. This book traces the course of the contest, and the participants, from the early paddle steamers through to the luxury liners of the post-war period.

Paperback, 11 new from $9.22, 26 used from $0.01; hardcover 15 used from $17.98, 11 new from $39.95.


710. South Atlantic Seaway – N R P Bonsor

When it comes to passenger vessels, the South Atlantic is the forgotten corner of the world, at least in comparison to the Pacific (both North and South) and the North Atlantic, who between them, garner all the attention and glamor. This book redresses the balance by providing a comprehensive report on the passenger lines and the vessels that ply the seaways from Europe to Brazil, Uruguay, and Argentina. 548 pages, hardcover; 20 used from $18.4, 8 new from $19.00.


Books About Trains

There have always been iconic professions that young children aspire to because of the romance attached to them. In the past, those have included pilot, and astronaut, and cowboy, fireman and policeman. And in the pulp era, another to be added to that list is train engine driver. In the 20s and 30s, these were the elite of the working class – for every one who achieved it, a thousand aspired to the position. Although the great age of railroading was in it’s final days, soon to be undone by the rise of air transport, this was the era when it was at its height. Before living standards rose to the point of almost every family having their own automobile in the 1950s, and before airfares became cheap enough and airliners large enough (developments that went hand-in-hand), rail was the only accessible form of mass transit for most people. This collection would have a gaping hole without books on trains, but finding books that focus specifically on the era is very hard.


711. Streamliners: Locomotives and trains in the Age of Speed and Style – Brian Soloman

In the 1930s the style was to streamline everything (whether it moved or not) and trains were no exceptions. This book details the historic and scientific context for the development of the streamlined trains that are iconic representations of the pulp era. Includes photographs, period advertising, ROUTE MAPS, and patent design drawings.


712. North American Railroads: The Illustrated Encyclopedia – Brian Soloman

Includes specifics for more than 300 railroads in North America with photographs, advertising, and histories. Presented by railroad so useful only if you know what you are looking for – but richly detailed if you do.


713. Streamlined Steam – Britain’s 1930s Luxury Expresses – A.J. Mullay

Does for England what the preceding book does for North America. We’ve linked to the first edition,, but if those run out there is a second edition as well (fewer copies, more expensive)


714. The Ultimate Europe Train Travel Guide – J Doyle White

This relates to modern travel more than period travel, but there is still a lot of great use to the Pulp GM in this volume – most of the book comprises details of every railway station in Europe from public transportation to privately-owned rail stations, but there is also a section on historic and scenic railways. Some of the tourist information is a little scanty, but as a starting point for further research this is excellent.

There are limited copies of “Volume 1”, but copies of “Volume 2” are relatively plentiful. However, we think these are actually different editions of the same book! – the covers are the same, some of the language used by Amazon is confused, and there is no evidence of a “Volume #” on the covers.


715. European Train Travel Tips – Mona MacDonald Tipping

While focused on modern train travel, some of the tips included in this book are relevant to an older era.


716. Train Wrecks: A pictorial history of Accidents on the Main Line – Robert C. Reed

While this volume focuses on the era just preceding most Pulp Campaigns and back into the late 19th Century, and on the US, the pulp plot potentials keep this book relevant.


717. Flying Scotsman: The Most Famous Steam Locomotive in the World – James S Baldwin

The Flying Scotsman may not be the most famous train in the world, the Orient Express could certainly dispute that claim to fame, but in the very late 1920s and through the 1930s, it was undoubtedly true. This book tells the whole story of the iconic train from its creation, through to the speed record of 1928 (the first train to achieve 100 miles per hour), its subsequent service, near-scrapping, rescue, and restoration. 120 pages, 9 used from $7.36 and 22 new from $8.62.


718. Flying Scotsman: LNER Class A3 Pacific 4472, 1923 onwards (Owners’ Workshop Manual) – Philip Atkins

What’s involved in maintaining, operating and restoring the iconic train. This is highly detailed manual, based around 4472’s recent overhaul and subsequent return to main-line operation, also looks in detail at every aspect of its engineering and construction, and serves as a prototype for the maintenance and operation of railroad engines and carriages in general.


719. TossnyBlog (in Japanese)

The post to which we have linked has a high-resolution map of the track layout at New York’s Grand Central Station.


Books About Trade

We aren’t recommending any books in this category as specifically relevant because we haven’t found an interesting or comprehensive one yet. In fact, we couldn’t find any books on trade in the 1930s! The books listed below are general histories of trade that will at least provide a foundation, plus a couple of books on specific commodities of note in the pulp era. Beyond that, we recommend using the internet (especially Wikipedia) by commodity for specifics of trade in the period in that resource.

There may be additional recommendations relating to this topic in the treasure section of the “Things” shelf and the forthcoming “Everyday Life” shelf.


720. A Splendid Exchange: How Trade Shaped The World – William J Bernstein

A comprehensive narrative history of world trade, starting with Mesopotamia in the year 3000 BC and running all the way through to the debate over globalization today. One reviewer felt that the author had let subjective opinion unbalance the book, leading to (for example) underplaying the Mongol conquests relative to the depredations of the Portuguese who are repeatedly demonized, even characterized as the “most brutal trading nation” of their era. Most, however, laud the book as extremely readable and of top quality.

Paperback, 496 pages, 54 new from $5.90, 69 used from $0.01.


721. The World That Trade Created: Society, Culture, and the World Economy 1400 to the Present (2nd Ed) – Steven Topik and Kenneth Pomeranz

“Why are railroad tracks separated by the same four feet, eight inches as ancient Roman roads? How did 19th-century Europeans turn mountains of bird excrement from Peru into mountains of gold? Where has most of the world’s oil come from in the 20th century?”

This book presents a series of brief, highly readable 2-4 page vignettes that bring to life the complex world of international trade and its principals – migrants and merchants, pirates and privateers, sailors and slaves, traders and tree-tappers. Importantly, the focus is less euro-centric than most such books, with several chapters devoted to the Far East and South America. However, the author’s cynicism and disapproval of European colonial expansion is a recurring theme that some reviewers find objectionable.

This doesn’t attempt to be a comprehensive work on the subject; its focus is on anecdotes that are accessible to the lay reader. That makes the contents directly valuable to the pulp GM who can turn those anecdotes into the foundations or settings of adventures.

Paperback, 304 pages, 18 new from $14.88, 89 used from $0.01.

There is also a (more recent) third edition at completely ridiculous prices.


722. Food In History – Reay Tannahill

Food is one of the most commonly-traded commodities, and trade in foodstuffs has influenced the course of great nations and mighty empires for all of recorded history and probably longer. Occasionally sparkling with wit, this is an overview of the role played by food in human history, complimented by anecdotal excursions, such as the role played by Cinnamon in the discovery of America and how food has influenced population growth and urban expansion.

It is the latter that is most directly pertinent to the pulp era; this was the time in which industrial refrigeration began, revolutionizing the preservation of foodstuffs, permitting a vast increase in the gastronomic sophistication of cities all over the world and an urban concentration of population that would have been impossible previously for reasons of brutal logistics.

There are more comprehensive books on the subject, but this seems better-suited to the needs of a pulp GM.
Paperback, 448 pages, 44 new from $9.06, 130 used from $0.01. There are also a limited number of copies with library-reinforced binding, but these cost more than our limits.


723. The Devil’s Milk: A Social History of Rubber – John Tully

Rubber is one of the wonder-materials that is responsible for the industrial revolution and the modern world, and that has fueled an insatiable demand that resulted in seemingly endless exploitation, conquest, slavery, and all the other worst traits of humanity coming to the fore. Mike has seen suggestions that the primary objective of the Japanese in World War II was control over the world’s rubber supply, and while that might be an exaggeration, it isn’t beyond the reach of plausibility. Kindle ($12.55) and Paperback, 416 pages, 18 used from $19.96 and 22 New from $23.92. There is also a hardcover edition, but copies in that format command high prices.


724. Mine to Mill: History of the Great Lakes Iron Trade from the Iron Ranges to Sault Ste. Marie – Phillip J Stager

The history of the iron ore trade on the Great Lakes, from 1900 to 1980, in visual form courtesy of photographs and reproduced picture postcards.

Contains nearly 300 views of the mines, railroads, loading docks, and ships of the Great Lakes. 128 pages, Hardcover, 11.6 x 8.7 inches, 14 used from $10.91 and 29 new from $20.61.


(597 repeat): Metal Prices in the United States through 1998 – US Geological Survey (US Department Of The Interior)

This link appeared on the previous shelf, but we had to include it a second time around. You’ll see why if you compare the two entries.

This is an invaluable *free* PDF which you can download from this link. The prices quoted are all in 1998 dollars, but there are a number of websites that will handle a conversion to 1920s or 193x currency for you, like this one, or this alternative. There is also an updated version that is available as a website and a spreadsheet and runs through to 2010:

We usually simply divide by 10 to get a close-enough number, but bear in mind that in the Adventurer’s Club world, the Great Depression was neither as deep nor as protracted as it was in real history. Game-mid-1930s is thus more like real-1940 in terms of market recovery.

Mike mentioned this PDF in an example in his article at Campaign Mastery, Lightning Research: Maximum Answers in Minimum Time, but didn’t include a link, saving that for this article/series. He also described how he and Blair use the information in another article, Oddities Of Values: Recalculating the price of valuables, which readers may find worth referencing.


Books About Cars & related Road Vehicles

All the books that we originally shortlisted to recommend are too limited in available copies to make the list. But we needed something for this category, and so have searched out books that seem promising but which have not been personally reviewed. There will be a list of books that failed to make the cut for one reason or another in the final part of the series; you may want to chase down one of the few copies of one of our preferred recommendations.

Some trivia that will be of value to GMs of pulp-era games: Tires weren’t black until 1912, when carbon was added to them for the first time. These were narrow-rims that visually remind viewers more of bicycle tires, and even into the early pulp period, tires were only a couple of inches across the face of the tread and relatively rounded in profile. By the 1930s, that had changed and tires were three or four inches wide – a fairly modern width – offering vastly greater contact with the road surface. There’s a heavy reliance on photographic resources in this section for good reason, and one of the first things that we always look at are the tyres. Handling, top speed, the likelihood of breaking a rim in rough terrain, and the all-important flavor text of what the vehicle felt like to ride in, all can be surmised based on this one factor alone.



725. Automobile Magazine’s A-Z of Cars of the 1920s – Nick Baldwin

British-built cars from the 1920s and a chapter on American-made imports of the period. Each entry has a good quality photograph and a bare-bones description with very limited information. There are more copies available than the ones we have linked to but they are up to $886 a copy. There aren’t really enough copies of this to list, either, but books on cars of the 20s are relatively hard to find. Even if the cover does look like one of those auto-trader sell-it-yourself magazines.

Hardcover 224 pages, only 13 copies available starting at $16.94 used.


726. A-Z of Cars of the 1930s – Michael Sedgewick and Mark Gillies

The title should read “A-Z of British Cars of the 1930s”, just like the previous listing. If that’s what you’re looking for, excellent – but there are only 10 copies available through Amazon at reasonable prices. This is allegedly the most comprehensive work of its kind, and that’s the only reason we’ve made an exception to our usual standards and listed it. Paperback, 216 pages, from $10.65 used.


727. Anglo-American Cars: From the 1930s to the 1970s (Those were the days…) – Norman Mort

Has a whole 16 pages on Cars of the 1930s. Nice photos, histories, original adverts – but short on technical detail, and nothing from the 1920s. Though it’s not the only book on this list to fail in that respect. At least there are a reasonable number of copies available at reasonable prices. Although the page count of 96 pages puts the price-tag (copies start from $3.34 used) into a new perspective. There are even a few new copies within our price range!


728. Vintage Cars: Motoring In The 1920s – Cyril Posthumous

This is one of the few reference book on 1920s vehicles as they were that we could locate. It is available in sufficient quantities at less than our threshold price but is more concerned with the history than with individual models and makers. Information may be hard to extract. Furthermore, coverage of American vehicles may be limited as Hamlyn is a British Publisher.


729. Concept Cars: From the 1930s to the Present – Larry Edsall

At first we were going to lose this from the list because it seems more about prototypes and more modern vehicles than the Pulp era, but then we thought, if anyone is likely to be running around in something that could be described as experimental, it’s a pulp character (hero or villain)…

Hardcover, 220 pages, 78 used copies starting at 1 cent, 17 new copies starting at $18.98.


730. American Road: The Story of an Epic Transcontinental Journey at the Dawn of the Motor Age – Pete Davies

On July 7, 1919, a cavalcade of sixty-nine military motor vehicles set off from the White House on an epic journey. Their goal was California, and ahead of them lay 3,250 miles of mud and rock. Sixty-two days later they arrived in San Francisco, having averaged just five miles an hour.

The purpose of this incredible expedition, carried out at government instigation, was to crystallize the need for good roads. En route to their destination, trucks foundered in mud, crashed through wooden bridges, and got beaten to pieces on byways barely better than trails. Modern motorists will be surprised to learn just how bad things were back then, but the story behind the undertaking is equally interesting. Automobile and tire manufacturers, who stood to gain if newly car-crazy citizens had smooth roads to travel, managed to drive the government their way; the grueling journey captured the American imagination and spurred road building to a fervor only interrupted by World War II.

228 pages, hardcover (22 New from $6.82, 5 collectible from $9.85, 52 used from $0.01) or paperback (9 New from $20.99, 2 collectible from $9.85, 25 used from $0.01).


731. Car Country: An Environmental History (Weyerhaeuser Environmental Books) – Christopher W Wells

The United States is Car Country, according to the author; a nation dominated by landscapes that are difficult, inconvenient, and often unsafe to navigate except when sitting behind the wheel of a car. “The prevalence of car-dependent landscapes seems perfectly natural to us today, but it is, in fact, a relatively new historical development. In Car Country, Wells rejects the idea that the nation’s automotive status quo can be explained as a simple byproduct of an ardent love affair with the automobile. Instead, he takes readers on a tour of the evolving American landscape, charting the ways that transportation policies and land-use practices have combined to reshape nearly every element of the built environment around the easy movement of automobiles.” The foundations for the modern automotive-friendly landscape were laid during the pulp era, as the preceding recommendation makes clear. If “American Road” asks the question, this is the story of the answers that were found, showing how the landscape made the dominance of the automobile in American society an inevitability, and how the car reshaped that landscape.

There is a book that will be listed in the honorable mentions section that we would love to have included as “the other half of the story” immediately after this book. Entitled “Drive On!”, it is the story of how the car evolved in response to the demands being placed on it by society. But while there are enough copies to justify inclusion, they are so far outside the range of acceptable pricing that it simply wasn’t feasible.

Kindle $23.34, Paperback, 464 pages, 18 used from $13.74, 32 new from $14.87, Hardcover 25 used from $17.34 and 22 new from $54.19.


732. Great Car Craze: How Southern California Collided With the Automobile in the 1920s – Ashleigh Brilliant

“With keen perception, serious scholarship and wry amusement, Ashleigh Brilliant, not only a famous epigrammatist but also an accomplished historian, recounts the profound social effects of our mass conversion to the automobile age in the 1920s.” Hardcover, 208 pages, 17 used from $9.03, 5 New from $19.95, 4 Collectible from $11.25.


733. The Car: The History of the Automobile – Jonathan Glancey

There are lost of histories of the car. We’ve chosen two that seemed to offer all the choice necessary – this 256-page overview, which purports to be comprehensive but doesn’t have room to even come close to it, and the alternative listed below.

Hardcover: 19 used from $7.19, 10 new and 1 collectible at too-much or more.

Paperback: 15 used from $6.77, 25 new from $6.78.


734. The Life of the Automobile: The Complete History of the Motor Car – Steven Parissien

At 448 pages, this comes closer to being able to accommodate “comprehensive”, in our opinion, and claims nothing less in its cover text. In fact, it’s still limited to a very America-centric perspective; don’t expect to see much on anything not sold there. Don’t look for the Tatra 11 (a Czech car) or the ZIL-41047 (Russian), for example.

We came close to pulling it out of the list, however, because there are reports that it is riddled with inaccuracies. Reviewer J Fuzz offered a list of examples that had him wondering if anything the book said could or should be trusted:

  • “He says that GM divested itself of the Dodge brand. Neat trick, considering they never owned it.
  • “The Pontiac GTO was introduced in 1962. Sorry, it came out in 1964.
  • “The Datsun 240Z was introduced with the 510 4-cylinder engine. Not right. It was a straight-6.
  • “The Prius came out in 2004. No, it was introduced worldwide in 2000.
  • “Mercedes sport brand is it’s AMF division. AMF IS a sport brand, but only for bowling. Mercedes sport brand is AMG.”

We still think that, provided that due diligence is observed, this could be a useful resource – but with its obvious limitations and flaws, it hardly has our unqualified support, and the price we would be willing to pay certainly deteriorated in light of these reviews. Fortunately, copies are both plentiful and cheap – Kindle: $4.82, Hardcover: 31 used from $2.99, 37 new from $4.99.


735. Cars: The Early Years (Illustrated edition) – Brian Laban with illustrations by Alex Linghorn and Ali Khoja

A book that you buy for the photos. Printed on high quality paper and with good binding. The phrase “The Early Years” is a bit of a misnomer, as the book’s contents range through to the 1950s. Hardcover, 236 pages, 27 used from $2.63, 8 new from $8.21, 3 Collectible from $19.99.


736. Cars: The Early Years – Brian Laban

Seemingly the same book as above, with a different cover, and no mention of the illustrators. Instead, this edition is 352 pages in length. 21 used copies from $3.98 and 17 new from $10.07. Make your own choice but we would probably pick this one, assuming that the greater page count permits greater content; the 120-or-so extra pages seem worth the extra $1.40 or so!


737. The Art of the Automobile: The 100 Greatest Cars – Dennis Adler

The author has taken his own photos of his 100 chosen “best of” for this collection of cars beautiful enough to be (in his eyes) considered works of art. In fact, there are multiple photos for each car, including pictures of the mechanical parts that distinguish them, and that’s a distinction that, in turn, distinguishes this book from the others of the type. Several of which we have also recommended. 256 pages, 12” x 9”, Hardcover; 62 used from $4.31, 39 new from $19.85, 2 Collectible from $20.00.


738. Motor Cars of the 1930s (Shire Library) – Ian Dussek

We had high hopes when we saw this listed in our search results. It is, after all, right on point, and quite affordably-priced, even if there aren’t quite enough copies to meet our usual standards. There’s no real product description, but given how obviously pertinent it was, even that would not have put us off. Then we noticed the page count: 32 pages. Decide for yourself if it’s worth it, we were immediately torn.

Paperback, 10 used from $12.11, 8 new from $3.05.


739. Just 30s – Angelo Van Boggart

This is more like what we expected the preceding book to be like, but we were more than a little put off by the collage-style cover which makes it look like a cheaply-produced mass-market magazine. Nevertheless, the details are all good – 144 pages, written by the publisher of Old Cars Weekly and the Price Guide, and a list of the innovations which appeared in the course of the decade (most of which would go on to become standard fittings (pneumatic tires, hydraulic brakes) and default industry practices, like the annual “facelift” to the designs. Paperback, 18 used copies from $0.14, 11 new from $6.75.


740. American Trucks of the Early Thirties (Olyslager Auto Library) – edited by Bart H Vanderveen

Amazon lists this as selling in the Children’s books category; the fact is that we know next to nothing more than what we’ve already told you about this book. Quite clearly it’s period-relevant. We can also state that finding photographs of period trucks is a LOT harder than photographs of period cars. So we’re inclined to give this book the benefit of the doubt, even in the face of the dearth of information. 64 pages, 18 used from $0.01, 5 new from $58.64.


741. American Trucks of the Late Thirties (Olyslager Auto Library) – edited by Bart H Vanderveen

The obvious companion volume to the previous listing. Again, Hardcover, 64 pages in length. 23 Used copies from $1.58, 1 Collectible from $29.00 and 5 New from $64.

To put those page lengths in perspective: contemplate the combined price as though you were buying a single book of 128 pages. $1.59? Sounds fair enough. $122 New? Not gonna happen. Somewhere in between is the squeeze point, at which a ready ‘yes’ becomes a firm ‘no way’. We think it’s in the $6-10 range, but your opinion might vary.

Bonus Content by Mike: “Are We There Yet?” –
How Mike & Blair determine travel times on pulp-era roads

Travel times are a three-stage process. The first is average speed (not peak speed), and the second is distance. Combine the two in the third stage and you get travel time.


Stage One: Average Speed

As an avid follower of Formula One and Top Gear, I’m well aware that straight-line top speeds haven’t increased that much over the last couple of decades. The same isn’t true of road cars, which are far less controlled in their specifications, but even so, the greatest improvements have been in road-holding and handling. Even in the pre-war 1930s, Formula 1 cars could hit 200 mph in a straight-line. Not too long ago, a Bugatti Vaeron set a new record of 267mph, something that I understand has since been beaten by a small amount. Regardless, let’s say 70mph increase between 1938 and 2016 (an interval of 78 years) – that’s a smidgen less than 1mph per year, average.

In truth, there was a lot of increase in the 20 years after the war, and then things seemed to bottom out for a long time, and only in the last ten years or so have has the upward trend been resumed. On that basis, we have set a baseline of +3 mph every 2 years for standard road cars (sports cars and weird science specials are something else again), and a baseline of 50mph average on good roads in 1940. Both rather fuzzy assumptions, but they work well enough. This compares well with modern averages – and these days you can assume that roads are 1930s-“good” quality everywhere, sometimes better.

Over dirt roads, the period average is halved – which is a big improvement over the average recorded just two years earlier in the story described in American Road (listed above for your consideration).

Both types of roads are then subclassified into three conditions: Good, Okay, and Poor. Each step down the order subtracts 5 mph from the average speed. Rain or adverse conditions subtracts up to another 6 mph, usually 3 (it’s easy to roll a d6 for how bad conditions are). Mountainous terrain with its hills and multiplicity of curves and bends subtracts another 5.

The combination tells us what the average speeds are depending on the road type and quality.

If you get a speed of 0, obviously, you are going nowhere. If you get a speed of less than zero, the GM can inflict a problem appropriate to the situation – the car may get bogged, or throw a tyre. PCs can go faster than these speeds by making a driving roll; each point by which they succeed lets them travel under control at an average 1 mph faster. However, the player has to specify his speed and then roll to keep control, and the GMs can ask for another roll any time they deem it warranted, and can also impose penalties to the roll if that seems appropriate – an icy patch or oil slick or whatever.

Another consideration is the year of manufacture of the vehicle. A car or motorcycle from 1924 is not going to be as good in 1930 as a car built in 1930. A simple rule of thumb is to average the two to get road conditions and vehicle capability – so the example would yield 1927, which on the table would be rounded up to 1928 capabilities.

The tables spell out the basic speeds according to the above rules. Click on the tables to download a version more suitable for printing.

Stage Two: Distance

This used to be so easy using Google Maps. You told it the start point and the end point, and it plotted a route. We made the basic assumption that unless it clearly paralleled an existing set of roads, highways and freeways and what have you from the modern era were all present back then. Then it was just a matter of allocating road conditions to each section of the trip. Our whole methodology was based on this technology.

Well, it’s not there anymore. Google have changed maps – for the worse in many ways, at least for our purposes. Maps don’t even fill the entire screen any more, and there’s no longer a scale provided. As a result, it’s been necessary to evolve a workaround that’s a lot more complicated and fiddly.

In order to explain it clearly, I need to demonstrate it, and that requires an example. I decided to use one from a real adventure – Driving from New York City to New Orleans, just because it was the last one that we did the “old” way, which took about 15 minutes. The amount of work now involved will enable a direct comparison with the old technique.

Step one: Screen Grabs

We start by grabbing as many screen grabs as we think we need to show the whole route at a large enough zoom that we can see major and minor cities. We aren’t worried about small towns.

In this case, that was seven – and there should have been an eighth, as you’ll see. Each one then has to get cropped and compiled into one large image. It took about 5 minutes, two of which were spent getting the right zoom level and finding the starting point.

Step Two: Overlay Grabs

Since each of the seven grabs is on a separate layer, and my software lets me control the opacity of each individually, it’s easy to stitch them together into one larger map.

As you can see, I should have grabbed the upper part of the Florida peninsula as well; the map looks strange without it.

One of the good things about the new Google Maps is that – so long as you don’t change the zoom level – place names and state names don’t move as you pan around. That makes it easy to produce a seamless map. This took another 5 minutes.

Step Three: Duplicate layer and merge mode

The colors of the map aren’t distinct enough for me to be able to manipulate it as easily as I would like in subsequent steps, so the third step is to duplicate the merged layer of map pieces twice. I sharpen one of them, and apply a brightness/contrast adjustment to both duplicates that makes the dark colors darker and the light colors a lighter. I then set both layers to a merge mode of multiply and play around with the opacity levels until I’m satisfied with the result. The image above is the result in this case – duplicate layer one was 100% opaque, duplicate layer one was 30% opaque. This is fairly typical, though I may need to lower the second one to 20% to hide jpg imperfections resulting from the sharpening.

The results dramatically improve the legibility of the map when printed on a black-and-white laser printer, or when being displayed on a laptop at a distance from a player.

This took less than a minute because I’m very familiar with the technique; the first few times, it took a LOT longer.

Step Four: Select Route(s)

With the new, darker colors for the roads, it’s easy to do a “select all of a certain color” using the standard settings and be confident of (a) getting all the road that I want, and (b) getting nothing else. I can then zoom into the map and using a colored paintbrush on a new layer, mark out the route to be followed. In this case, there were two obvious alternatives, so I did the first in Red and the second in purple where it diverged from the first.

To make them stand out a little more, given that I was going to be reducing the images a LOT in size (to about 12% of the actual size I was working at) I’ve faded those multiplying layers somewhat. This took about 5 minutes.

Step Five: Mark the Good and Road Zone

We decided a long time ago that the northeastern states all have good condition main roads. This is where the money is, this is where the manufacturing is, this is where the demand for cars would be greatest, and hence, where the demand for good roads would be greatest.

We call this the “good road zone” and it’s quick and easy to draw in and fill an overlay to indicate it on a new layer. In general, we aren’t worried about the shape of it, just where we think it will cut across our routes. We generally use the density of modern roads as an indicator.

This takes only a few seconds. Call it half a minute, to be on the safe side.

Step Six: A measuring Stick

From looking at another map – one with a scale – we know that Philadelphia is roughly 100 miles from New York City. So that’s our rough-and-ready measuring stick. I draw a straight line on yet another new layer between the two, and then a vertical and horizontal line from the end points to form a triangle.

In this image, I’ve turned off the routes layer and cropped a copy of the working image to illustrate the process, so this shows the actual size of the image that I was working on without shrinking it at all.

This takes much less than half a minute.

Step Seven: A colored dot

The next thing I do is create a filled circle in an appropriate color on another new layer. Then I resize and reposition it until the edges JUST cover the New York to Philadelphia line. I will generally get to within a few percent of the right size if I start my circle at the right angle of the triangle and draw out at a right angle to the hypotenuse until I reach the “measuring stick”; the closer to 45 degrees the hypotenuse is, the more accurate this guesstimate method becomes.

The result is a transparent dot that is roughly 100 miles in diameter.

I will then surround it with a border to make it a little easier to spot, creating that on another layer, reducing the opacity of the dot, and then merging the two layers.

All this takes only about half a minute.

Step Eight: Okay Road Zones around the major cities

We have arbitrarily decided that the major cities would all be surrounded with okay-quality roads for a radius of 50 miles. We use the size of the city name font as our guide. In this case, we decided that Atlanta and Charlotte looked big enough on the map to qualify. So I duplicated the circle and centered one around each of these centers. (Note that other places may have been large enough but weren’t on our routes).

This shows the whole map, plus – in an inset – a zoomed crop. Also, obviously, I’ve turned the route back on, so you can see how prominently it shows up against the main Good road zone.

Also, quite obviously, there’s no need for any inside the main “good zone”.

Another half-minute, maybe longer if there are more major cities.

Step Nine: Okay road zones around minor cities

I take a duplicate of one of the dots and shrink it 50% to get one that’s about 50 miles in diameter. I then position and duplicate this as necessary until every minor city on the route outside the good zone.

As a general rule of thumb, we assume that any road major enough to show up at this zoom scale and east of the Mississippi and north of the Gulf is Of Mexico is going to be a sealed road, no matter how badly constructed. That means that none of these roads are going to be dirt roads. Farther west, until you reach the far side of the rockies, you can’t make any such assumption. California is considered a mix of good paved major roads and okay-or-worse dirt minor roads, not from any personal knowledge, but because it seems right.

This took another couple of minutes. If there had been additional time spent on more major cities, it would have reduced the time in this step, so the total would have been more or less the same.

Step Ten: Adding an Okay-Zone “Fringe” to the main “Good Road Zone”

Departing the “Good Road Zone” shouldn’t by like flipping a switch. There should be some fuzziness – but because you’re only concerned with one or two routes, this can be fairly rough and ready.

I duplicated one of the minor city zones, color-shifted it to a reddish-purple (because it stood out) and then duplicated it a bunch of times. I then placed these around the edge of the “good road zone” and – on a new layer – draw a rough “Okay zone” from edge to edge, then filled it.

I would normally then turn off the markers, or – more accurately – reposition them in step eleven, but I have left them in place and visible so that you can see the technique. Time: another two minutes.

Step Eleven: A rough mountainous zone

We have a rough idea where the mountainous regions are in the US. With that knowledge as a guide, I surrounded the national parks with more marker rings (reusing the ones from step 10 and adding more as necessary), then once again drew a rough shape around their perimeters. I selected the interior and filled it in to show mountainous road zones. I then shrank that selection by about 4/5ths of the width of one of the marker circles in pixels and applied a second “coating” of the fill to make it darker.

This gives me a “dirt road zone” and a paved mountain road zone surrounding it. Not that I would expect to need it on this particular road trip, but you should always make allowances for the PCs going off-track or taking a wrong turn.

Once again, I’ve left the marker circles in place so that you can see the technique as well as the result. This took about 5 minutes. Using the old Google, it would have been a snap to turn on satellite view for a second or two to do the same thing with far greater accuracy.

Step Twelve: Add a scale

I drew a black rectangle on a new layer and duplicated it. I filled one with black and one with white, lined them up, and merged them together, then duplicated that a few times until I had a scale. I added some text to give meaning to the scale.

Turning everything on that should show up and everything off that shouldn’t produces the finished map:

It took about three minutes to make this scale in a new layer using one of the large “okay zones” as a guide, and another 30 seconds to position it. I notice that I missed something though – the Charlotte good-roads zone is not visible. No matter; I know that the purple OK zone is 50 miles wide, I can see that Charlotte is right on the edge of it, and that it’s about as far again to the next OK zone – so the entire purple road to the edge of the overlapping OK zones is actually a good road, it’s just not shown as that.

It’s also worth noting that we would have produced a small-scale overall map about twice the size of the one above but kept the working map full-sized – so that towns and states can be read clearly.

Total time to replace what we used to do in less than a minute: about 29-and-a-half minutes.

Stage Three: Combining

For stage three, we make a list of all the changes of zone or road quality in the order they take place, and use the scale to roughly estimate the length of each – to the nearest ten or twenty miles, greater accuracy isn’t needed.

We then look at each and decide “does anything happen here?” We will also deal with what the weather is going to be.

Because we don’t know how fast the PCs will choose to drive, we can’t do much more. But when the time comes, we can use the tables, and the PCs desire to risk speed, to calculate the travel time for each leg in just a second or so. The PCs can then inform us if they are stopping somewhere for lunch or coffee or whatever.

As it happened on the day, the PCs made a wrong turn in Atlanta and cut across the mountains, where they had an encounter with old-school moonshiners who didn’t seem to have gotten the message that prohibition had been repealed. There was some fun and games and some Dukes Of Hazzard action. Eventually, though, they reached their destination, taking it in turns behind the wheels of their two vehicles.

Okay, back to the reviews and recommendations!


Books About Motorcycles

Most books aren’t available in enough copies to make our list; our standards have had to be compromised so that we had something to offer.



742. Motor Cycling: A History of the Early Motorcycle – John H. Wyatt

There is a growing publishing sub-industry in reprinting old books that are now out of copyright at minimal prices and with generic covers. This is another of the products of that sub-industry, reprinting a book originally published in 1925. The paperback edition to which we have linked has a plain red cover; we’re showing the more visually-attractive faux-textured hardcover.

The book itself is a detailed guide, packed with photos and diagrams, and is as much a how-to guide as a history, with chapters such as “Reliability of Magnetos”, “Accessories, Spares and Tools”, “Driving and Up Keep: Starting the Engine, Gear Changing, etc”, and “Troubles on the Road: Refusal to Start, Choked Petrol Pipe or Jet etc”. This makes it invaluable for the pulp GM who wants to replicate the real-life difficulties that might be encountered by a PC using such a vehicle!

148 pages, Kindle $6.44 (but most Kindle editions are without the photos and diagrams, be warned), Paperback 8 used copies from $25.43 and 19 new from $15.98. The prices of hardcover copies are in the $37+ range.


743. Great British Motorcycles of the 1930s – Bob Currie

While British cars were not as successful as American ones for many years (except in the luxury department) the same cannot be said of British motorcycles. This a slightly-small coffee-table sized book, few details provided. 144 pages, 10 used copies from $3.40, 8 new from $22.28.


744. British Motorcycles Of The 30s – Roy Bacon

Again, not much in the way of details, and the majority of what is known comes from a reader’s review: “Written by a true authority on the subject, but no pictures of many important models. Packed with information for the vintage Brit bike enthusiast. A few annoying typos…” Hardcover, no page count, 15 used copies from $0.76, 5 new from $84.95. There is also another hardcover edition with prices in the hundreds of US dollars.


Books About Tanks & other armored vehicles



745. Tanks Of The World 1915-1945 – Peter Chamberlain & Chris Ellis

Extensive coverage, detailed information, includes experimental models and prototypes. Each vehicle has notes on design, production, and performance. While there is a volume in the honorable mentions that would be our first choice, availability leaves this as our first practical choice.


746. Tanks and other AFVs of the Blitzkrieg Era 1939-1941 – B T White

Although it isn’t obvious, there is a lot of technical info in the back, after the mass of lovely color pictures. There is a second volume covering 1942-1945 but that is much less useful for a Pulp Campaign.

There are some copies of the 39-41 volume available at this link and more at this one


747. Bulletproof A History of Armored Cars and the colorful characters who Ran Them, Rode Them, and sometimes Robbed Them – James L. Dunbar and Robert Grant Kingwell

There are mixed reviews of this book (of which none of the authors of this article have personal experience) at Amazon, but it is the only work that we could find on the subject in general, and is cheap enough that GMs can probably afford to take a chance on. The title sounds incredibly on-target for a pulp resource, and that’s all that we’ve got (since the two reviews contradict each other so comprehensively that we can’t trust either of them).


748. Early Armoured Cars (Shire Library) – E Bartholomew

We’ve reviewed another book from Shire Library (Motor Cars of the 1930s) above. Virtually every word of that review applies to this book as well. But we can state as fact that images and details of early armored cars are even harder to come across than images of ordinary trucks, and beggars can’t be choosers. 64 pages, 16 used copies from $4.45, 9 new copies from $11.00.



Afterword by Mike:

The most important question for a GM to be able to answer, when it comes to pulp vehicles, is, “Are we there yet?” Knowing how long it takes to get from A to B – and allowing for transit times when developing plots – is one of the most important characteristics of any vehicle in the era. And, just because it wouldn’t work or wouldn’t be practical in the real world is no reason for it not to exist in a pulp environment.

Once that critical consideration is dealt with, there are a host of subsidiary possibilities and traits to consider.

For the adventurer’s club campaign, we once came up with an aircraft that ran ballast along guy wires to change the center of gravity, obtaining a tighter turning circle and greater acrobatic maneuverability than any real-world aircraft then in existence (typically, of course, we had a PC test-pilot the thing while hunting for someone who was sabotaging the project). Never neglect the potential of a vehicle to serve as a location for adventure.

Pulp vehicles should be faster, stronger, tougher – or more sumptuous, or more decrepit. They will always be more dangerous. As with so many things Pulp, “More” is the operative adjective all things should have in common.


Next: The 8th shelf: Civilian Life!

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Blog Carnival November 2016: The Extraordinary Life of a Fantasy PC Pt 2

rpg blog carnival logo

This is the second half of this article; the first dealt with character backstories during character generation, and this deals with making use of them once play has started.

It is also the third of five articles scheduled to be part of the November 2016 Blog Carnival, which Campaign Mastery is hosting. The carnival subject is “ordinary life” – in this case, the ordinary life of a PC, and how to create plots and subplots using the character profile generated in the first article as a foundation.

I should add that while it is intended for fantasy games such as Pathfinder and D&D, it can be used with any genre.


So you’ve got a shiny new PC Profile, generated using the method outlined in Part 1 of this double act, or some reasonable analogue thereof, and it’s time to generate some plot connections or subplots using it.

Each of the axioms has at least two ways that they can be applied to this purpose, and on top of that we have the character evolution information that provides context for those axioms. And, of each type of axiom, a player may have none, one, two, or three that he has applied to his specific character.

stone faces

Image credit: / pipp

The axioms, once again, were:

  • Past Successes
  • Past Failures
  • Past Mistakes
  • Past Life Lessons
  • Past Moments Of Danger
  • Past Travels
  • Family Incidents
  • Past Ambitions
  • Fascinations
  • Proximity to key events

and the contextual directions were:

  • Background Context
  • Core Concept
  • Supplementary Words
  • Axiom Sequence
  • Character Direction
  • Character Destination

If you employ the system that was described in the first half of this article, players will allocate 20 axioms to construct their backstory. These are milestones in the evolution of the character’s personality. If you don’t know or don’t recall what is meant by any of them, use the link above to review the definitions before we continue.

Overview of the plot-creation process

There is a basic process to go through when constructing plotlines using a character profile.

  1. Review Profile
  2. Prominence
  3. Direction
  4. Opportunity
  5. Setback
  6. Consequence
  7. Conflict
  8. Confluence
  9. Subplot

All these except the last one take the form of a series of yes/no questions, answered in order until you get to a ‘yes’ response. The final option is the default response that gets selected when there is no higher-priority ‘yes’ response. They identify the nature and extent of the character’s connection to the plotline. I’ll get into specifics shortly.

Once you have a ‘yes’ decision, or have arrived at the final option, a subplot, you enter a second stage of the process. This is similar in all cases, identical in many of them:

  1. Axiom Selection
  2. Relevance
  3. Defined Elements
  4. Undefined Elements
  5. Theme/Counterpoint/Side-issue
  6. Story
  7. Intensity/Tone
  8. Timing
  9. Execution

That all sounds like a lot of work, but each step is usually short (with the probable exception of the last one, Execution) – a matter of seconds, and more often a handful or two than a more substantial number of them. The theoretical minimum is about 20 seconds, plus however long is spent on execution, which depends on GMing style and the depth of prep that you like to undertake prior to play. But, in practice, and when your imagination is fired up, inspiration can actually drop that time to a quarter of that or less. I encourage that process with a step zero, as shown above – not strictly necessary, but it has proven beneficial so often that it’s a standard part of my routine, and strongly recommended.

So that’s the overview. Let’s step through it in detail.

Phase 1: Seven Decisions

The process assumes that you have a rough idea of what the main plotline is going to be, even if the details are vague, that can be expressed in a simple statement. This could be a high concept – “What is a monster?” – or a plot direction – “The PCs inherit an enemy from the previous generation of heroes” or “Magnetic-Man makes his move” – or a reaction/question – “The PCs have made an enemy of Lord Bedswick, what happens?” or “The PCs are questing for the Unholy Cross of Vladimax, what do they find?”.

Step 0: Review Profile

Start by refreshing your memory of the character’s profile. You don’t have to read the entire backstory – use the development notes as an index and worry about the specifics when you know what part of it will be relevant.

Once that’s done, you can start asking the questions. Remember, stop as soon as you get a strong “yes” and move to the second phase; a “maybe” is a “yes” only if you don’t get a firm “yes” further down the list. Don’t agonize over these questions; they should be made bang-bang-bang-bang, a succession of snap judgments. It’s easy to over-think and over-analyze and fall into a trap engendered by wishful thinking which relies on events playing out according to a script; counter that by not giving yourself enough time to formulate a script in the first place. Use your first instincts, and you will be right more often than not.

Step 1: Prominence

How prominent is the character’s involvement in the plotline to be? Is this a star vehicle for the PC, or for a different PC, or is this more of an ensemble moment? Refer “Ensemble or Star Vehicle – Which is Your RPG Campaign?” for discussion of the decision.

Another way of phrasing this question can be, “is this to be a pivotal event, another milestone in the character’s evolution?”

This is a critical question because it determines whether or not the adventure will feature the PC, or if the character’s participation will be less-central. It shapes the weight that is attached to a ‘yes’ response to any of the subsequent questions, and is the only one of these questions that does not lead immediately to Phase 2 in the event of an affirmative response.

Step 2: Direction

Can the planned adventure advance the character in the direction that the player wants him to go? What circumstances are needed to encourage this?

Step 3: Opportunity

Does the planned adventure open a previously-closed door for the character that will enable him to advance in the direction the player desires at some future point?

Step 4: Setback

Does the planned adventure place a roadblock in front of the character direction desired by the player that will have to be overcome? Can that overcoming be part of the rewards for success in this adventure or will it have to wait for a subsequent one?

No development should come without the occasional struggle, the occasional temptation to turn aside. As a GM, you aren’t required to ensure that a PC achieves his ambitions, but you are required to present him with the opportunities to do so.

Step 5: Consequence

Has the character recently taken a step in the direction that the player wants, and if so, is there a consequence or ramification that can be highlighted by the adventure?

Step 6: Conflict

Does the desired direction of the PC conflict with that of another, and if so, does this adventure offer an opportunity to highlight and/or resolve this conflict?

Step 7: Confluence

Does the desired direction of the PC accord with the ambitions of another? If so, has this point of mutual desire been explored in the past? And, if not, is this adventure conducive to such an exploration?

Step 8: Subplot

Unless you have a firm “yes” to one of the above, the decision is made that this is NOT a milestone in the life of the character, or at least not intended to be. It is, instead, just part of his ordinary life as it currently stands. Events can still take on a life of their own!

‘Your Mission, Should You Choose To Accept It”

It’s a simple matter to rephrase the question to which you found a ‘yes’ response into an additional piece of description for what the adventure is intended to achieve, a second sentence to the one with which you started, if you will.

But, of course, most campaigns have more than one PC. Let’s say, for example, that there are 4 PCs: if you apply this same process to each of them, you end up with an adventure description that is one-part GM concept and 4 parts PC-driven. That can be a difficult proposition to reconcile and structure, so there are a couple of shortcuts and techniques that I employ so solve the problem.

Rule one: One personal milestone per adventure

As a general rule of thumb, I will only permit one character to achieve a personal milestone per adventure – to be the most prominent ‘star’ of that adventure, in terms of character development. There are times when exceptions will be made, but as a general rule, one is enough, and two are more than enough.

That doesn’t prohibit personal progress, it just means that such progress is not central to the adventure.

Rule Two: Inevitable focus foregos anything but a subplot

Some adventures are naturally going to spotlight a particular PC for one reason or another. If an Adventurer’s Club adventure has a supernatural element, we know in advance that Father O’Malley will feature. If there’s a military or maritime situation, we know that Captain Ferguson will already have a good slice of the spotlight, and so on.

The same is true in my fantasy campaigns; each PC has something distinctive that the blend of player and character brings to the group, and some adventures focus more intently on those elements of the party. That doesn’t mean that the others are irrelevant; just that they aren’t central to the plot.

While they might still receive a subplot, a ‘what have you been doing lately’, I’ll try to avoid making it especially personally significant because they are already receiving a greater share of the spotlight in the adventure.

Rule Three: Subplots come in two grades: Minor and Major

A minor subplot is more incidental, less significant, and less transformative, than a major subplot. It matters less, and it’s more a case of the character simply experiencing his life as he is currently living it.

Compiling the Adventure Description

Examples are sometimes a difficult proposition. While they can be illustrative, making something clear that isn’t obvious, they can also be a trap when they are just one of many possibilities. To address a process in general terms, an example can be counterproductive.

For that reason, I didn’t want to include an example in this section; but I’ve found that one is necessary or the process becomes too vague to be understood.

So, let’s assume that there are four PCs: Adam, Baker, Carlos, and Deborah. Adam is going to naturally feature in the adventure, so he gets only a minor subplot at best. The list of questions produced only “No” answers for Baker, so he will receive a major subplot to compensate for his reduced involvement in the main adventure. The plot could present Carlos with a Setback (from a Step 4 “yes” for Carlos), or it could highlight a conflict between what Carlos wants and what Deborah wants (a “yes” in Step 6 for Deborah, with Carlos as the other party member involved). Normally, rule one would force a choice between the two, but in this case, the two obviously dovetail: Carlos encounters a set-back in his personal development and Deborah has to choose between what she wants and what Carlos wants, a significant step in the relationship between them.

If the potential conflict was with Adam, say, instead of Carlos, then rule one would definitely be in effect, and I would have to choose between them. Such choices are most easily guided by future opportunities: If the choice is between a milestone for Carlos and one for Deborah, I would look at which one I’m more likely to have a future opportunity to explore; the other one gets the nod.

But I also consider how long it’s been since the character had a prominent advance in their development; if Carlos has just had a milestone, I’m more likely to give it to Deborah even if opportunities for Carlos are relatively few and far between.

To be candidly honest, I try to avoid this problem arising in the first place by altering my planned adventure sequence. A lot of my campaign planning is aimed at distributing opportunities and spotlight time evenly amongst the PCs. Blair (my co-GM in the Adventurer’s Club campaign), for example, doesn’t like hard SF and “Cosmic” adventures, while Vala (one of the PCs in the Zenith-3 campaign) and Runeweaver (another of those PCs) lend themselves to those types of adventure, respectively. But that’s not all there is to either of those characters, so for each adventure focusing on those natural proclivities, there will be another that focuses on some other aspect of their characters, and two that are more humanist – emotional or humanitarian – in focus, and one or two that are detective/mystery stories (to suit the remaining PC), and one or two general romps. You can read more about the techniques that I employ in another of my older articles, “Scenario Sequencing: Structuring Campaign Flow“.

Getting back to the example, we have:

  • The main plot idea from the GM, featuring Adam, with significant personal developments for Carlos and Deborah;
  • A Major subplot revolving around Baker;
  • Possible minor subplots for Adam, Carlos, and Deborah, though one of those might lead into the main plotline instead of being a standalone sub-adventure,

…but, we could have just as easily have had:

  • The main plot idea from the GM, featuring Adam, with significant personal development for Carlos;
  • A Major subplot revolving around Baker;
  • A Major subplot revolving around Deborah;
  • Possible minor subplots for Adam and Carlos,


  • The main plot idea from the GM, featuring Adam, with significant personal development for Deborah;
  • A Major subplot revolving around Baker;
  • A Major subplot revolving around Carlos;
  • and Possible minor subplots for Adam and Deborah,

Some adventures feature more than one character; in our planning for the Adventurer’s Club campaign, we even have a few that feature *all* of them prominently. So the composition of each adventure will change depending on the nature of the adventure.

I should also point out that some subplots can be such that another PC is likely to become involved. Such involvement counts as a minor subplot for the involved character, or increases an existing minor subplot for that character to the equivalent of a Major one.

What’s the difference between a major and a minor subplot?

In a nutshell: length and complexity. A major subplot can be divided into three or more scenes, a minor one is one, two, or very rarely, three scenes, no more. It’s all about the screen time.

I don’t have any fantasy examples at hand, so I have selected a pair of examples from a recent Adventurer’s Club adventure, “Boom Town”. Midway through the adventure, which appeared to have concluded with unanswered questions, there was an interval before the second part commenced, during which period each PC had different subplots.

  • Captain Ferguson: Minor subplot: The captain’s ship is commissioned by the Government of San Salvatore to attempt recovery of cargo/treasure/artifacts from a Portuguese shipwreck believed to date back to the 16th century that has recently been discovered in a cave on the north side of Rum Cay in the Bahamas. The wreck might be the Portuguese ship Chagas which was captured after a battle with three English Privateers and sent home as a prize by the commander of the English Fleet, Sir George Clifford, the Earl of Cumberland, the following winter. Under the command of Christopher Lister and with a cargo of looted silver, she was lost with all hands in a gale. The wreck has been found deep in a cave. It’s unclear whether the crew sailed into the cave seeking shelter after being blown off course by the gale or if it was driven there despite their best efforts. It might contain as much as 20 tons of silver, worth as much in 1930s dollars as US$317,274.82 (Modern equivalent, US$3.17m). On top of that, log book and instruments, because of their historical and collector’s value, could be worth another $32,000 (1930s). The Antares will earn 30% of whatever she recovers. The trip is expected to take 2 days, the salvage as much as a week, and delivery and return to New York another 3 days, for a total of 12 days voyage, possibly less. Scenes:
    • Initial Briefing, possibility of other PCs accompanying Captain Ferguson.
    • Finding the cave and examining the wreck, verifying that it is the Chagas.
    • Salvaging various things – the silver has long been looted by someone who found the wreck and didn’t report it. The log book tells the story of the last days of the Chagas. Evidence suggests that the Crew killed the Captain before abandoning the wrecked ship.
    • Dealing with a WWI sea mine that has also drifted into the cave.
  • Father O’malley: Major Subplot: After conducting a church service, Father O’malley engages in social niceties with the parishioners. “Mrs O’Reilly’s cat is doing much better. Mr Dunkley’s Dog is no longer chewing on the furniture, he has moved on to Mr Dunkley’s wooden leg. Miss Driscoll has the flu and her sister would be grateful if someone could look in on her sometime. Mrs O’Reilly promises to do so – a bit of hot chicken soup will soon have Violet all in order. Colonel Leiber, a German Jew who served in the Kaiser’s army during WWI before emigrating to the US, is convinced that the boys from the school down the road are stealing his apples, and if he ever catches one he will “give him such a thrashing”. Father O’Malley is not overly concerned by the threat, he’s heard it before; Colonel Leiber is infirm, uses a walking stick, and is unable to move at anything faster than a stately amble. Mrs Brancowicz, a 34-year old widow, and the mother of one of those boys, is looking distressed and instead of sharing whatever has been going on in her life, simply asks Father O’Malley to pray for her, she doesn’t think she will be able to cope without it. She doesn’t specify what’s wrong, but she has clearly not been sleeping well for the last few nights and this is the first service that she has attended in over a week, something that’s unlike her usual habits. Clearly, something is amiss.” Scenes:
    • Introduction (quoted above), discussion with Mrs Brancowicz reveals that the boiler in her building has stopped working, and she and the children are very cold, and the owner doesn’t seem willing to do anything about it, except to threaten to raise the rent to more than she can afford in order to pay for a replacement. Father O’Malley promises to see what he can do to help, drives Mrs Brancowicz and her children back to the apartment, inspects the boiler and fails that maintenance of the property is abysmal.
    • Investigating the owner discloses a criminal past and a connection to a sports team owner, and model behavior – for a slumlord.
    • O’Malley can confront the owner, get Steffan (another PC and an engineer) to take a look at the boiler, report the owner to the authorities, or try to get the sports team owner on-side. He chooses option number 2, and is interrupted by the arrival of City building inspectors. Steffan reports that his repairs are only temporary and that the condition of the boiler is dangerous.
    • O’Malley needs to find the money for a replacement boiler. His choices have now narrowed to the owner or the owner’s ex-partner in the illegal liquor operation that enabled the slumlord to buy a string of apartments and the ex-partner to buy his baseball team. He chooses the latter and manages to convince him that his own reputation looks at risk due to his past associations, and reminding him that the League has a moral turpitude clause in their owner’s contracts; if he isn’t careful, the League may revoke his franchise and resell the team to someone else. This persuades the ex-partner to buy the building and repair it.
    • O’Malley persuades the current owner to sell and use the funds raised to repair his other buildings without increasing rents or face criminal charges.
    • Concluding scene delivering the good news to the Brancowicz family.

The first breaks the three-scene limit by separating the initial briefing and the first played scene, finding the cave, but that’s a minor point; there is clearly a lot more detail and emotional involvement in the second subplot. Nevertheless, the first one is an important moment for the PC, as it was the first time in-game that he had been “seen” performing his “day job” as a salvage operator. Of course, I’ve omitted a lot of descriptive narrative, photographs and maps and the like from both.

The key point is that Neither subplot has any relation to the main plot at all, they are self-contained examples of the characters going about their daily lives and doing the things that they do when they aren’t out adventuring, but one is clearly more substantial than the other. (I’ll be talking more about subplot and main plot integration in the Adventurer’s Club campaign in another article within this blog carnival).

I should also admit, at this point, that the character development tool described in the first part of this article and utilized in this one is a new tool that has not yet been implemented in any of the campaigns that I GM. At some point, however, they will be – you can never have too many planning tools at your disposal! The example subplots were a combination of character backgrounds provided by the players and campaign background elements added organically in past subplots.

Phase 2: Construction of Subplots and key plot moments

Phase 1 defines what you have to construct and then integrate into your planned day’s play; once you know that, it’s time to actually create those plotlines, large and small.

Axiom Selection

The first decision in constructing a subplot that is part of the character’s ordinary life is what part of that life experience you are going to connect with. Sometimes, that will be quite obvious, if inspiration has visited you with a plot idea, at other times you need some additional inspiration.

The GM should quickly look through the list of axioms for the PC who is to feature in the subplot or to be affected by the major subplot. If any of them seem especially relevant, he should choose it; if not, he can roll a d20.


Once he knows the axiom, i.e. the part of the character’s background that is going to be relevant, the next step is to decide how it is going to be relevant. This will, of course, be different for each of the different axiom types.

Defined Elements

At it’s most general, you can view a plotline of any size as a jigsaw puzzle, with the same general classes of pieces recurring. These are something that I think of as “plot elements.” Examples include

  • The identity of the Antagonist,
  • how & why the PC involvement comes about,
  • the nature of the conflict,
  • the antagonist’s intentions/desires/plans,
  • how/where the conflict will be resolved,
  • what the outcome should ideally be (and what else it could be), and,
  • what the consequences should be (if any) for the character.

There may be others, such as setbacks and how they are to be overcome, identifying the things the character needs to know in order to resolve the situation, sources of information and how the character will (a) learn of, and (b) interact with, those sources, what quid pro quo’s might be involved, alternative paths to the confrontation, and so on. These are the basic building blocks of the adventure.

This step involves taking what you already know and filling in any of these plot elements that have been predetermined. The specifics of the axiom chosen will be at least one of them.

For example, look over the list of standard elements above, and consider how many of them could involve a Rival over whom the PC triumphed when still young: the Rival could return as the Antagonist; he could appeal to the PC for help, bringing the PC into the plot; he could simply serve as the messenger of some unexpected consequence of the rivalry (the nature of the conflict); he could have stumbled on the antagonist’s plot and be making an independent effort to stop the antagonist before the PC does; his home could be the venue for the resolution of the conflict; or perhaps the outcome of the past rivalry is holding the PC back from the direction in which the player wants him to develop and it has to be resolved before he can move forward, and that is both the consequence and the cause of the PC becoming involved. Pick one that doesn’t seem too much of a cliché and go from there!

Undefined Elements

Once everything that has already been decided is “locked in”, fill in the blanks.

Note that while the result is an outline of the plot, it isn’t complete enough yet to actually be played. These bare facts are just the skeletal outline.


The next thing that I consider is the theme, if any, of the campaign and/or the main adventure. In particular, there are a trio of questions to be answered, and these it’s fine to spend a few seconds or even minutes thinking about if you sense that there is something there to be prised out of your subconscious:

  1. Can the subplot highlight or reflect some alternative aspect of the theme that isn’t present in the main adventure?
  2. Can the subplot offer a counterpoint to the theme or premise of the main adventure?
  3. Can the subplot look at a side-issue raised or implied by the main adventure that is not resolved within the scope of that adventure?

These questions are deep stuff. In essence, they use the subplot as a way to add depth of meaning to the main plotline. If you aren’t into deeply philosophical thinking and artistry within your campaign’s plots, this step can be foregone, but the most memorable adventures always seem to get the players thinking. In section 4.6 of the first article I offered in this blog carnival, “The Everyday Life of a GM“, I offered a substantial breakdown of the current adventure in the Zenith-3 campaign that provides an example of the kind of depths that I’m talking about.

One of the themes of the campaign is “Heroes are those who act heroically”, or variations on that notion. The converse is, “Villains are those who commit villainous deeds”, and a variation on that converse is “Monsters are those who commit Monstrous deeds” – and the current adventure looks at that statement and its implications, implying but not answering the question, “Who is the real monster – the creation or the creator?”, a question that’s been inspirational since the first publication of Frankenstein by Mary Shelley, if not longer.

I’m not interested in being pretentious; I am interested in adding depth and richness to my plotlines and forcing my players to think about what their characters believe, think, and feel.


The next step is to check the character background for more information on the chosen axiom, as it applies to the featured PC. This is made possible by consulting another part of the evolution plan, the one that indexes the axioms in chronological sequence of affecting the PC; this tells you where to look in the background for the pertinent details.

With that information, you should be able to sum up the planned plotline in four short paragraphs, one for each PC, outlining the adventure in its full specifics of who, what, when, where, how, and why. It’s almost ready to convert into a full ready-to-play adventure, but first there are two important considerations.


I’ve made a big thing about the benefits of the GM consciously manipulating the emotional intensity of both an individual adventure and the entirety of the campaign in a series of articles on the subject (there are too many to list here, I’m running short of time). Before you can execute the creation of the ready-to-play adventure, you need to decide on the tone of the plotline and how it’s intensity is going to rise and fall.

Take the two example plotlines listed earlier from the Adventurer’s Club campaign: the first had relatively little intensity until the sudden threat of the mine appeared. The overall tone was more wistful, everything important had happened long ago. In contrast, the Father O’Malley plotline was full of peaks and troughs, of triumphs and setbacks. The O’Malley character has no particular axe to grind against slumlords, but by the end of the subplot, he could easily justify such. I could translate the basic plot outline to the Zenith-3 campaign with only a few detail changes and it would engage a completely different character belonging to a completely different player – who also doesn’t have a listed hate-on towards slumlords but who would be no less aroused and inflamed by the situation.

There is a big difference in the settings – 1930s Hell’s Kitchen in New York City Vs 2050s New Orleans – and that would have an influence, but the basic plotline would be unchanged. And the uncaring landlord is such a universal trope that the same plotline could easily be modified to operate in a Fantasy setting – if you had a character would react to it. The problem might be a leaky roof instead of a failed boiler, but the basics would be the same. And, once again, the tone would be slightly different because of the differences in the settings.


The other consideration is the timing, and how you are going to subdivide the plotline to move the spotlight around the table. It’s never a good idea to focus gameplay on one character for too long; you need to have a single scene and then move on to someone else. Sometimes that’s easy, and sometimes it can be quite tricky, requiring scenes to do double or even triple duty in terms of advancing the plot. A good example of that was in the Father O’Malley plotline when the health inspectors turned up and acquainted Father O’Malley with the extent of the social problem, the current legal framework, and the reputation of this particular landlord, giving him what he needed to advance the plot to the next scene.


Finally, the longest step of all: actually writing the plotline up in scenes and narrative and dialogue and die rolls required and anything else that you might need to have prepared in advance to immerse the character in the plotline. If you’re comfortable improvising off the cuff, you can skip this step, or most of it; but most of us will want to make notes on the locations, create the NPCs, and so on, at the very least.

Last Minute improvisation

It happens to all of us at times: the players zig instead of zagging and we need to come up with plot on the fly. Hopefully, you can lead them back to the main adventure, but whether you can or not is not as immediately important as having something with which to engage the players right now.

A quick d20 roll to select an axiom and an off-the-cuff allocation of plot elements takes only seconds, and gives you at least the raw materials to improv an entertaining encounter or plotline. “You see an urchin in the marketplace swiping an under-ripe and overpriced Malgin-Fruit. He looks so much like your long-dead brother, who died when you were but a youth, that the memory of those events comes flooding back afresh for a moment. The merchant spots the urchin and gives chase; he will run right past you. What are you doing?”

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Blog Carnival November 2016: The Ordinary Life of a Fantasy PC

rpg blog carnival logo

This is an article in two parts – the first dealing with character backstories during character generation, and the second dealing with them during play.

It is also the second of five articles scheduled to be part of the November 2016 Blog Carnival, which Campaign Mastery is hosting. The carnival subject is “ordinary life” – in this case, the ordinary life of a PC who is about to join the campaign, i,e, his backstory, and – in the second part of the article (to be published next week) how to create plots and subplots using the resulting profile as a foundation.

I should add that while it is intended for fantasy games such as Pathfinder and D&D, it can be used with any genre.

A starting point

Before you can use a character’s backstory to help bring the campaign world to life for them and give them a personal stake in the adventures and mayhem that they experience (more on that in part 2), they need to have that backstory. And if the player generating the character knew as much about the campaign world as you do, that wouldn’t be a problem, assuming the player has half-decent writing skills and imagination.

That is, however, an ‘if’ the size of Mount Everest. First, the assumption might be invalid. Second, it’s completely impossible for the player to know the campaign world as well as the GM who created and interprets it does. Third, even skilled writing and a capable imagination properly harnessed might not create the plot opportunities and connections that the GM wants/needs. Fourth, turning the whole thing over to the player neglects an opportunity to expand the campaign world to encompass what both the player and GM want; and Fifth, a character backstory is also an opportunity to bring part of the Campaign Background to life for the player, obviating some of the GM’s need for long-winded narrative.

Image Credit / Loretta Humble

Image Credit / Loretta Humble

Nor can the GM do the job alone. First, he’s already got his hands full getting the campaign ready to play. Second, he might be no better at writing than the player (hopefully he is at least as imaginative, though). Third, even if the GM is an excellent writer with a gift for expressing his imagination through prose, the backstory that he creates – assuming (falsely) that he has the time – is certain to be different to the one that the player wants to run.

By far a better solution is for the player and GM to collaborate on crafting a backstory that ticks everyone’s boxes, taking advantage of the potential synergies between the two to produce something better than either could do on their own, with the GM providing expertise and leadership while the player does most of the actual crafting of the character.

I’ve seen a number of articles in the past that show how to develop a backstory. Most of them are inadequate. The remaining few are generally so detailed that they leave no room for growth, and can produce characters so detailed that they become stifling. Neither outcome is satisfactory. What’s more, most of them are terribly uneven; depending on the player, some will be extensive and others minimalist providing disproportionate access to the game world’s opportunities.

What’s more, there’s a limit to how much a player can hold in his head before the details start to merge and run together.

No, what’s needed is a system for development of character backgrounds that puts all the PCs on an equal footing, with equal opportunities, that integrates the characters with the campaign world and makes the campaign background relevant to the player and provides an opportunity for the player to tell the GM where he wants the character to go, and that provides the GM with the raw materials that he needs to craft plots that both he and the player are interested in exploring.

And that’s not an easy prescription to fill.

Step 1: Character Axioms: Player

There are ten categories of what I call Character Axioms – these are the foundation memories and events that have formed the personality of the character, the events that have taught him how to behave – or how not to behave. The player has 20 ‘axiom incidents’ to distribute amongst these 10 categories; no category can have more than 4 incidents assigned to it. The categories are:

  1. Past Successes – occasions when the character succeeded in something that was quite difficult for him or her at the time or that was otherwise memorable.
  2. Past Failures – occasions when the character failed. This might have been because the task was difficult, under the circumstances, or it might have been something that the character was expected to succeed in. Each should be accompanied by a note on the seriousness of the repercussions – use the terms mild, serious, grave, devastating.
  3. Past Mistakes – a mistake is not the same thing as a failure. These are occasions when the character misjudged someone or something or made a fool of themselves.
  4. Past Life Lessons – These can be positive (the character witnesses someone solve a difficult life problem) or negative (the character witnesses someone fail to solve a difficult life problem), it’s the player’s choice which.
  5. Past Moments Of Danger – These are moments when the character (rightly or wrongly) felt in danger.
  6. Past Travels – These are times when the character went somewhere interesting or memorable. Depending on the player and the basic profile of the character, this could be to somewhere quite close or somewhere quite exotic. It might be anything from weekly trips to Temple, or a trip to attend the funeral of rich aunt Mavis, or a Holiday to the elven kingdom, or the first time the character rode a horse. The player should give some indication of the type of trip, at the very least, but should not specify beyond the sort of brief phrases used as examples.
  7. Family Incidents – These are times when something drastic happened to the family. Father was accused of a crime, (may have been guilty or innocent), or there was a family argument, or brother went missing, or grandmother disowned the family (or came around after such disowning to spend time with the grandkids). Again, the player should give a general indication of the sort of incident they have in mind but not a resolution or any specifics.
  8. Past Ambitions – When I was a kid, I wanted to be a scientist. next, I thought seriously about being a journalist or a comic-book artist. Then I wanted to design computer systems and software. Each of these was shaped by an aptitude, and each shaped my (self-) educational path at the time. What did the character want to do when he was younger?
  9. Fascinations – This is something that fascinates the character, and has done so for a while. It could be a practical skill, or a piece of history, or a person, or a knowledge subject, or a sporting contest. The player should specify what the subject of the fascination is, and whether it is past or current, or even something that he wants the character to become fascinated by in the course of play.
  10. Proximity to key events – The number of times a character was on hand to witness some important event or decision and that made a lasting impression on him or her. Obviously, the player at this point has no idea of what those events might have been. The character may or may not have been directly involved, but the player can’t decide that until he knows what the events were. In effect, then, these are blank spaces for the GM to fill in for the character.

Step 2: Character Evolution: Player

There are six other key pieces of information that the player should provide as they will form the context which will shape decisions as to the specifics of the axioms.

  1. Background Context – The player chooses some suitably evocative single term to sum up the character’s life prior to entering play. This might be “struggle” or “bucolic” or “urban grind” or “privileged” or “street urchin” or “ambition vessel” or anything else the player thinks appropriate.
  2. Core Concept – The player gives a one-sentence summary of the character’s personality as it will be at the start of play.
  3. Supplementary Words – For every game mechanics “label” that can be applied to the character – race, class, past profession (if any), and an adjective frequently applied to characters who are strong in the character’s highest stat – the player should provide a brief note on what makes this character different from all the other examples. A quick example:
    • Fighter – dislikes thinking with his fists.
    • Dwarf – mildly claustrophobic.
    • Blacksmith – especially skilled at floral etching & filigree.
    • Resolute (CON) – very sickly as a child or, perhaps, paranoid about getting sick.
  4. Axiom Sequence – With a basic concept for the character, the player should next number the axioms he has chosen in the chronological sequence he thinks is appropriate to produce the personality. This is to serve as a guideline to the GM in steps 3 and four.
  5. Character Direction – “All life is a journey from what we are to what we will be”. This is a brief summary of the direction in which the player wants the character to evolve in the course of play. Valid choices include “redemption”, “slay personal demons”, “struggle with temptation”, “discover a love for his people”, “saviour/hero to his people”, “find somewhere he’s happy to call home”, or “extract the maximum fun out of life before it’s too late”. This tells the GM what sort of subplots (and to some extent, main plots) the player wants to experience with this character, what sort of opportunities he wants, etc.
  6. Character Destination – How does the character want the character’s story to end? If different, how does the player want the character’s story to end? “Happy ever after”, “Guardian over the things he cares about”, “heroic sacrifice”, “blaze of glory”, “patriarch/matriarch of a large family”, “filthy rich”, “well-connected”, “politically powerful” or something else? There’s no certainty that it will work out that way, or that the character/player won’t change their minds later, but, once again, it tells the GM what sort of opportunities to put in front of the character.

Once the player has completed this step, he hands the character development notes over to the GM for steps 3 and 4.

Step 3: Character Axioms: GM

The GM’s first thought is probably to spread the axiom events fairly evenly over the character’s life. That’s predictable, boring, and unrealistic; life isn’t like that. Instead, there are usually long periods of status quo punctuated by a cluster of events.

The place to start is always the home environment of the character and the critical events that have unfolded there during the character’s lifetime. Next, the GM should try to match these up with, first, Axiom 10 entries, and then with any others that seem to fit. It may or may not have been noticed but there are a lot of relative terms used in the axiom descriptions – a “key event” may mean one thing on a border town and something quite different on an isolated country farm. The emphasis is always on first, what parts of the campaign background could or will affect the character, and second, on events that seem to play into the character evolution chosen by the player, especially items 11, 12, and 13. It may be necessary to alter the preferred sequence to get them to fit such a timeline without too big a “nothing happening” period. Similarly, “Moments Of Danger” could be a hunting incident, or a freak weather condition, or an invading army, or any number of other incidents.

Once that is done, it’s time to list specifics in each item. These should be given as events with no indication of how the character was involved or how he/she was affected by the events. If nothing “earth-shaking” or socially/politically significant was taking place at the time, the GM should create a suitably localized event that highlights some aspect of the culture that he has created – this will be a lot easier if he has created that culture using the Distilled Cultural Essence process that I described in four parts back in 2009.

The goal is to marry key incidents from the character’s life with key or illustrative events from the campaign background and game culture to make them directly relevant to the character (and hence, to the player).

At the start of each item, the GM should either put a bullet (·) or a dash (-). The bullet means that the event is happening at or near that point in the local history experienced by the character, and if it doesn’t tie in with the chosen Axiom, it will have to tie in with another one; the dash means that it’s a suggestion that can be changed in step 5.

Step 4: Character Evolution: GM

Next, the GM should rough out some quick plans for how the character’s current personality (as summarized), future evolution, and ultimate end, will fit into his campaign design. Both campaign and character should be considered fairly fixed at this point, but some thought needs to be given to how the character will fit into the campaign plan, how he will react to the planned events, and how the campaign plan will fit into the desired character evolution. It might be that none of what the GM has planned will be suitable for permitting growth in the desired direction, in which case he will need to add a subplot to achieve that goal.

The results should be a paragraph studded with glittering generalities and vague intentions; don’t spoil any surprises, don’t reveal any plot twists, but give some indication of the general trend of things. “The character will encounter undead fairly early in the campaign and there will be a lot of social upheaval as a result. Parts of the campaign world will come under threat from something that will force them onto a war footing, and eventually the PCs will go behind enemy lines to discover the cause of the threat and stop it. The overall tone will be of civilization coming under threat and having to choose between their ideals and their survival.” Or, perhaps, “The PCs will be trying to make a life for themselves in an environment rife with hidden enemies and political forces beyond their control”. Or, to use the central concept of my Seeds Of Empire campaign, “The Kingdom has outgrown its political structure; it is now encountering the problems of an Empire, finding its ad-hoc solutions inadequate, and will need to evolve socially and politically to deal with those problems while avoiding or addressing the mistakes of the past.” This brief summary should be followed by an indication of how these events/themes will fit into the planned character evolution.

Once the GM has made his notes, he returns character development to the player and schedules a meeting to go through them. Actually, the process is pretty quick, so it might be just a matter of each waiting until the other has done his thing.

If the player gives the GM an indication of race and class, the GM can be preparing his events list for use in step 3 while the player is doing steps 1 and 2; the player can then do his game-mechanics character creation while the GM is doing steps 3 and 4. The process to this point should have taken 30 minutes absolute maximum – if it’s taken longer than that, someone is over-thinking things or getting too specific. 10-15 minutes is probably a more realistic number.

Step 5: Draft Background Negotiation

At that meeting, the player ticks off any items he likes/agrees with, and discusses with the GM alternatives to any that don’t seem to fit what he has in mind, and discusses his thoughts on how the character would react to each of the axiom events, while the GM offers possible consequences of those reactions. Between the two of them, it shouldn’t take long for the player to get a sense of the campaign world and its recent history as it would affect his character. The order of the axiom events, or even their nature, can get revised at this point. The player should take notes of the discussion. Once he’s ready, he can start making more substantial draft notes while the GM moves on to working with another player on his character.

Step 6: Player Draft Background

The player then writes the character’s backstory in note form based on the axiom events – what happened, how the character reacted, and what happened as a result, and – at the end – how this unique personal history created the character he is today, and a more substantial outline of what that personality is.

Step 7: Negotiate revisions if necessary

When the player is finished, he gives the notes to the GM to read through. The GM should make any additional notes or clarifications and discuss anything that has been misunderstood, supplying additional details of the campaign world and the PC’s society and culture as necessary. Again, the player should make notes, and may even copy some of the GM’s notes on the campaign world – descriptions of relevant key locations, NPC personalities, and so on. If the GM needs to, he should use the quick-NPC creation methods provided by Campaign Mastery in past articles – I listed them in section 4.2 of my previous entry in this month’s blog carnival, “The Everyday Life of a GM”, but I’ll repeat them for your convenience:

Note that the last one requires the game-mechanics character sheets of the PCs!

Step 8: Final background

With the final wrinkles ironed out, and additional material provided as necessary, the player can then write up the character’s history in prose, either from a first person perspective (“I was born….”) or third person perspective (“[Name] was born….”) as he prefers. Obviously, he will want to retain this for himself, but the GM should be given a copy for his reference during encounter, adventure, and campaign planning. He should also get a copy of the character sheet for the same purpose. In the next part of the article, I’ll show readers how to make use of it “in play”.

Why this process works

Everything about this process is geared at filling the character’s backstory with the critical steps that resulted in the personality that the player wants to operate in play. Most other systems that I’ve seen are questionnaires or list generators that produce a lot of detail, (“who is your best friend?”) but not a lot of context. This, on the other hand, tells you nothing that isn’t directly relevant – leaving a lot of areas empty for in-play exploration.

You may be tempted to haul out one of those other profile generators to fill in those blanks. While that can be useful, it can also hamstring the GM in his efforts to produce the campaign that the player wants. For example, let’s say that the player creates, using one of these questionnaires, a childhood rival – one who has had no formative impact on the PC.

Why do I say “no formative impact?” Because the axioms list the formative impacts on the PC, and the rival wasn’t one of them. Right away, this undermines his credibility as a rival, and of the character as a whole; it makes no sense. That isn’t to say that the character didn’t have rivals from time to time, just that none of them was significant enough to have the relationship description capitalized. It’s the difference between a rival and a Rival.

But, setting aside the inconsistency that results, if at some point the GM needs a hook to get the character interested in a plotline, and no rival has been specified, he could create one to order. If one has already been specified by the player, the GM has to integrate it into his plot or find some other mechanism to achieve the goal if the rival that the player has created doesn’t fit.

The Media Lesson

I don’t know if you’ve ever seen a character bible from a TV show. Often considered part of a larger document, the “show bible” or “writer’s guide”, this succinctly spells out what has been established about the character in the course of production, ensuring consistency. See this Wikipedia entry.

The first one that I saw was (partially) reproduced in The Making Of Star Trek by Stephen E. Whitfield (aka Stephen E. Poe) ($21 used, from Amazon, ridiculous prices new).

Until something made it into the bible, it wasn’t canon. If it wasn’t in the bible that Spock was an only child, any writer that came along could create a brother for Spock if that suited the story he was pitching. Once it was stated firmly that he was an only child, any choice to the contrary had to come as a Revelation to all concerned, a secret that the character was previously unaware of (which is one of my many beefs with “Star Trek V: The Final Frontier”).

The absence of something creates freedom and opportunity, provided that it isn’t necessary to explain what has already been established.

It follows that at the start of a TV series, only the bare essentials are known about a character, and documented in their Bible. As production proceeds, more details get added as they are established. Almost every show either uses one or uses production members as “Walking Bibles” – which can pose a problem when crew members leave or get promoted, or simply suffer a failure of memory.

This concept has obvious utility within the television industry. Comics companies have something similar for keeping their characters straight. I am quite certain that big movie series would generally have a similar plotting tool, especially something like the Marvel Movie Universe.

RPGs can take a lesson from this concept, adapting it to our semi-unique purposes – semi-unique because it’s not too different to an actor/producer using the Show Bible to tell them how a character behaves (same as a player would) while scriptwriters (read: the GM) use it to develop plotlines that involve the character and his backstory.

The Screenwriting Bible was central to the concept elucidated by this article. “Only what’s necessary and what’s been established in-game” should be the mantra.

An acceptable compromise

On the other hand, additional details can serve as a springboard for inspiration. So there is a compromise that is possible: nothing not in the “Bible” is canon, but anything else the player chooses to produce can be considered an unofficial suggestion to the GM, a tool for them to use or ignore or even contradict – whatever is necessary to make the integration between character and game batter.

But that is a subject for part two of this article!

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Essential Reference Library for Pulp GMs (and others): 6th Shelf

The Sixth Shelf: Hardware I: Weapons, Things, and Science – Introduction by Mike

Pulp technology and science is a very strange animal. It can encompass everything from steampunk to space opera, Monoplanes to UFOs, and yet it remains grounded in the very real technology available in the 1920s and 1930s.

The difficulty is always not undermining that foundation, which is what happens when weird science is industrialized. You altar balances of power, which in turn impacts economics and politics and political relations, which can massively alter the course of history. At the same time, you should use science and technology to intrigue and surprise your PCs; it’s an essential part of the color of the genre.

One trick that we have found particularly useful is to use the 1940s and 1950s as both templates and misdirection. If something is discovered or becomes possible in the immediate post-pulp era, it’s not unreasonable that weird science will make those things possible to a select few in the pulp era; the only trick is ensuring that such technology does not find its way into the production lines prematurely, upsetting the historical apple-cart to too extreme a measure. As for misdirection, calling a weird science invention by a name that means or implies something in the post-pulp world, but giving it an equally rational but entirely different significance in your campaign world is a sure way to get the PCs interested in the situation when they hear the name.

The Adventurer’s Club campaign has seen heat rays, a moon base (and the rockets to reach and sustain it), super-hypnotism, a mechanical strength-enhancing suit, a super-acid that turns into an explosive when it dries, and – in the adventure now underway – a prototype teleporter that has turned a gangland boss into a human/fly hybrid. On top of that there have been two medical miracles – one for an extremely rare psychological condition and another for an equally rare form of leukemia, and all manner of strange vehicles (which I’ll discuss when we get to the next shelf).

Relevance to other genres

Most fantasy games are just like Pulp, only the foundation technological level is different. On top of that, magic can do things that technology can’t.

It might seem that since a scientific understanding of phenomena such as lightning lay centuries into the future, that the GM is free to invent whatever he likes. And yet, when that approach is adopted in fantasy novels and games, the uncertainty about what is possible and what is not undermines the credibility of adventures and fuels player paranoia toward the GM. By far, the more successful approach is for the GM to apply a “game physics” that places constraints and consistency on the game world; even if the players and PCs don’t know or understand this “game physics”, its presence will still be felt.

When you get down to it, that’s a large part of the difference between a child’s fairy tale and a fantasy novel for grown-ups.

Almost anything could be possible, but not everything that could be possible will be permitted.

And, when you think about it, you find that this is a universal truth, applicable to every genre of RPG, from Science Fiction to Westerns.

By far the simplest starting point is knowing the way the real world works, at least in general principle, and being familiar with some of the stranger ideas that people held in various eras – so that you can file off the serial numbers and use them as inspiration.


books on cart, architecture prominent title

image credit: / drquanli


Shelf Introduction

Science & Technology takes in a very wide breadth of scope, especially when some of the more – well, let’s be polite – “fringe” theories and “technologies” that may not work in the real world but might be entirely acceptable in a pulp universe, are taken into account.

In fact, there’s an entire spectrum of scientific credibilities that this section embraces. The really out-there stuff (and some not-so-out-there that didn’t quite fit with the contents here) have been grouped with superstitions and religions and the like. But even excluding those there’s a wide range contained on this shelf.

There’s the material that is generally accepted as being scientifically accurate, at least at the time of publication – “accuracy” is always a moving target in the world of science – or at least is close enough to be generally so from a layman’s perspective. It explains the real way the world works enough for a layman to use, let’s say.

Then there’s the material that contains at least some grain of truth, or that was an honest but misguided attempt at genuine science. You would also have gotten a taste of that on the previous shelf with the section on Easter Island. This includes medical practices originating outside the sphere of western medicine, which certainly contains some validity that has slowly been recognizes by unprejudiced scientific testing, but which also contains material that at best can be described as ‘unproven’. Millions of people can swear by practices such as acupuncture, for example. The current general description for these therapeutic techniques is “alternative medicine” – but there are parts of the world, especially in the pulp era, where they are accepted and it’s western medical practices that are considered “alternative” or “fringe” and “unproven at best”.

And then there is the material that most people consider to be from cloud-cuckoo-land; you also got a taste of that on the previous shelf with the sections on The Hollow Earth theories, Atlantis/Lemuria, and the Bermuda Triangle. But there is absolutely nothing wrong with the Pulp GM considering these to be at least partially valid, if it makes for a great adventure.

Beyond the theory that explains the world, there is the practical realities of the technology that existed during the pulp era. That period, as we have defined it for the purposes of this series, is almost a century old, and so much technology that was invented afterwards was established routine and taken for granted before those reading this were even born, that it can be difficult to realize what wasn’t around at the time and what the absence did to everyday life. The story of technology is not just a tale of ingenuity and engineering, it’s a story about society and culture, a blend that makes it fascinating and something the modern-day GM needs to know about if they are to represent the world around the PCs. Even if that world has been transformed somewhat by the exigencies of fictional discoveries necessary to generate a pulp “atmosphere”, the real world remains the starting point, with changes to be made carefully and after considerable scrutiny.

And, to close out the section, we have one of the most ubiquitous forms of technology with which the PCs will be concerned – weapons, and in particular, firearms.

Era Technology – This section is concerned with the technology that existed in the real world during the pulp era and is essential to the look-and-feel of the campaign as well as dictating what characters are capable of without weird science assistance. This is an era in which shoe stores have X-ray machines to ensure a good fit, powered at levels that are the equivalent of hundreds or thousands of modern x-rays, per usage.

Currency & Valuables – This might well have been included in the “Everyday Life In The Pulp Era” section, but that was bursting at the seams – so much so that we had no hesitation in offloading it onto this shelf. For the most part, we aren’t concerned with economics or even the predominant economic theories of the time; those probably won’t be exactly the same in a pulp environment, anyway (though we generally view the “New Deal” as symbolic of what would have been the prevalent economic theories in such a world). No, we have listed books about the forms that valuables can take – specifically, the sort of valuables that the PCs might end up chasing after.

Weird Science – This section contains the most unlikely “science”, so far out on the fringe that most people don’t consider it science at all. It also includes all the fabulous technology of the Pulp Hero and Villain – everything from jetpacks to x-ray glasses.

Fringe Science – Existing in between accepted science and weird science is the scientific fringe, where individual subjects may hold a single grain of truth or mighty veins of it. But it’s all good for pulp adventures!

Accepted Science – We’ve already discussed why this is important, no matter what your genre. The pulp era is a particularly important one from a scientific perspective; in the pre-Victorian era, the quest was to explain natural phenomena that had been known and recognized for millennia. In the Victorian era, new phenomena were discovered that needed explanation, and the old phenomena were harnessed on an industrial scale. In the Edwardian era, explanations for those new phenomena were devised and used to harness the new forces – electricity and telephones and radio and the like, while new phenomena like radioactivity demand explanation. During the pulp era, the technologies resulting from those second-generation forces slowly become widespread (but still remarkable) while explanations begin to emerge for the new discoveries – explanations that will manifest in functional technologies in the post-pulp world.

Weapons – Not much more needs to be said about the final section! Weapons are a central part of any pulp campaign, and while you can probably get by just knowing the names, being able to attach some understanding of the limitations, strengths, and weaknesses of different specific weaponry adds color and credibility, leaving the GM with a little more wriggle room to be fantastic elsewhere.

A Recurring Note On Images:

Wherever possible, we have provided an illustration showing the cover of the book or DVD under discussion scaled to the same vertical size (320 pixels for Recommended Books, 280 for DVDs, 240 for items in the ‘For Dummies’ Sections). Where there was none available, we have used a generic icon.

Prices and Availability were correct at the time of compilation but are subject to change.


Books About Era technology


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580. Breverton’s Encyclopedia of Inventions – Terry Breverton

A listing of what was invented when, including techniques, scientific discoveries and theories, with many interesting sidebars. Amazon has many more copies than those to which we have linked but the rest are slightly pricey at $26-plus – search for the title.


581. The Fantastic Inventions of Nikola Tesla – Nikola Tesla with additional material by David Hatcher Childress

Most of these “inventions” never made it into reality and some of them didn’t seem to work as advertised, but the scope and impact of Tesla’s genius is still being felt today. He has been described as “the man who invented the 20 th century” and some argue that he invented the 21 st as well, so fundamental are his discoveries and inventions to the technology all around us.


582. The Inventions That Changed The World (Eventful 20th Century series) – Reader’s Digest

In addition to an alphabetic listing of thousands of inventions, when they happened, and so on, there are two appendices of note: the first lists the great inventors and gives capsule biographies; the second is a chronological listing of the devices and inventions featured in the book, so that for any given year of a game setting, you can see what hasn’t been invented yet, what’s new, and what’s been around for long enough to become commonplace. Covers from 4,000,000 BC to 1981.

This book has been issued with a number of different covers and (presumably) different editions – the one we have is all silver metallic, but the one with linked to first has the cheapest copies. Note that condition may improve at higher prices! Links, in order of increasing price:



583. Secret Weapons and World War II: Japan in the shadow of Big Science – Walter E Grunden

“The atomic bomb. Rocket-propelled bombs. Jet propulsion. Radar. By failing to develop effective programs for such “secret weapons,” Japan increased the probability that it could not triumph [in World War II]”. Which is not strictly relevant to a pulp era, but is enlightening not only in terms of Japanese culture in the period, but of the Weird Science arms race that would necessarily occur – in a Pulp world. That context is what has placed it in this section.


584. Popular Furniture of the 1920s and 1930s – Schiffer Publishing Ltd

A reproduction of the Elgin A. Simonds Company’s furniture catalog highlighting the changes in style and function through the pulp era. 226 pages, and, as you would expect, lots of photographs. This book is actually designed to be a reference for furniture collectors, as these are now antiques and quite collectible, but ignore the suggested values quoted in the book, if for no other reason than that this was published in 1998 and values will have changed radically in the last 18 years.


585. Furniture of the Depression Era: Furniture and Accessories of the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s Robert W. Swedberg and Harriet Swedberg

At 143 pages, this is less comprehensive than the Schiffer Publishing volume listed above, but it goes beyond furniture to other common objects of the era. The book explains the history of the furniture and its development, with lots of anecdotes along the way, and has a lot of color photographs.


586. Wasn’t the Future Wonderful: A View of Trends and Technology from the 1930s – Tim Onosko

Inventors create all sorts of things every year. Most of these go on to absolute obscurity, though they may attract short-term attention from magazines devoted to domestic innovation like Popular Mechanics. The heart of this book is the vision of the future that these obscure inventions promised in such magazines in the 1930s, especially “Modern Mechanix”.

Or, to put it another way, this can be considered a style guide for Weird Science and Exotic inventions in Pulp.

Most books of this type attach high prices, some as high as $50, but this accidental discovery is quite reasonably priced, even if it is only 188 pages – unless you insist on buying one of the 4 new copies, that is.


Documentaries About Era technology



587. Britain’s Greatest Machines (National Geographic, Season 1: 4 episodes, season 2; 4 episodes)

Each episode details advances within a specific decade of the 20th century. These aired in chronological sequence in Australia but are not presented in that sequence on these DVDs for reasons known only to National Geographic; the sequence is (Series 1) 1930s, 1950s, 1960s, 1980s, (series 2) 1910s, 1920s, 1940s, trains special.

Presumably there is a series 3 that is not yet available because Mike is sure he has seen episodes on the 1900s, 1970s, and 1990s – and is equally sure that he hasn’t seen the “trains” episode. Obviously, about half this series is not directly relevant to the pulp GM, but knowing that a technology didn’t arrive until the 1950s or 60s can be useful. Much to our surprise, we were only able to find this series for sale in the UK and Australia:

Series 1 Amazon UK (Region 2) – limited availability, international shipping options, £11

Series 2 Amazon UK – out of stock, 2 second-hand copies available only, £7.81

Series 1+2 Amazon UK (Region 2) – very limited availability, international shipping options, £15

Series 1 ABC Shop, Australia (Region 4) “Limited stock” but no indication of how many copies that might be, AU$25



588. Inventions The Shook The World: 1900s,1910s, 1920s, 1930s, 1940s (season 1, episodes 2, 3, 4, & 5)

Some episodes are more relevant than others, but half of this entire series gets a tick even without contemplating weird science bringing future discoveries forward.

Each episode looks at a number of significant technological advances in detail and a multitude more in snapshot, showing not only the origins of the idea but the struggle to realize it as a viable technology, and the impact that it had.

There are a number of copies available through Amazon USA at reasonably typical prices for a box set and individual episodes can be streamed from Amazon

Amazon UK has only a small number of US Imports available (NTSC Format)

Amazon Canada has a very small number of native box sets and only a few more US Imports, both at ridiculous prices.

However, simply searching Google for “inventions that shook the world youtube” found three of the episodes that we are recommending, and we expect that the others would turn up in a more targetted search.

Links to the three we found:



589. The Genius Of Design Pts 1 and 2

Industrial design has influenced the look-and-feel of society for as long as there has been civilization, even if for most of human history that design was based on the artisan producing one-offs, each of which served their intended purpose a little better or worse or looked a little prettier or uglier. But it was in the 20th century that industrial design became a focal point that both reflected and drove broader social trends.

This series was so revelationary to him that Mike turned out an extension to his series on “Putting The SF Into Sci-Fi” entitled, “The Design Ethos Of Tomorrow” inspired by it. You might also want to read this extensive review of the series if you need further persuasion.

So, to availability:
Amazon US has two copies and there are some other copies available One is cheap, most are a bit on the expensive side at around $24.

Amazon UK has one US-import copy and a few others through other retailers for about twice the price, which is really getting too expensive to warrant a recommendation (but all hope is not lost).

Amazon Canada also has one copy and a few more through other vendors, again at about twice the US price.

But, when those run out, there is another series of the same name and a different cover which we are 95% certain is actually a reissue of the same series, or maybe the domestic UK version, or something.

Amazon US have copies of this for about the same price as the one we are sure of, and some second-hand copies that are even cheaper at about US$14; Amazon UK have copies for a lot less; and Amazon Canada have a very small selection (at unreasonable prices, as usual)



590. The Bomb

Although the Manhattan Project only officially came into existence in October of 1941, it’s developmental roots extend back into the Pulp Era when a number of European scientists fled the Nazi regime to Britain and the US.

This documentary is one of the few that tell this early part of the story, how the Bomb played into US internal politics and vice-versa, and that – plus the projects’ service in public eyes as the prototypical “Secret Government Project”, make this 1hr 54min documentary highly worthy of inclusion.

Available from Amazon US for about $15

There are very limited copies from Amazon Canada for about CDN$19 up

Unfortunately, it doesn’t appear to be available in the UK on DVD, you’ll have to either order a US import from one of the links above or settle for a 720pixel HD YouTube video unless you can access streaming video from Amazon US for $12.99 (purchase) or $4.99 (rent)


Books About Currency & Valuables



591. The World’s Most Mysterious Objects – Lionel & Patricia Fanthorpe

Exotic and unusual objects and phenomena. Some are post-pulp but many have been found by the end of the Pulp Era, and make great MacGuffins.


592. & 593. GURPS Who’s Who #1 & #2 – Phil Masters (Steve Jackson Games)

Not many of the people profiled are from the Pulp Era, most of the them predate it, but these are still excellent for the origins of Macguffins.



594. Dig Here – Thomas Penfield

Over 100 lost treasures of the American Southwest, most of which make perfect MacGuffins or plot triggers.


595. Fortune And Glory: A Treasure Hunter’s Handbook – David McIntee

Tips for treasure hunters, descriptions of famous lost treasures, and an excellent bibliography covering books, movies, and video games on the subject. This book could have been listed under several different categories!

Amazon US $6.25-$15

UK £3.70-£9

Canada CDN$5.40-$18



596. New Mexico Treasure Tales – W C Jameson

26 legends of lost mines and buried treasures.



597. Metal Prices in the United States through 1998 – US Geological Survey (US Department Of The Interior)

We could not conclude this subsection without referring readers to this invaluable *free* PDF. The prices quoted are all in 1998 dollars, but there are a number of websites that will handle a conversion to 1920s or 193x currency for you. We simply divide by 10 to get a close-enough number.

Mike mentioned this PDF in an example in his article at Campaign Mastery, Lightning Research: Maximum Answers in Minimum Time but didn’t include a link, saving that for this article:

He also reports that there is an updated version that is available as a website and a spreadsheet and runs through to 2010:


Books About Weird Science

Weird Science is the term used by Pulp Hero to describe not only exotic forms of ordinary technology such as Wristwatch Radios (shades of Dick Tracy!) but devices that could never exist in the real world (at least at that point in time, some have become practical realities in the decades since. Death Rays, Electric Stun-Guns, Disintegrator Beams, Bulletproof Clothing, Mole machines… the list goes on and on.

We have excluded superstitions and religions considered fringe by the mainstream, even though some of them intrude into this territory. More pertinently, we have also excluded the Hollow Earth, Atlantis, Lemuria, etc (they are on Shelf 5) and Cryptozoology, which will be found on the mysticism-religion-paranormal shelf to come.


598. Where’s My Jetpack – Daniel H. Wilson, PhD

The technologies promised for the future that were never delivered (or practical) in real life – brilliant for coming up with Weird Science gadgets – also available as an Audio CD and a Multimedia CD (different covers).


599. The Wonderful Future That Never Was – Gregory Benford & the editors of Popular Mechanics

Extracts from early issues of the magazine looking at Future Technologies, from Flying Cars to Parachute Mail Delivery.

Unusually, the hardcover is often cheaper than the paperback.,,


600. The Amazing Weapons That Never Were – Gregory Benford & the editors of Popular Mechanics

A companion to the preceding work by the same authors, just as useful, and even cheaper!


601. Death Rays, Jet Packs, Stunts & Supercars – Barry Parker

Devoted to the physics behind the James Bond movies, but most of these gadgets will fit seamlessly into a Pulp Campaign.


Books About Fringe Science

Fringe Science is part “flaky” and part “legitimate” from the point of view of western science. These are positions that have changed quite a lot in the ensuring years; our guideline has always been the common Western-society perspective as it was in the pulp era. That means that this section will also contain books on everything from herbalism to Asian medicine.


602. Hitler’s Suppressed and Still-secret Weapons, Science & Technology – Henry Stevens

A compendium of inventions supposedly created by the Nazis during WWII, but great for equipping a pulp villain with.


603. Weird Science and Bizarre Beliefs – Dr Gregory L Reece

Less general than the title suggests but excellent in what it does cover: Bigfoot/Sasquatch, Lost Worlds & the Hollow Earth, Ancient Astronauts, and rumored Tesla Technology.


604. Suppressed Inventions & other discoveries – Jonathon Eisen

Most of this is too modern but the section on Orgone Energy is useful and not often covered elsewhere these days.

The mass-market paperback edition is more widely available at a cheap price
but if they run out, try the regular paperback There is also a Kindle edition available.


605. The SS Brotherhood of the Bell: The Nazis’ Incredible Secret Technology – Joseph P Farrell

While the theory is very contemporary, it’s too perfect a fit not to include it on this list.


606. Chariots Of The Gods – Erik Von Daniken

So plausible it became a best-seller, and hence essential reference for what might be in a pulp universe. The first in a very long series of increasingly speculative books on the subject, and note that many of the foundations have been discredited in the years since. There have been more than 40 editions with multiple cover designs, don’t be misled.


607. Suppressed Transmission: the first broadcast – Kenneth Hite (Steve Jackson Games)

Fringe science, Fringe history, and other things of interest, these volume could have found a home in several different categories on this list.

Available in limited quantities from Amazon but also as a PDF from Steve Jackson Games


608. Suppressed Transmission 2: the second broadcast – Kenneth Hite (Steve Jackson Games)

More of the same. Same quantity problem and prices just out of our normal recommendation range from Amazon but also available through Steve Jackson Games for a more reasonable fee


609. Arktos: The Polar Myth – Joscelyn Godwin

An overview on the theme of polar shifts, polar civilizations & super-races. We have linked to two different offerings on Amazon, one is cheaper but has fewer copies available; check both and make the best choice available to you at the time.

Link 1:

Link 2:



610. Hitler’s Flying Saucers – Henry Stevens

A discussion of supposed German “flying disc” projects during World War II.

There are two editions of this book, and we aren’t certain of what the differences are, only that the first edition is 100 pages long and the ‘new edition’ 240 pages long, and that the covers are quite different. The problem is that there aren’t all that many copies of either edition – certainly not enough that we can pick and choose.

1st edition

2nd edition (pictured)


611. Man-made UFOs: WWII’s Secret Legacy – Renato Vesco and David Hatcher Childress

Traces Nazi flying disc and other technologies, and links them to modern UFO sightings.


612. Roswell and the Reich – Joseph P Farrell

Talks about the Roswell UFO case of 1947 and its possible connection to Nazi technology. This is pretty close to the outer fringes of Pulp relevance.


613. Lost Ancient Technology of Peru and Bolivia – Brien Foerster

Focuses on an argument we first read in Chariots Of The Gods, i.e. that the ancients could not have shaped the stone blocks of places like Machu Picchu without advanced technology, and therefore the ancients had such technology. This book comes in for a lot of criticism even from supporters of the contention for being poorly written, hard to read, with abysmal photographs, and grammar that is not even at a 10th-grade level. But there are obvious pulp potentials. 236 pages, but many of them are reportedly almost empty and a large font has been used to pad the page count, so be warned. Kindle and Paperback.


614. The Complete Idiot’s Guide To The Paranormal – Nathan Robert Brown

We had no idea how this book treats the subject; we were sold by the title alone. If it is a debunking, there are Pulp Characters who do that in adventures; if it has a more “open-minded” approach, that can be a source of adventures, too. Either way, just about everything included is likely to be grist for the Pulp GM’s mill. While there is some overlap with other books on the subject, there is a secondary focus on Asian and especially Japanese paranormal “events” that has no real equivalence elsewhere.


Documentaries About Fringe Science



615. The Witch Doctor Will See You Now (4 eps)

This is an absolutely brilliant series on the methods and effectiveness of traditional medical practices in different parts of the world: China, India, Cameroon (Africa), and South America from memory. The ‘hallucinogenic healing’ episode provided a central conceptual element for the Adventurer’s Club pulp campaign in the form of an underpinning theory of theology that influenced the campaign in ways well beyond the strictly theological, but the two most directly relevant episodes will be the ones on China and India. Unfortunately, the countries of discussion are not identified in the episode names.

Amazon US has one copy of the series as an Australian import but that still puts them ahead of the UK and Canadian sites, who don’t seem to have heard of the series at all.

There are more Australian copies for sale through an Australian Distributor at this page, but we have no idea whether or not they will ship internationally, and even if they do, they won’t play on most non-Australian DVD players / TVs.

Fortunately, three of the four episodes are currently available through youTube:

“Snake Blood Remedy” (Chinese Medicine)

“Cow Urine Cure” (Indian Medicine), and

“Goat Blood Bath”


Books About Accepted Science

It’s important to note that these are books about the accepted science of the Pulp Era, though many deal with a broader palette.


616. Breverton’s Nautical Curiosities – Terry Breverton

A compendium of all sorts of information related to the sea and living/working at sea, full of interesting anecdotes – but it’s the “daily life” element that elevates this above other, similar works


617. Deadly Doses – a writer’s guide to poisons – Serita Deborah Stevens with Anne Klarner

An excellent reference – the forms the poison takes, how quickly they act, the symptoms, treatments and antidotes, and more.


618. Poisons from Hemlock to Botox & the Killer Bean Calabar – Peter Macinnis

A reference of self-evident value. There is an older edition that is cheaper but may not be in the same condition here and a reprint with a slightly different cover here Cover is of the newer edition.


619. The Poisoner’s Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York – Deborah Blum

Blum is a Pulitzer-prize winning science writer. In this book, she relates the careers and discoveries of two of the pioneers of Forensic Medicine – Dr Charles Norris, Manhattan’s first trained chief medical examiner (and a figure who has appeared a couple of times in the Adventurer’s Club Campaign) and Alexander Gettler, it’s first toxicologist. “Moving chronologically from Norris’s appointment in 1918 through his death in 1936, Blum cleverly divides her narrative by poison, providing not only a puzzling case for each noxious substance but the ingenious methods devised by the medical examiner’s office to detect them” (Publisher’s Weekly).

You don’t get much more directly relevant than that.


620. Asimov’s New Guide To Science – Isaac Asimov

Now dating but still the most comprehensive and readable introduction to every science in existence, and the discoveries within it, that has ever come to our attention. The older edition dated to 1965 and was entitled “The New Intelligent Man’s Guide To Science” but was completely updated in the 1990s. That’s right, it’s 25 years out of date and still an automatic recommendation – as much because it is so readable, as for any other reason.

There are two editions available through Amazon – one is a very thick paperback, the other is a hardcover. Second-hand copies of the paperback are relatively cheap but we recommend the slightly more expensive but still very affordable hardcover as a first preference. We’re listing both so that readers can make up their own minds. The paperback admittedly has the prettier cover, so that’s what we’re presenting!


621. Indiana Jones Off The Beaten Path – George Beahm

A dissection of the Indiana Jones movies and Young Indiana Jones TV Series. Goes into each film individually and attempts to separate fact from fiction, and also discusses film locations and describes a day in the life of a real archaeologist.

No copies available from Amazon US to the casual search but if you dig a little deeper you find some:


622. Anthropology For Dummies – Cameron M Smith

The study of humans within societies past and present (as opposed to sociology, which is the study of those societies). Covers subjects such as the evolution of language and the value of societies. This book comes highly recommended by people who know a lot more on the subject than we do as a highly-accessible introduction to the subject (sometimes with a minor caveat over the use of Latin names in the section on biological anthropology, which is about how humans evolved, and is what most people think is the sum total of the whole subject). If you want cave-men, or lost viking villages, or modern-day Amazons, this book is a useful source. See also “Sociology For Dummies”.


623. Archaeology For Dummies – Nancy Marie White

Archaeology is considered by Americans to be a branch of Anthropology, while the rest of the world considers the study of past cultures through their physical remains to be a completely separate subject. We don’t particularly care where people stand on that question – Indiana Jones was an archaeologist, and that’s good enough for us (we’re making the assumption that Anthropology For Dummies takes the European approach, or (at best) covers this subject in less detail than a dedicated book would). That’s why we’re recommending this book. Mike has one concern: the techniques of archeology have changed greatly over the last twenty or thirty years, and changed almost as much in the period between then and the pulp era, so this might be entirely too modern in approach and content to be useful. So we recommend buying a cheap copy, just in case, unless you’re interested in the book for its own sake.


Documentaries About Accepted Science



624. Pain, Pus, and Poison (3 eps)

The history of pharmaceuticals and through them, the history of medicine prior to and shortly after the Pulp period. The first episode deals with pain and painkillers, the second deals with infection and antibiotics, and the third deals with poisons and how they can be used as curatives – from Curare to Botox. This DVD package comes with a 27 minute extra that we haven’t seen, “Wonders of the Microbe World”. The series was released under the name we have used, and under which it aired in Australia, but was subsequently re-released in the US under the name “The Story Of Medicine: Pain, Pus, and Poison”, and is far more widely available in this release, so that’s what we’ve linked to.

Amazon US – $26 or you can stream the episodes via Acorn TV for about the same price which we would only contemplate if the reasonably-priced copies are all sold.

Amazon UK – limited quantities of the US import at £22 but there are still more copies available and at better prices than under the original title.

Amazon Canada – from CDN$31 which is “relatively” cheap.


For-Dummies Books About Accepted Science

In most cases, we haven’t read any of these, and are recommending them for consideration based purely upon the publisher’s descriptions and on general principles except where otherwise noted. This also shifts the content of each review from one of “this book is recommended and here’s why” to “this book might be useful and here’s why”. We have made the assumption that availability and price would fall within our parameters, or close enough to them; we have rarely found this not to be the case.

Selected works were so promising and so relevant, that they have been promoted to the main list of recommendations, excluding them from the above caveats.

A note about Complete Idiot’s Guides

While the “For Dummies” series has a website that lists all the books currently available in the series, there is no equivalent for the “Complete Idiot’s Guides”.

Our blanket advice is that if Amazon lists a “Complete Idiot’s Guide” that matches the subject of one of our “For Dummies” recommendations, you should buy both.


625. Architecture For Dummies – Debrah K Dietsch and Robert A M Stern

If you want to be able to describe the differences between a Greek Alley and a Spanish side-street, all you need is a couple of good photos and a flair for narrative. If you want to understand why the differences occur and how they can manifest in differences in action sequences, you need to understand Architecture. – at least, that was Mike’s argument for promoting this book into the main list of recommendations. Blair and Saxon agreed that he had justified its presence on the list – but not in the main recommendations.


Books About Weapons

We fretted about this category. Was it too broad – should it be subdivided? Was it too narrow? Where would things like Tanks fit?

Ultimately, the fact that many of the books referenced cover the subject in broader terms argued against a subdivision. It was also decided that Tanks and other such weapons platforms would be considered types of vehicle.


626. Armed and Dangerous: a writer’s guide to weapons – Michael Newton

Short on specific weapons characteristics but excellent as a history of firearms. Only half the book is directly relevant to a pulp campaign, but some of the later chapters may offer ideas for weird science super-weapons. There are two editions, 1990 and 2011, but we don’t know if there are any differences in content between them. The link and cover are for the later edition; the 1990 edition had a yellow illustration and a thick blue border.


627. The Illustrated Encyclopedia Of Firearms – Ian V Hogg

Useful for finding the weapons you want to know more about through the index at the back. Our reference version is the 1984 edition but there is a new one, “The New Illustrated Encyclopedia Of Firearms” (same author, different cover, shown), which was published in 1992 – obviously the content is updated, but does that mean that there is less room for the historical period that we’re interested in? Page count was not provided for the older edition by Amazon, but the book thickness is 0.1” thinner… We’re not sure, so we recommend going for the older edition in preference. YMMV.


628. Small Arms Of The World – W H B Smith, 10 th edition revised by Joseph E Smith

A book that’s excellent reference once you know what you specifically want information about – but there aren’t not enough copies available, and the price is marginal (from $19.99) by our criteria

However, there is a newer edition available at even cheaper prices (but still limited quantities) that may serve: There is also an older edition if neither of those is available at reasonable prices, but again, we haven’t seen the differences in content:


629. The Palladium Book of Weapons and Assassins – Erick Wujcik

The half-sized typewriter font may be hard to read, but the contents can be pure gold. The weapons are Asian and especially those which were supposedly used by Ninja. Far from comprehensive but very detailed within its limits. The Google search which provided the cover image also showed another edition with a painted Ninja. Note that the book is on backorder with Palladium themselves, so buy from Amazon or be prepared to wait, possibly for a very long time.


630. Reich of the Black Sun – Joseph P Farrell

“Nazi secret weapons research” – at least, according to the guy who connects Roswell to secret Nazi technology.


Documentaries About Weapons



631. Nazi Megastructures

While you might expect every part of this National Geographic / PBS series to be relevant, there were actually only three episodes that contained information not already known to us: Season 1 episode 2, “V-2 Rocket Bases”; episode 3, “U-Boat Base”; and episode 4, “Super Tanks”. The others, including all of season 2, were interesting, but not as useful to the pulp GM.

Amazon US has no copies. None, nada, nix.

Amazon UK has Season 1 in stock at a quite reasonable £14.99.

Amazon Canada don’t even acknowledge that the DVD series exists!

There is some suggestion through Google Search that the series appears to also be known as “Nazi Mega Weapons” in a different series order (it’s worth noting that the order shown is the one listed officially at various websites but isn’t the same as the broadcast order in Australia, either).

There are rather more copies under this name available through Amazon US at reasonable prices, Amazon UK has no copies available, and Amazon Canada has a limited number of copies at relatively ridiculous prices as usual (but more, at relatively reasonable prices second-hand and from other vendors)

The episodes are also available on YouTube, at least for now:

“V-2 Rocket Bases”;

“U-Boat Base”, and

“Super Tanks”

We recommend that you watch these episodes in reverse order because the “Super Tanks” episode provides valuable context for interpreting what the other two are showing you.



Afterword by Mike:

The Pulp era in the real world bridged two eras of rapid development in the category of things. Society moved from industrialization into mass manufacturing and the expectation of mass-manufactured products, and these radical concepts overhauled everything that a person of the time could see or touch. It was an age of miracles, in which records were being rewritten in virtually every field.

In a pulp world, not only these forces still extant, but there is a resurgence of the home inventor, cobbling together a prototype of mythic capabilities in his basement. Strange and exotic creations are noteworthy but – as a class of object – unexceptional.

The gadgets of a James Bond are Pulp in spirit, if perhaps a little more refined. Bulk them up and make them larger and more dramatic than they could ever be in real life, and you will capture the essence of the Pulp Era. Double-hull Zeppelins, Experimental Death Rays, Silent Explosives, Flying Boats, Rocket-assisted Gyrocopters, exotic antennas the size of buildings – there will always be a characteristic of showmanship in the great Pulp technologies.

As always, the trick is knowing how far you can stretch credibility. Be especially careful when mixing strange tech with the supernatural, as the two are inherently contradictory in their world-views, the former shouting “there is nothing science cannot do” while the latter disdainfully replies, “there are some things science will never understand.”

It was this very dissonance that led to the separation of the weirdness that – for the most part – at least pretends to be science-based or that has achieved some scientific credibility in the eras subsequent, from those weirdnesses that do not, and the further subdivision of the former into “fringe” and “weird” science.

Pulp wouldn’t be same without a touch of the exotic and bizarre in its science and technology.

A week from now: The 7th shelf: Vehicles!

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Blog Carnival November 2016: The Everyday Life of a GM

rpg blog carnival logo

This is the first of five articles scheduled to be part of the November 2016 Blog Carnival, which Campaign Mastery is hosting. The carnival subject is “ordinary life” – in this case, the ordinary life of a GM and how it impacts his game…

This article was within about 3 hours of completion, some 4 hours short of the desire publication deadline, when an electron strayed down the wrong pathway and lost about half of what you can see below. It’s quite disturbing when half your document is suddenly filled with garbage characters. Hence the delay in publication…

The typical GM’s life revolves around five activities: Plotting/Writing, Design, Time Management, Research, and Logistics. These five activities have to be arranged around everything else that the GM does – eating, sleeping, working, entertainment, and so on. The subject of this article is to offer an overview of those activities, their management, and how that arrangement is handled.

Every GM’s circumstances differ either by a little or a lot from those of every other GM. That makes this a difficult subject to write about because you can’t easily generalize and still be relevant. But I’ve been a GM under a number of different arrangements and circumstances, having been at this for a while now – since 1981, in fact – so it’s my hope that if I recount my own varying experiences from different periods of my life and then generalize all of them, I will in fact be able to discuss the subject in a meaningful way. The ride may get a little bumpy along the way, but at the end, other GMs reading this will be able to point at one of those circumstances and say, “that’s the one that’s closest to my situation” and find applicability to their own campaigns as a result – so we’ll get there in the end.

I’ve selected a number of different time periods in which my approach to gaming was quite different due to my external ‘real life’ circumstances of the time.

  • Period 1 is an aggregate of a couple of different time periods when I had no job (but had some obligations to meet in order to receive government support, consuming anywhere from 1/2 to 3 half-days a week – the equivalent of a part-time job but which traded disposable income for free time. Also included in this aggregate will be a recent time period in which I had no obligations but restricted physical capacity and in which I was writing gaming articles semi-regularly, either for Roleplaying Tips or in the early days of Campaign Mastery.
  • Period 2 covers the early days, a couple of years after I first settled with some permanence in Sydney and had a full-time job, but had minimal outside capacity for entertainment beyond gaming.
  • Period 3 is an aggregate of a number of times in which I was working full-time. There was a later period just after I resettled in Sydney (after spending a year away), and a couple of other occasions on which I had reliable employment, with the occasional bout of overtime, plus some outside non-gaming interests or social life to accommodate.
  • Period 4 will deal with my current situation in which I have demanding physical constraints and the equivalent of a part-time job – writing Campaign Mastery – around which I have to structure everything else I do.
  • Finally, Period 5 was a time when I had rather greater working responsibilities that mandated constant overtime – up to 200 hours of it a week at one point, but averaging about 30 hours a week, the equivalent of having a second part-time job, which a lot of people have to do these days to make ends meet, or of someone who has to look after the kids.

As you can tell, the major variance is in the amount of leisure time available, and the presence of other consumers of that leisure time with activities other than gaming and related matters. They have been arranged in sequence of decreasing time available for gaming, ranging from almost-unlimited free time (Period 1) to virtually no free time at all (Period 5), and a couple of different points in between. Hopefully one of them will be analogous to each reader’s current situation.

I’m going to discuss each of the time periods using the same structure:

  1. Context: The place to start is with an overview of each period to put the game-related activities into context.
  2. Game Play: How much potential prep time there was, and how much of that was consumed with actual gaming, and how the two were structured.
  3. Plotting/Writing: The basic consumer of time known as game prep, what corners had to be cut, how it had to be squeezed in, and where time was found to make it possible.
  4. Design: A sub-element of game prep, usually the handmaiden of plot/writing, how much of it I did and what corners had to be cut.
  5. Time Management: How rigidly I had to organize my time, and the impact of that necessity.
  6. Research: Time, tools, and practicalities.
  7. Logistics: Often overlooked, but a centrally important factor in a number of ways.
  8. Making Gaming Fit: the other major distractions, how gaming had to be compromised to fit, and how gaming forced compromises on those other leisure activities.
  9. The Impact On GMing Style: A wrap-up in which the consequences of all this squeezing of time are examined for consequences.

Period 1: Near-Unlimited Time

These days the Australian system of unemployment support is far harsher in terms of the degree of effort required to meet obligations and is founded upon the false assumption that there is work available for anyone who wants it, but in past times it was for more balanced. I don’t want to get too deeply into the politics and sociology involved, because those are side issues; instead, I want to focus on the time left available after those obligations were met. In a nutshell, that left between 5.5 and 6.5 days available. That’s plenty of time to run and prep a couple of campaigns for weekly play, and so that’s what I did.

My general rule of thumb is that every hour of game time requires between 1.5 and 2 hours of prep to be adequately provisioned. Anything less than that, and game prep is compromised; anything more is generally wasting time that could better be spent on big-picture activities or something entirely unrelated (a variety of stimulus helps keep you fresh).

Running two campaigns a week, sometimes three (I had a couple of once-a-month campaigns on the side, plus four-to-eight campaigns running concurrently each month) chews up time, but time was plentiful. More importantly, because four of those campaigns were set in the same game world, any picture work had four times the usual ‘value-for-money’. When the number of campaigns was four (plus on-the-side games), the game sessions were twice as long – 8-10 hours each instead of 4-5. Outside of the initial creation stage, when there is always more work to do, the total demands were the same: about 20 hours a week, plus eight hours for play. You can easily fit that into four days of roughly working-hours length, leaving plenty of time for TV or campaign creation or rules or whatever.

I generally made the effort to try and get each game’s major prep done in a single day, allowing me another half-day to full-day to polish anything that wasn’t quite as good as it should be, or that would add some lasting value to the overall campaign.

But it’s a truism that activity loads will increase to more than fill any empty time. Periodically, I would find that I was cutting game-prep corners to allow a little more time on a side project, and ultimately, that many campaigns became too much for me. Eventually, things stabilized at five campaigns for roughly 5 hours play a month, each – a single day’s prep each week.

A couple of tips for managing activities in this sort of environment:

  • Always take care of any real-world necessities first.
  • Divide game prep into the essential and the non-essential. Divide the non-essential into the enjoyable and the tedious. Ignore the last, prioritize the first, and use the middle group to revitalize and re-motivate yourself as necessary.
  • Save something that’s both quick and fun for the night before play; you’ll find that not only is the game more enjoyable for you but is often more entertaining for the players, and that your GM skills are both quicker and sharper, if you start in an “up” frame of mind.
  • The “Essential” takes priority over any other form of recreation. Always allow yourself a 50% time margin to complete it. Everything else is negotiable.
1.1 Plotting/Writing

The game week always starts with outlining the plot. Don’t rely on memory or on what seems obvious right after a game session; memory will fail you at some point. I then use the plot outline to list the required game prep that I would ideally like to have done. That list is always longer than time will permit; I use the prioritization technique specified in the bullet points above to categorize what has to be done. Top priority is always breaking the plot down into a more substantial outline, writing any narrative and dialogue that’s to be pre-packaged, and creating any notes to players that tell them things that the table in general don’t find out.

That gets followed by a more complete rendering of the adventure in text form. I always focus first on the big picture because that’s my guideline if/when the players zig when I expect them to zag; next, I focus on the needs of this individual adventure. Any other “essential” game prep gets done when it becomes relevant to the plot outline – if I need a map, I’ll pause writing and produce a rough outline when I get to the point where the PCs are first expected to enter the location, and so on. However, I won’t create full NPCs at this point; just a couple of rough notes on their story functions and the concept, personality, archetype, and/or abilities that are needed for them to perform that function. Just the essentials, in other words.

When you have plenty of time, there is no need to skimp or cut corners in this part of game prep.

1.2 Design:

Design generally comprises four types of activity: (1) Handouts/Props; (2) Illustrations; (3) Final versions of maps; and (4) Ready-for-play NPCs.

These all get the same essential/nonessential-but-fun/nonessential-and-tedious breakup. This category is always the first where corners get cut if they have to be. It’s always better to have a rough indicator for the players and solid vision in your head of what it will be, supported with descriptive narrative, than it is to have part of the day’s play fully detailed and lavishly illustrated/mapped and part not-at-all.

Again, unless you go completely over-the-top, with lots of time available, the essentials and most of the non-essential-but-fun activities should be possible.

I often found that I could work on the non-essential-but-fun while watching TV; it gave me something to do while the ads were on.

1.3 Time Management

Time management is fairly loose, tightening up a bit as game day approaches. If all the essentials are done, and I had lots of time on my hands, I would frequently look ahead and do any essentials for the following week’s game before dealing with the non-essentials for this week’s game, especially if I knew that I had something to do that was going to take a lot longer than usual.

1.4 Research:

For most of the period that this category of available time applied, I was without internet. That meant that I generally had two options: the local library, and making stuff up. Being the creative type, I usually applied the latter course, augmented by my personal reference library.

Research can basically be considered an interruption to the writing process. If you can do that research at home on-the-fly, the disruption is minor; if you have to walk to the library and look something up, it’s substantial. In the latter event, I did my best to create a list of all the specific questions that I needed answers to, and dealt with it all in one hit, minimizing the time wasted in traveling back-and-forth. If a lack of information created a bottleneck in the writing process, I always chose to make something up and keep writing.

This also formed my basic attitude to the internet long before the world-wide-web even existed – so far as I am concerned, it simply expands that home library. There were definitely times that I felt the lack, especially when dealing with European nations and cultures. You can’t tell much from a history and an atlas!

I always took the research needs of a campaign into account when designing it. It helped that I had a large omnivore’s appetite for non-fiction and television documentaries; I know a huge amount of odd factoids that have often come in handy with no clear idea of when, where, and how I learned it.

  • Tip: Amazon’s “Look within”, intended to be a sales-and-marketing opportunity, can be a great way to conduct research. Even if only 1/10th of a book is included, there is a chance that this tenth will include what you need to know. Let’s say the subject is Denmark; I start with the Wikipedia page, which will answer most questions I might have, leaving perhaps 1/10th or so. I will then go to Amazon Books and search for “Denmark”, picking the two or three most promising books off the first page or two of results for closer inspection. Then I will “look inside” any of those that offer the option. It doesn’t always give the answer needed, but neither would plucking a book off the library shelves. And if I discover a book that is generally going to be useful on multiple occasions, it goes into my wishlist for purchase when finances permit.
1.5 Logistics:

My logistics were always focused on my personal finances during these periods. The trade-off between employment and unemployment was always free time vs financial independence. When I was first GMing, I could only afford bus fare to gaming, not back again; I walked the latter, often getting home around the 3AM mark, sometimes later.

Logistics had one other vital role to play in the era when I did not have access to a laptop: if it wasn’t on paper, it couldn’t go to the game, and everything that I needed for a game session had to be physically carried.

Another key consideration under this heading was paying for meals. There were often two or even three of these to be covered; on many occasions I would make sandwiches, adding to my load (and consuming space in the bag used to hold everything). If it was a choice between buying a meal and getting public transport home after gaming, buying the meal won. On one occasion, I had to pay so much in photocopying expenses that I walked both ways.

As a general rule of thumb, the more tightly you have to manage your time, the more of a free hand you have with respect to logistics, and vice-versa, at least in my experience.

1.6 The Impact On GMing Style:

Adventures were a lot more sophisticated and polished, and there was a lot of focus on creating rich adventuring environments and game worlds. I looked on a lot of prep as being an investment in the campaign; for example, if I didn’t need an encounter or a location in one adventure, I would still have it floating around for when it did become useful. To some extent, too, this was a self-fulfilling prophecy: if the Drow Kingdom was already fleshed out and detailed, it made it a lot easier to create an adventure that made use of the location.

Period 2: Dedicated Leisure Time

In my early days, I had lots of time but little money. These gave way to a period in which I had less time due to employment, but rather more money – and virtually nothing to do with my free time except gaming. That slowly changed when I bought my first TV and VCR, but I was more interested in music than TV in those days, and music is something that you can listen to while doing something else – as I write this, “The Best Of Supertramp” is drowning out the noise of traffic and providing non-immersive background. So my first purchases were a Walkman, a graphic equalizer, and some car speakers that were mounted on wooden enclosures. I used car speakers because they were sensitive enough to be powered by the Walkman, and when I went out, I just had to unplug it and jack in my headphones and keep right on listening to whatever it was that had been playing.

As a result, I had about half the prep time that I had enjoyed previously, but I was still learning how to GM; my techniques were inefficient and more closely resembled plotting a novel or short story. There wasn’t all that much in the way of grand plans, and the descriptor “epic” could only be applied to the occasional failure.

At the same time, I knew the direction that I wanted to head in my gaming; I just had to figure out how to make it happen. I frequently think back to those days when writing the “Basics For Beginners (and the over-experienced)” series, with the occasional technique learned or devised subsequently thrown in for good measure.

2.1 Plotting/Writing

Quite often, i didn’t plot; I simply started writing, with no idea of the direction in which the story would go. At the time, I only had one or two campaigns, and all were being played weekly, so I would usually start with whatever the PCs had said they wanted to do in the previous adventure and the question, “how can I make this interesting?”. My focus was not on the PC who wanted to do whatever it was, but on how the situation would be made interesting for the other players at the table. I relied heavily on the premise that seeing someone succeed without a struggle was boring, whereas a complication or struggle could be enjoyed vicariously, especially if it spilled over to affect the whole group and not just the individual. There was also a strong emphasis on character interactions.

Everything was being done either longhand or, later, with a manual typewriter.

2.2 Design:

Handouts didn’t exist. Maps were all hand-drawn with ruler and graph paper, usually twice – once in pencil and a second time in ink, normally using 0.5mm marker pens. I worked hard on character illustrations, both PC and NPC, but anything else was rudimentary line art at best. Some sketches from back then are still in my possession; some were better than I appreciated at the time, some worse than I thought, and some manage to be both at the same time in different sections! All NPCs were fully developed and statted out, 99% of which was never used.

2.3 Time Management:

There wasn’t much of this at all; if I finished the adventure early, I would spend the rest of the week thinking about the big picture and making notes on ideas for later adventures, or working on rewriting the rules to do more of what I wanted and less of what I didn’t in a relatively piecemeal approach.

2.4 Research:

At this point, I didn’t have much of a reference library. There was no research; I simply made it up as I went along. While there was a great freedom in doing so, it showed in a frequent lack of polish and detail.

2.5 Logistics:

I no longer had to walk home, a positive benefit of being employed. But I would often go to a friend’s house on Friday nights for gaming, stay there overnight, travel to gaming on Saturday with him and the others who had showed up – initially by public transport and later in his car, then head home Saturday night – or with another friend back to his place for the night and still more gaming on the Sunday. I would also spend a lot of time watching videos with him until the wee small hours – he had an extensive collection of 1970s and 80s sci-fi, both TV shows and movies. After a few months of this, we were joined by another friend who had escaped a bad domestic situation and now crashed on my floor the rest of the week.

It was easy to make gaming fit; everything else (bar work) was compromised to make it do so.

2.6 The Impact On GMing Style:

I’ve given some indication of this in the section on Plot and Writing. These days, a lot of those plots seem so rudimentary that in writing up the official history of the Champions campaign for reference by later players – a still-unfinished process – I have found it necessary to dress up the plots or even replace them completely, keeping only the broad outlines of what took place in actual play at the time (another part of the motivation for these changes is to remove trademarked characters expropriated from other sources and replace them with more original creations).

Period 3: Part-Time without Restrictions

In the many timespans that comprise period 3, I was working at least part-time, consuming some of what would otherwise have been free time, but I had few other sources of recreation aside from reading old favorites. I didn’t always have the time to go to the library to borrow books, but made up for that by being able to spend money on my own books. Logistics eased, as always happens when you have money in your pocket (no matter how minimal) but time management became more important.

I frequently only had enough time to prep one campaign for play each week, but I continued running two or three or more of them anyway, so they were all fraught with compromises. The tight plotting of Period one was conspicuous in its absence; while there were a number of ongoing plotlines that I manipulated – hastening here and delaying there – in order to create climactic resolutions, there was a far greater episodic emphasis, and far more patchiness when it came to quality.

3.1 Plotting/Writing

One of the major changes that I made to the way I structured my plotting and writing was to always have a quick-and-dirty filler adventure on hand that I could drop into the campaign at the last minute. This was usually the opening salvo in a new longer-range plotline whose details had not yet been fully worked out, but on occasion it was a standalone adventure. Some things that were tried as experiments/fillers in this time period worked, such as dedicating a ‘standalone’ adventure to the introduction of each major NPC or ‘chess piece’ within the campaign, especially if these were to be different from canon, which is now part of my standard campaign structures.

The benefit was that if necessary, I could delay the next major development in an ongoing plotline until it was ready. The danger – and the result that eventuated – was that I would end up with too many plotlines on the go at the same time. This was also the source of some of that patchiness in quality that I mentioned. There were times that I invented the basic outlines of the plot in the car on the way to play, as I described in By The Seat Of Your Pants: Adventures On the Fly, especially when other interests began to eat into the available time. In hindsight, I was doing too much for the available time; but at the time, it seemed to be the right thing to do.

The basic approach described in 1.1 was unchanged in these periods other than as detailed above, but corners were cut almost everywhere, especially in the design phase.

3.2 Design:

Handouts just didn’t happen, and any need for them was written out and replaced with in-game narrative. For maps, rough drafts was usually adjudged to be enough. Illustrations were reduced to rough sketches done as I went, or also replaced with narrative; this sharpened my skills in the narrative area greatly. Everything was done on a manual typewriter or written longhand (mostly the latter) – and it’s astonishing how you learn to compress your writing when that’s the case. And I completely stopped developing NPCs beyond the initial ‘specifications’ described in 1.1.

3.3 Time Management:

Time management became a critical consideration. Many things that at other times would have been deemed “essential” were downgraded to “non-essential” and most non-essentials didn’t happen at all. Because I was trying to do too much, it became critically important to estimate how long tasks would take, and schedule them sufficiently in advance that I had at least a theoretical hope of finishing them on time. Quite often during this period I would use a 1-5 scale for priority instead of the simpler system described earlier. With some polishing and refinement, this period’s work practices were the basis for the system described in Game Prep and the +N to Game Longevity.

3.4 Research:

Research simply didn’t happen if I didn’t have what I needed to hand. Even if I knew I had a book with the required information in it, I set a strict time limit to first searching for that book and second searching the contents for the information required. These days, the approach described in Lightning Research: Maximum Answers in Minimum Time would usually permit full research to be carried out within that allocated and restricted timespan; back then, there was no internet, so the basic practice was to further extend the practice of “answers, fast, or make something up”.

3.5 Logistics:

These weren’t as important. There was still a limit on how much I could take to a game, but that was fine because I didn’t have time to prepare as much material, anyway.

3.6 The Impact On GMing Style:

I had developed a long-term campaign plan before entering this period; all that had to be done was to devise the actual adventures that fitted into the prescheduled slots in that campaign plan. The results were a strange blend of careful planning and improv that worked so well it’s become a standard part of my toolkit ever since, though I no longer improv anywhere near as much as I did back then. What was astonishing to me is the way I garnered a reputation for having everything preplanned in this period, thanks to that master plan; as best I can tell, none of the players could ever tell that I was devising adventures ad-hoc and en-route. I’ve since noticed the exact same thing happening in more recent campaigns, such as Lovecraft’s Legacies, my Dr Who campaign.

Here’s a useful way to look at the process: There’s a rough master plan which dictates how each adventure relates to the whole, but doesn’t say very much about the content of that adventure, and which is largely concerned with evolving the campaign background. Each adventure then has a specific plan which creates an initial situation and provides an overall direction towards achieving the requirements from the master plan. The adventure itself is largely preplanned, but that specific plan, the current status of the campaign background, and the adventure/campaign themes, give me the confidence to let the PCs wander away from whatever I have planned, sure that I will manage to incorporate the developments that the master plan requires and beyond that, whatever is fun is fine.

Period 4: Part-Time with Restrictions

This is my now. I write Campaign Mastery two days a week, sometimes three; I do campaign prep for the Adventurer’s Club one day a week; regular life maintenance – shopping, etc – takes another day, sometimes two; I play one day a week; and that leaves one day for watching TV and relaxing and doing anything else that’s on my horizon, like prepping for my other campaigns.

All that is complicated by my physical condition, especially my eyes, neck and back.

I talked about the latter in Part 2 of Dice And Life: Bio of a gamemaster (but I’ve linked to part one so that if you’re interested, you can read the whole thing; there’s a link at the end of the post that will take you to part 2). In a nutshell, one of the discs in my lower back has split and managed to turn inside-out, where the lining abrades both the muscle wall and the spinal column. The vertebrae on either side of the damaged disc occasionally pinch nerves, and are only held in place by my back muscles, which are continually being damaged by the disk. The consequence is that I can’t do anything for too long (stand up, walk, sit, travel, even lie down) without crippling back pain. What’s more, short-term agony is always one careless move away – or a cough, or sneeze, or whatever. After severely overdoing it two or three years ago when family visited, I have only recently regained sufficient capacity to be able to walk about three city blocks – on a good day.

In my neck, I have two more slipped discs (one worse than the other) which occasionally pinch nerves affecting my upper body or give my hand uncontrollable shakes, and which often requires me to sleep in positions that puts my lower back under stress, and another which is showing the first signs of arthritis. It aches if I write for too long without a break unless I’m careful not to lean forward.

Both often cause phantom pains in other parts of my body, especially hips and shoulders. When my neck is particularly bad, my left arm can be completely numb and all-but-immobile. They also prevent me from doing even simple things in the kitchen more than two or three times a week – even making sandwiches is often beyond me. This makes managing my diabetes difficult, but fortunately I have responded very well to medication in that area.

As a rough guide, for every 2 hours or so of sitting and writing, I have to spend 30 minutes lying down. In combination with the sleep disruptions caused by these two injuries, it’s easy to drop off, further contributing to a perpetually-confused sleep cycle. But that at least lets me rest my eyes, which get quite tired after reading a screen for hours at a time, or reading a book for a few minutes.

These days, I organize my life around these physical infirmities and limitations. Everything takes 25% or more longer than it should – more, because it’s inefficient to stop and start; you have to spend additional time getting back up to speed, and you lose creative momentum.

4.1 Plotting/Writing

The solution to that problem, to a large extent, is to plan more stringently in advance, as described in One word at a time: How I (usually) write a Blog Post. I can delay taking a break long enough to finish a section or subsection, making it much easier to get back into the groove after a rest, or can bring the rest forward if I’m about to start a new section that I don’t think will be completed in time.

As I have remarked a number of times in subsequent articles, I use exactly the same process to do just about everything, including writing game content like adventures. This essentially means defining my campaign and adventure plans more robustly and in bullet-point form, permitting me to expand these adventure notes one at a time.

I’ve made any number of attempts in various articles to explain the process that I use, but have never been completely satisfied with any of them, so here’s yet another. The diagram to the right illustrates the process; I have a master plan that lists the developments in the big picture and contains, as a sublist, a very broad outline of the game events that result in those developments. A typical example might be “Earth-Prime: Baron Varnae (supervampire) – people are vanishing from the Paris Sewer art community and there are reports that the place is haunted by a shadow that kills with a glance.” This tells me where, in broad terms, the adventure is to take place, who the antagonist is to be, and what (in general) the plotline (or in this case, plot hook) are going to be. In addition, there might be various subplot developments and incidents from the personal lives of the PCs. These, collectively, are the “Adventure Content”.

The second level of planning is what I do when I refer to “plotting” – I take those known elements of the adventure that I am working on and add more until I have a full story outlined, identifying how the PCs will get into each piece of the plot, what the purpose of that plot element is at a metagame or big-picture level, what the tone of the adventure is to be, and so on, and the order in which they are to occur. These collectively form the Adventure Outline, and each item is “plot content”. A specific piece of adventure content may provide one piece of plot content or many. At this point, I also look at what any PCs are doing if there is no specific plot material for them – I have a table that I put together of 100 random “general events” in the PCs lives, so I simply roll for each.

Once the adventure outline is complete, it’s time to actually write the adventure. I break the list of plot contents and break it into acts and scenes, and sometimes into even broader units called Parts, indicating that the adventure is intended to operate over multiple weeks of play. I may also specify prologue and epilogue. Starting with the first one on the list, I break it into logical scenes and specify any details that will be needed – you can see the list in the right-hand side of the yellow box. Descriptions, who, where, what’s said, and what’s to happen, basically. Then I move on to the next one, and keep going until I’ve finished the adventure, or – if I’m pressed for time – enough to get me through the next day’s play.

A lot of this material is in brief note form; my players still have no idea how much of each game session is run “off the cuff” in response to their choices and decisions (well, one might, because he’s in the Dr Who campaign and I send him the adventure as written after it is finished). I use my improv skills to cover any shortcomings or gaps in my planning, using the adventure outline and the big picture content of the adventure to enable me to know what’s important in terms of outcome when the players go off-script.

The priorities for any given adventure are, in order, (1) to fulfill the big-picture needs; (2) to tell a good story that entertains the players; and (3) to keep the campaign and its NPCs evolving and developing. Anything and everything else is up for grabs, a distant fourth-place ranking in importance.

The major strength of this approach is that the essentials get done, and as much of the non-essentials as there is time for, but if anything else is unfinished, I know what it is that I have to achieve with whatever improvisation I use to fill the gap.

4.2 Design:

Handouts happen from time to time, but these represent a major investment in time and effort, requiring me to start work on them months in advance, so they are fairly rare. Maps are rough sketches some of the time, narrative descriptions of locations some of the time, and images some of the time, or some combination. On occasion, I will lay out battlemaps but I’ve found that leaning over the table to set these up is hard on my back, so I prefer to do them the day before play if at all possible; if that inconveniences the players at the game table, that’s too bad. As for NPCs, I’ve written several articles here at Campaign Mastery outlining the techniques that I use to create them – and not to spend any more time creating them than I have to. See:

You can also find a number of actual examples that I offered in the pre- and post-Christmas period last year (go to this list of articles from December 2015 and this one for January 2016, and click on any of the articles that are entitled “Pieces Of Creation”.

4.3 Time Management

You would think that time management would be more critical than ever, and sometimes – as when there is a handout required – that is the case, but for the most part the plotting technique outlined earlier means that I don’t have to worry too much about that.

My #1 priority is my health; Campaign Mastery is priority number two; and gaming is priority number three. These days, I GM mainly out of friendship, for my own pleasure – I like entertaining others – and for the inspiration of new articles. I could probably be more productive – for a while, at least – if I gave up GMing and focused on writing fiction and game supplements; but, since gaming is my primary social activity, I’m not sure that I wouldn’t go squirrelly without it.

For that matter, cold hard logic states that I should take CM to a weekly blog instead of the current bi-weekly schedule, enabling me to start updating old posts and converting them into e-books, but the itch to create new content is too strong; I have trouble squeezing every article I come up with into the current schedule, never mind trying to do it into half as many. My post schedule currently stretches into late January! It will undoubtedly change between now and then, but the fact remains that I have enough ideas for articles outlined to carry me through the next three months without thinking of anything in that time.

So my time management is simple and flexible. Sunday, I start Monday’s post (if necessary), and Monday I finish it, then deal with any big-picture game items needing my attention. Tuesday I deal with any real-life priorities. Wednesday I do game prep for the Adventurer’s Club campaign with my co-GM. Thursday, and occasionally Friday, I do the second article for the week; if Friday is not used for that purpose, I use it for my campaign prep. Saturday I game and relax. But all of that is subject to change as necessary; next week, for example, Pulp Prep will be on Tuesday so that I can watch coverage of the US elections on Wednesday (my time).

4.4 Research

I’ve already referred to the Lightning Research article, so there’s no need to do so again.

4.5 Logistics:

Logistics remains a major consideration. All but one of the games that I participate in, either as player or GM, take place at my home simply because I don’t travel very well. The Adventurer’s Club is the one exception that takes place off-site. For that campaign, two laptops are normally used – one to display maps and images to the PCs, and the other to show the plot to the GMs. Aside from dice, any handouts, the only other thing that I take is a notepad – both laptops have copies of most of the rulebooks. In a pinch, I can make do with a single machine, further reducing the load to be conveyed.

‘Logistics’ can also be used to describe the management techniques that I employ to squeeze in everything else that I do. In particular, I record a lot of TV shows so that I can time-shift them to more convenient watching times, and very closely monitor how much I need to watch on any given day to ensure that the hard disk doesn’t fill up. I maintain a rigorous and fairly pessimistic budget. I have a set morning routine, and the only real variable is how much spam I have to process; my daily TV-watching takes place, first and foremost, while I’m eating. I get my groceries delivered because I can’t carry them, and try to do most of it in a single big monthly order so that I can reduce delivery costs.

I have a huge stack of DVDs that I haven’t yet had time to watch, and a stack almost as tall of books that I have yet to read; I used to consume a book every 3 days while traveling to and from work, but I no longer have to commute (and I’m not really physically able to do it, anyway).

None of my health problems are immediately crippling unless they are mismanaged by exceeding the practical limits that have been learned the hard way. But they have compromised every other aspect of my life in one way or another.

4.6 The Impact On GMing Style:

A lot more is improvised than the players realize, thanks to the “master plan” technique that I outlined earlier. That being said, some of the most recent adventures have been easily amongst the richest and most complex that I have ever run, with more moving parts and chess pieces than you can poke a stick at.

Take, as an example, the current adventure in the Zenith-3 campaign, which I briefly outlined in Monday’s article; it contains more than two dozen significant plot developments or NPCs, (or will do after the final part) – don’t worry, I’m not going to give the game away to the players! Some of the entries on this list won’t mean anything to anyone not familiar to the campaign (and some are new to everyone because they haven’t appeared yet):

  • (1) a newly-resurrected (in the previous adventure) Backlash announces his intention to reclaim leadership of The Champions – at least for a while;
  • (2) An as-yet unidentified arcane invader whose presence and/or arrival is causing control problems for mages all over the world and who may have already triggered World War III;
  • (3) Voodoo Willy, a narcotics dealer and Voudon Priest with whom the PCs have an understanding;
  • (4) A blinding light that blanketed half of North America;
  • (5) Urba Garbon of Imperial Cybersecurity;
  • (6) Hollow, a hacker targeted by Garbon, who turned out to be a sentient distributed-intelligence hologram roaming the Internet;
  • (7) The PCs’ first public failure;
  • (8) E-III, an Imperial Special Forces soldier who was fully cyborgized after being wounded in a firefight somewhere in Africa and whose brain has been artificially over-clocked beyond it’s capacity;
  • (9) Swarm, an experimental cyber-upgrade into self-replicating nanobots;
  • (10) Dr Heinrich Vossen, aka The Maker, leader of the Menschen Richtung, the most extreme survivalist cult in the world;
  • (11-20) other notable members of the Menschen Richtung:
    • Oppenheimer,a cyber-enhanced ape with transplanted human brain;
    • Nurse Gillian, a bio-enhanced human with an extra layer of cloned gray matter added to her brain;
    • Brutus, head of security for the Menschen Richtung, an enhanced humanoid Doberman with transplanted human brain;
    • Georgio, a humanoid shrew-lemur hybrid with transplanted human brain;
    • Reginald, engineer and cybertechnician with a very impressive CV, whose brain has been transplanted into a human/mole hybrid humanoid body;
    • Gunther, a humanoid creation with slug DNA inserted into his genetic sequence;
    • Lupus and Carlos, a human-wolf hybrid and hammerhead-human hybrid respectively, both with transplanted human brains, and members of the security force;
    • Patricia, a cybernetically-enhanced snake-human hybrid; and
    • Arthur, a partially-cyborgized maintenance engineer;
  • (21) Other members of the Menschen Richtung menagerie: No-name (humanoid bear), Wolf-man, Elephant-head, Spider-woman, String-thing, Rat-man, Alligator-Man, Tree-Woman, and The Hunter-thing;
  • (22) The Freakshow, a name collectively applied to Vossen’s surviving failed experiments;
  • (23) Mutagenic Drugs;
  • (24) A cybered-up street gang named the Chrome Tigers who have begun to branch into the manufacture and distribution of low-quality Mutagenic drugs in order to fund a gang war;
  • (25) The Lavender Gang, a vice operation which runs territory formerly under Chrome Tiger control, and the targets of the Gang War;
  • (26) A conspiracy providing political, financial, and legal protection to the Chrome Tigers and who may be doing much more;
  • (27) Skygge, who the PCs have yet to meet;
  • (28) A stolen (and crashed) alien starship which is counting down to a continent-wrecking catastrophic self-destruction;
  • (29) Holy Web, the internet division of the Roman Catholic Church; and,
  • (30) A hidden ally somewhere in the Vatican.

And yet, when you boil it down, this represents a mere handful of pieces of Adventure Content:

  1. Subplots: RA12 (Arcane Invader), RA09, RSu03 (Voodoo Willy)
  2. Encounter: RV03 (Holo, E-III)
  3. Plotlines: V13a (Swarm, E-III), RV13a (E-III, Vossen, Menschen Richtung), V02e (Voodoo Willy, Chrome Tigers, Lavender Gang)
  4. Epilogue: RV03 (Holy Web), V05d (Vala’s Ship).

Each of those codes points me to what is usually just a line – something as simple as “RV03: E-III disrupts a raid to capture Holo (both previously unencountered)” – but which may be a paragraph, or even (in some cases) multiple paragraphs. The non-numeric part of the code tells me which plot thread of the 33 which will comprise the entire campaign the development is part of, but I’m not going to translate as it gives the players too much information.

That’s one adventure, lasting 4 sessions so far (with one to go) which examines the creation of “monsters” from four different perspectives with the overall theme that monstrous deeds, even if well-intentioned, create monsters who will, in turn, commit monstrous deeds. The campaign and plots are the richest, densest, and most layered, that I’ve ever run!

In part, that’s because the master plan is the most complex that I’ve ever put together; in part it’s because, while I can’t do much while laying on my back, I can think – and then take notes when I’m back on my feet; and, in part, it’s because of all the games that I’ve run, this is the one with the most complex and interesting PCs.

Period 5: Minimal Leisure Time

At one point I had a job that demanded Looong hours of partially-paid/mostly-unpaid overtime. Sometimes just an hour or two, in one particular week from hell, no less than 178 hours (an emergency situation). That on top of the 35 hours for which I was officially being paid. These herculean efforts were undertaken on the basis that if I helped the business survive the crisis, I would have a job for as long as I wanted it and a substantial pay rise. It didn’t work out that way, and eventually I was replaced by two 17-year olds whose combined salary was about 2/3 of what I was being paid. The business went bankrupt two months later when they wouldn’t do unpaid overtime, leading to a cash-flow crisis that made it impossible for them to pay their mandatory worker’s compensation insurance, or that’s what I was subsequently told. Nor was it all bad; the boss could be the biggest bastard around, or incredibly generous, depending on his mood and the circumstances of the business, and I have nothing but goodwill toward the managers who ran some of the subsidiaries, his sons.

Be that as it may, for about six months, I was working from 9AM to 10PM, sometimes later, 5 days a week, and the occasional weekend. This left me absolutely zero time for game prep. Did I shut down my campaigns? No – though I missed the occasional game session out of sheer exhaustion. I held that job for three years, and only about 6 months of it were bad.

5.1 Plotting/Writing

I didn’t have a master plan that was anywhere near as fully developed as those I now use, just a more general one. I did what I could while on the bus traveling to or from work, a journey of roughly an hour, but a mobile breakfast was usually a higher priority. At best, I usually had about half-a-page of notes.

5.2 Design:

All design was done on the fly, during play. There was no time to do anything else.

5.3 Time Management:

What time? To get to work by 9AM, I had to leave home at 7:50. To get ready for work, that required getting up at 7:30 at the latest (and breakfast on the go). Getting home at about 11AM each night, I had no time to do anything more than going straight to bed.

My metabolism is unusual; before my physical problems arose, if I could go to bed at my preferred time (between 3 and 5 AM), I was quite happy to operate on about 5 hours of sleep a night, but if I have to get up “early” to attend work starting at 9AM, I needed a solid 9 hours to undo accumulated fatigue. This ability continues to come in handy, mitigating the worst effects of the sleep disruption that occurs because of my current infirmities. But for that six-month period, I was getting less than I needed. I went to work each morning, I came home when the day’s work was done (or when I couldn’t go on any longer). There was no time to be managed.

5.4 Research:

Again, didn’t happen.

5.5 Logistics:

Perhaps surprisingly, there were logistics. I could sneak an extra hour or two of sleep during the week if I worked Saturday mornings; Public transport then got me to gaming just in time to GM. If I’d been paid for a reasonable amount of overtime, I could afford to splash out on a Taxi, giving me time to eat lunch first. If not, I would usually have to eat en route – which meant buying food before catching the bus.

The Impact On GMing Style:

In a word: near-catastrophic. If my current adventures number amongst the best that I have ever run, these numbered amongst the worst in many respects. Virtually everything was made up off the cuff.

That being said, gaming was my only release of tension and stress, so it’s probably fair to say that I GM’d with more intensity and exuberance in this period than in any other. Surprisingly, a number of players look back on those adventures fondly.

Broader Analysis

The critical factor in determining how you are going to game is always the amount of leisure time you can devote to game prep after playing time is extracted from the total. It doesn’t matter what else is consuming your time – it could be disability or employment or caring for the neighbor’s pets. Sometimes, you can make hours do double-duty, especially time spent traveling, but the total remains the critical value.

No matter what your circumstances, adapting your gaming style to suit the available prep time will enable you to game successfully. You don’t have to change it consciously; evolution will make changes whether you want it to or not. But a conscious and deliberate analysis of your situation and how you are going to adapt to it, using the varieties of experience that I have outlined above, will almost always yield a better outcome.

And always be aware that the less time you have to devote to gaming, the greater your need to game will usually be. Don’t stop, even if you have no prep time; human nature abhors a vacuum, and no matter how temporary you intend the change to be, other interests will inevitably crowd in.

Even when I was living hundreds of miles away from gaming, I arranged my life and circumstances to permit me to game (you can read the details in part one of “Dice and Life”, linked to earlier). That’s why I’m still involved in gaming to this day, which is what enables me to talk to you all about it.

Game on!

Comments (4)

Stalking Fear: The Creepy in Non-creepy genres

Based on spooky-moon-1566397 by Roman Pauwels

Based on spooky-moon-1566397 by / Roman Pauwels
Color enhancement and text added by Mike (see below for how it is done)

This is being written on October 31, which is one of those Iconic dates in North America and catching on (thanks to the marketing muscle of various supermarkets and retailers, who are always looking for an angle that will persuade you to buy something extra) through large parts of the rest of the world.

This time of year is always significant; it signals that the year is in its home run towards the finish line. Because the last opportunity to hand out Christmas gifts to our players is often the first Saturday in December, and we need time to have the things that we have ordered over the internet arrive in Australia, most of my Christmas Shopping is already done by this point, and various products are now in transit. December sometimes seems almost entirely one big end-of-year party getting in the way of the usual routine, so for most of our games there is just one more session before the end of the year.

So it’s a date that’s worth celebrating, that deserves to be noteworthy. And the usual way is by talking about ghosts and ghoulies and goblins – well maybe not goblins, not anymore. But the scary stuff. Which brings me neatly to today’s article, which is bang-on theme. I’m even aiming to publish an hour early, right at the stroke of midnight, just so that I can legitimately claim that this was published on Halloween here as well as in North America!



According to Wikipedia, “Fear is a feeling induced by perceived danger or threat that occurs in certain types of organisms, which causes a change in metabolic and organ functions and ultimately a change in behavior, such as fleeing, hiding, or freezing from perceived traumatic events. Fear in human beings may occur in response to a specific stimulus occurring in the present, or in anticipation or expectation of a future threat perceived as a risk to body or life. The fear response arises from the perception of danger leading to confrontation with or escape from/avoiding the threat (also known as the fight-or-flight response), which in extreme cases of fear (horror and terror) can be a freeze response or paralysis.”

I don’t agree 100% with that description. Fear doesn’t necessarily lead to a behavioral change. It is unreasonable to think that soldiers, police, and rescue workers would eliminate the fear response, but unless the fear becomes acute, they remain able to follow their training. Thus, while the Wikipedia description would be accurate for acute fear, there would be lesser degrees of fear which do not completely meet the description.

Fear is the emotion that we feel when we feel scared. There are causes both rational and irrational, and the latter are usually characterized as phobias, though I would include paranoia in that category as well. Rational fears are fears that have a solid justification in terms of perceived threat, and yet fear goes beyond simple threat perception and the associated physiological responses. You can feel an adrenalin rush without feeling fear; excitement and exhilaration are also possible reactions to danger.

Mutual fear can bond people together in a shared experience, just as can shared grief; the two often occur side-by-side. Survivors of a life-threatening incident such as an aircraft crash frequently bond in this way, for example, and survivors of terrorist threats may also respond in this way. Communities can band together in mutual cooperation in the face of natural disasters. Sometimes, these bonding effects can be transient, sometimes they last a lifetime; soldiers also report this phenomenon, to the point that it is almost a cliché.

Neither of these effects is part of the description of fear that is quoted above. Nor is the experience of fear by proxy, which happens in thrillers and horror movies, explained by it. And that last is important to us, because that’s the closest analogy to the purpose of the spooky in an RPG. So let’s look at it in more detail.


Fear in Entertainment

Again, from Wikipedia:

“Horror is a film genre seeking to elicit a negative emotional reaction from viewers by playing on the audience’s primal fears. Inspired by literature from authors like Edgar Allan Poe, Bram Stoker, and Mary Shelley, horror films have existed for more than a century. The macabre and the supernatural are frequent themes, and may overlap with the fantasy, supernatural fiction and thriller genres.

“Horror films often deal with viewers’ nightmares, fears, revulsions and terror of the unknown. Plots within the horror genre often involve the intrusion of an evil force, event, or personage into the everyday world. Prevalent elements include ghosts, extraterrestrials, vampires, werewolves, demons, gore, torture, vicious animals, evil witches, monsters, zombies, cannibals, psychopaths, and serial killers.”

So why do people enjoy scary movies? Bottom Line: while lots of people have opinions, the phenomenon is so complex and multifaceted that no-one can really say, definitively. Richard Sine of WebMD discusses several theories in his article “Why We Love Scary Movies” – everything from rites of passage to vicarious thrills. But most of his article is focused on the gore/slasher/torture subgenre, even though the title generalizes the topic. While some people find this subgenre thrilling, exciting, or enjoyable, most don’t – and it doesn’t come close to encompassing the whole of the genre.

Mark D Griffiths, PhD, in an web article for Psychology Today, “Why Do We Like Watching Scary Films?“, attempts to look at a broader picture. What’s interesting is that the first quote, from Dr. Jeffrey Goldstein, a professor of social and organizational psychology at the University of Utrecht, is directly contradictory to findings quoted in the first article listed. Specifically, WebMD’s quote is that the reactions to the on-screen threat are exactly the same as if the threat were real because the hind-brain can’t tell the difference between simulation and reality, and triggers the identical physiological responses, while the Psychology Today article suggests that “But people have the ability to pay attention as much or as little as they care to in order to control what effect it has on them, emotionally and otherwise.”

This contradiction is most easily resolved by suggesting that neither of the two have the whole picture. when monsters or madmen attack from the shadows without warning, especially if there has been an appropriate buildup of tension, it’s easy to believe that for a second or so the more primitive parts of the brain respond as though the on-screen incident is real, and that this triggers physiological responses that last for some time. However, if granted sufficient distance before another such incident, the higher brain functions are capable of making the distinction between reality and simulation to whatever degree is necessary for individual comfort, together with personal reactions that limit further exposure to such shocks such as the desire to look away. This permits the viewer to enjoy the effects of thrills and danger at an intense level vicariously, without a personal sense of imminent threat.

Subsequent quotes in the Psychology Today article seem to bear this theory out, one researcher suggesting that there are four types of audience and that each would enjoy different sub-genres more, or for different reasons: ” (i) gore watchers typically had low empathy, high sensation seeking, and [among males only] a strong identification with the killer, (ii) thrill watchers typically had both high empathy and sensation seeking, identified themselves more with the victims, and liked the suspense of the film, (iii) independent watchers typically had a high empathy for the victim along with a high positive effect for overcoming fear, and (iv) problem watchers typically had high empathy for the victim but were characterized by negative effect (particularly a sense of helplessness).”

There are other theories as well, some dating all the way back to Aristotle (and obviously relating to the telling of scary stories). Amongst others, there are the Excitement Transfer Hypothesis (discussed in “Why Some People Love Horror Movies While Others Hate Them” By Margarita Tartakovsky, M.S., at Psych Central, which suggests a persistent emotional amplification effect; Catharsis, in which seeing or imagining scary things helps us manage the fears which are the subject of the media; primordial unconsciousness response, in which the perceived images express things that we can’t bring ourselves to envisage and offer a context in which to resolve them; Morbid Curiosity or intellectual stimulation, in which the entertainment poses questions of ourselves that we would not have thought to ask for ourselves; and many others.

I suspect that the individual has a complex relationship with the content and tone of the entertainment that engages one or more of these in different degree, and that the reasons for a given entertainment being enjoyed are subtly different both from one individual to another and from one offering to the next.

There are some horror movies that I quite enjoy, and others that don’t greatly appeal. I prefer the original version of “The Fly” over the remakes, even while appreciating the improved visual effects of the latter; I like both versions of the The Thing, for different reasons, but would choose John Carpenter’s over the original if I had to; Westworld is another that I quite enjoy, and so is The Gate, and The Wraith, and Trick or Treat, and the Dr Phibes movies, and Hammer’s Frankenstein movies, and Dark City. I enjoyed The Craft enough to skip a meal in order to be able to afford the DVD – but have never played it since. I know one person who regards Groundhog Day as a horror movie, because they fear being trapped in a world beyond their control, but who watches it regularly anyway, because it promises that there is a way out of such situations should they arise.

All this makes it incredibly difficult to apply the creepy to an RPG because you not only have a very small ‘audience’, each of them will react differently. In a larger group, the statistical likelihood is that some viewers will respond to specific elements or attributes and their reactions will entice others to respond in the same way via empathic association. In particular, fear is communicable to at least some extent, and so those who are most responsive will enhance the sensitivity of others to the scariness of a film – when you see it with a group.


Fear in RPGs

In broad terms, RPGs are fairly simple, at least in principle, when it comes to scary content. It’s only when you get into details that things grow more complicated.

Ultimately, for example, if the whole thing is about Fear, there are only three populations (plus the GM) who can experience a fear response.

Scared NPCs?

It didn’t matter how scared NPCs were in any game that I played, my responses and reactions were all predicated on the question of how great a threat the subject of those fears was to my character. Scared NPCs were ho-hum, a way of demonstrating the superiority of my PC over the ‘common herd’. When the NPC supposedly showing fear was someone that my character was supposed to respect because of his capabilities and prowess, my first reaction to such fear was always disappointment that the character had such feet of clay.

Sure, my character was able to feel fear when that was the appropriate response of his personality to the situation, but it was always from him, not from any NPC reaction.

If anything, I often found it to be scarier when there was something to be scared of – and the NPCs weren’t fearful.

Scared players?

It’s really hard to scare the players in an RPG because they are always aware that it IS an RPG. Sure, you could manage it by posing some actual threat to the players, but doing it by story alone is really tough. More often, players are scared for their characters than because of the actual situation facing the characters; they feel threatened because “their property” is at risk. This can lead players to spend long periods of time trying to analyze situations and make overly-extensive plans that drag out a game unbearably. I wrote about this in “Overprotective Tendencies: Handling Player Risk Aversion“.

So there is a really fine line to dance on, if you want to scare the players; it needs to be something that’s creepy more than directly threatening. I had this in mind when choosing the title for this article.

Scared PCS!

That leaves only the third population group: scaring the PCs in such a way that the players can experience that fear vicariously enough to roleplay (and enjoy) the situation while still leaving the players a sense of being in control of their characters’ destinies. Which is far easier to say than to do. Why? Because fear is all about restricting the choice of actions, while leaving the players with a sense of control requires no such restriction.

Nevertheless, this is clearly the road that needs to be taken. The theory is that getting the PCs to feel fear, if done properly, and even if that fear is not acute, can nevertheless be experienced to some degree by the player controlling the character by virtue of the player/character identification process. Achieving this objective is the subject of the bulk of this article.

The creepy in non-creepy genres

In one respect, it’s easier to do a scary adventure or encounter in a non-creepy genre simply because the impact is emphasized by virtue of the contrast between the “creepy” and “typical” situations. In another respect, it is harder, simply because the characters and players are not psychologically aligned to trend in that direction, and neither is the pervading mood, and – finally – the genre conventions might be in opposition.

Or to put it another way, putting the scary into a horror-themed RPG is easier because the mechanics are designed to support the genre and its standard tropes.

And yet, it’s that very difficulty that makes this worth attempting on occasion – if it doesn’t work, you have (ideally) a mediocre-but-solid adventure; if it does, you transcend the genre limitations to achieve something spectacular.

The difficulty means that it’s essential to have as many elements contributing to the objective as it’s possible to arrange. And that includes taking advantage of the psychological preparedness that derives from celebrating a “creepy” holiday like Halloween.

The Difficulties

It’s worth looking at some of the specific difficulties involved. If the adventure is to succeed, most or all of these will have to be overcome, or at least minimized in their impact.

Arm’s Length Remove

The first is an absolute – anything that pulls the players out of character has to be minimized, the identification between player and character has to be maximized. This affects everything from the choices of phrasing of the GM – he should speak to the player/character always in the first-person and personal (“you,” “he”) and never by name, i.e. in the third person – to the design of the adventure, which should emphasize roleplay and minimize die rolls (it’s not going too far to have players roll dice in advance and for these to be kept by the GM and applied as necessary). That includes the GM rolling dice.

The Startle Response

A lot of horror movies function by building up tension and then provoking a startle response that makes the viewer jump. This is much harder to do in an RPG; descriptions never have the same impact, and you can’t cheat by showing the villain lurking in the shadows or stalking their target. Everything has to be from the PCs perspective.

It can be achieved using sound effects, hushed tones, and sudden punctuation – but it’s not easy.

Gore? Only In Your Mind, mate

Some horror films, especially the slasher subgenre, function by killing characters off and employing liberal doses of gore and the gruesome. These lose all their impact in a narrative environment unless very carefully handled. Again, sound effects and visuals can be helpful, but by and large the PCs will ignore these things as attempts by the GM to manipulate them. The gruesome is just ugly unless it is placed in the correct psychological context.

Gratuitous Violence? What else is new?

Similarly, gratuitous violence has minimal impact; players in D&D are used to extreme violence, for example. If you can give the players the sense that someone or something is picking them off, one-by-one, you might be able to pull it off – but then you face the problem of what to do with those players whose characters have been, or have supposedly been, killed – and if you give any indication that appearances are deceptive, the situation has all the impact of wet spaghetti.

Horror-genre games usually solve this with high levels of lethality – if a character is killed off, the player goes into the next room and starts generating a replacement who can join the survivors in their next adventure – but this is contrary to acceptable behavior in most other genres. In D&D/fantasy it might be tolerable, but the gratuitousness would still be contrary to the heroic fantasy concept in general unless very carefully managed, for example trading each PC ‘life’ for one of the big bad’s lieutenants. But, if you go this route, no PC victory can be permitted without a cost being exacted immediately. And the tendency for PCs to function as a group, however poorly-coordinated, must be taken into account; most of these “pick-them-off” tactics mandate one-on-one encounters. Persuading the party to decide that they have no choice but to split up is the only way to go – but you can’t be seen to be dictating this choice.

It’s even harder in the Pulp and Superheroic genres. Violence is so ingrained in those genres that it is not sufficiently dramatic to be scary, and it’s completely opposed to genre conventions for PCs to get killed off willy-nilly. Such deaths are major set-pieces, and always have to be heroic victories in which a PC makes the ultimate sacrifice to achieve a major plot objective, like defeating the enemy. On top of that, deaths are often not all that permanent, especially in the superheroic genre, and that reduces the impact that it has.

Game Mechanics

I’ve already mentioned this, but it’s worth repeating and emphasizing: every interaction with game mechanics takes players out of the close identification with their characters that the GM needs to exploit. Save that it would induce howls of protest, I would almost recommend taking character sheets away from the players just to make immersion in character as tight as it could possibly get.


The practicalities of when and where you play are usually going to be obstacles that have to be overcome as well. I have no choice, for example, about playing in daylight conditions and have no control over ambient noise.

Overcoming The Difficulties

There are techniques that can be used to overcome these and other difficulties, in whole or in part. Let’s consider the most useful of them.


A good visual representation is worth 1,000 words or more under normal circumstances. These circumstances do nothing but emphasize the value of the right visual representations. I’ve even used tricks like manipulation of images and presenting them as a sequence to achieve effects – for example, find a good photo of a creepy old place, duplicate it, darken it and desaturate it and otherwise edit it so that it appears to be a night-time view, then – in rapid sequence – flash from the darkened image to the original and back. The results look like a creepy place being illuminated by lightning. Overused, this doesn’t work; used correctly, it can have a huge impact.

Here’s how it’s done:

I started with this image of Bucharest provided by / creatsima:


You’ll notice there isn’t a lot of color in it at the moment. That’s good because it permits me to manipulate the colors as I see fit. I created a color mask, simply following the shapes of the bits that I wanted to be in different colors. In this case, there were two – I wanted a light blue for the sky and an even paler blue with just a little more aqua for the stone construction. Putting these on a new layer, I then set that layer to multiply with the original. This is the result:


I then made a copy of the original image layer, placed it above the color map layer, and desaturated it:


I also set this layer to multiply the layers below. I then had three parameters that I tweaked a little: the opacity of the different layers, and the brightness and contrast of the grayscaled image. It took only a minute or two to produce the “final” image:


In use, I would make two copies of the final image, numbering them with a numeric gap in between. The first one might be number 12, and the second copy number 14, for example. I then have my choice of using either the original image or the colored image as picture number 13; the former gives a very bright bolt of lightning, the latter a rather more natural result. In play, I simply show image 12, hit the shortcut to show the next image, and as soon as it has appeared, hit that button again. The result is that the brighter image only flashes on-screen for a second, creating the illusion of a dark and stormy night.

Note that you don’t need a lot of dark, rich color; always work to match the color that you want the lightest part of the image area to be, and then be prepared to tweak hue, brightness, and saturation.

I used a similar technique to enrich the colors of the image used to welcome people to this article, above.

Adding blurred reflections of other images is another trick that can work well, as does framing an image with a dripping-blood border- doing that last in red is a cliché, doing it in black with just a hint of red glisten has a disproportionate effect.

To show you what I mean, here’s another example – and this time I saved the color map to show you! I start with the original image, also provided by / createsima. Note that it is black and white:


The first step is to add color. In this case, I did a slightly more complex job of it, loading textures into the sky, which I am making mostly green with just a little blue, and darker green where the trees were in the original. The lower section LOOKS white, but it isn’t, it’s a very VERY pale brownish-yellow-gray.


Setting the colormap layer to multiply has an immediate impact: Note especially the effect on the color of of the gravestones and mausoleum:


Next, it’s time to darken things up, using a desaturated copy of the colorized image, and setting it to multiply. I used some additional copies of the brightest parts of the sky and multiplied them as well, and used a soft erase to eliminate the resulting dark edges, plus some tweaking of contrast and brightness. When you put all those effects together, you get this image:


Now, that’s fairly creepy on its’ own, but it really needs one final touch – a ribbon of dripping blood across the top. I made that separately and then copied-and-pasted it into the image:


Right away you should be able to see what I described earlier. It doesn’t look like it belongs, it is too bright and saturated relative to the rest of the image. It feels cheesy. To correct this, I duplicated the blood layer, turned the duplicate to grayscale, darkened it to 100%, stretched the underlying red blood just a little, and then moved it up a couple of pixels so that the bottoms of the drops of blood had the most prominent coloring. Here’s the final image:


Now the blood looks like it belongs there, adding to the eeriness and creepiness of the scene.

Reflections are much harder to get right, I’ll deal with how to do them some other time!

Still another trick is to take images of NPCs that the characters know well, or even of the PCs themselves, and using a multiplying filter on a number of desaturated versions of the image on separate layers – with appropriate erasures – can produce much harsher shadows and sunken eyes. I’ve even taken a photograph and photoshopped in skeletal eye-sockets (with appropriate tints) to produce images of the recognizable dead.


If you can use them in your environment, sounds can be extremely powerful in establishing mood, and mood is incredibly potent at creating a scary context. Even sparing use can be effective. This isn’t an option that I have, as I explained in the article on sound effects and music in RPGs earlier this year, but don’t let that stop you if you can do it.

Even minimalist efforts like a recording of fingernails on a blackboard looped into perpetual repetition and played so quietly that it can’t be consciously heard can have a substantial impact. Another is the gnawing of rats and mice. Bury both beneath a sonic layer of wind and then turn it down to the point where you can only just make it out when everyone is quiet.

Or save it for shock impact – a creaky door swinging closed, for example, or a crack of thunder – can be extremely effective especially if you don’t normally go to the effort, and can be played loudly enough, briefly enough, that they will be heard even in a reasonably high-ambient-noise environment but won’t be overly disturbing to others.

The key to maximum effectiveness is for these sounds to appear to be independent of you as GM – it takes all the surprise out of things if you are visibly fiddling with an app just before the sound effect gets played.


Darkening the room and illuminating it with candles on plaster skulls – or anything else of the sort – that adds to the atmosphere of the gaming locale is a definite asset.

Emotional Pacing

When you’re talking about tension build-up and discharge, you’re talking about the emotional pacing of the adventure. I’ve previously written a series on the subject – to pull off a creepy adventure, you will need to master that material or get very lucky:

You might also find these of value:


The more you know about how the players think that their characters think, the better you can target the characters – their fears and insecurities – as the players who control them understand them.

There are two grades of understanding – the gross and the fine. A gross understanding points at phenomena that are well known, for example a character with claustrophobia. These tend to be obvious and unsubtle, making them less desirable for use in a horror adventure. A fine understanding deals with those subtle nuances that may not be dictated by character sheets and descriptions. They are dictated as much by the way the player thinks as they are about the character, and as such, they are far more effective at targeting the “gestalt” that is the combination of player and character.


Horror stories take an aspect of the real world that causes distress, whether that be a fear of spiders, or death, or the supernatural, or whatever, and makes it palpably real from the perspective of the protagonists’ experiences. Whether it ultimately turns out to be ‘real’ in the sense of being what it initially appeared to be is another question entirely. In addition to containing most if not all of those potential horror elements, most game settings will have additional potentials that can comprise a nightmare scenario.

Some of these, like “fast zombies”, have been done almost to death, pardon the pun – but others will not have been. In D&D, smart zombies who retain the character levels they earned in life, and who are conspiring against the living, formed the foundation concept of my Seeds Of Empire campaign, for example, and a slightly different twist on the concept was used for the Tree Of Life campaign which I used for playtesting D&D 5e.

Seek out the uniqueness of your campaign setting and look for the elements within it that can be expressed as a nightmare, a fear. Done properly, this yields a horror story that can come from no other source, that is unique to this particular campaign.

cemetrary by createsima colorized by Mike

Another photograph from / createsima colorized using the techniques described (plus a couple of other tricks). This wasn’t ultimately required for an example because there was not enough visible other than the clouds, except as a silhouette. This time, I gave the clouds a purplish tinge while keeping the bulk of the sky a navy blue.

Proprieties of Plot

While the varieties of potential plot are too great to permit detailed analysis, there are some common traits that they are all going to have to have in order for the horror adventure to succeed in a normally non-horror genre or campaign. Three in particular stand out.

The Accumulation Of Tension

The first is that horror will not happen all at once. You can’t simply flip a switch and go into “scary mode’; instead, it will be a steady accumulation of tension and the expression of that tension in a form that induces fear. Each event along the way adds just a little to the horror scenario, but the cumulative effect slowly overcomes all the difficulties that were outlined earlier, especially if given a gentle shove in the right direction.

In the Zenith-3 campaign at the present time, one of the central themes of the current adventure is that it is easy to make monsters, either literally or figuratively. There is a distant descendant of the notorious Nazi scientist, Dr. Josef Mengele, who applies 21st century science and ruthlessness to transform those on the scrapheap of society into physical monsters in order to present variations on the human form capable of thriving no matter what form of ecological disaster befalls the earth. His motives are sincere and even laudable, his methods are ethical but just barely tolerable, his results are horrifying because no-one gets a choice until after the transformation has taken place, and it is a choice between survival as a monster or death. Some make the transition and even find a measure of satisfaction from their new existences, others fail to make the mental transition and either kill themselves when given the opportunity or go insane. Because the PCs know that the line of work in which they are engaged – being a superhero – is dangerous, they cannot help but put themselves in the shoes of the monsters, confronting their own answers to the question of what an acceptable price is for survival with no quality of life.

Another of the plot threads involves a form of drugs that makes monsters, and how far you are justified in going to satisfy ambition.

A third relates to the protection of one’s children, and how far that can and should be permitted to extend – when your child is a monster, protection of that child becomes monstrous and makes you a monster as well.

And finally, a fourth involves extremism, and extreme reactions to extremism, and how that turns what are otherwise good people into monsters. The extreme nationalistic movements and outright paranoia about Islamics that is manifesting in many countries, cloaked in the dressing of nationalism, is an example of this sort of plot element. If your government does monstrous things in your name, does that not make you just a little monstrous? If you support these acts, is that not even more monstrous? And if you don’t think they go far enough, and you condone still more extreme manifestations, does that not take nationalism and turn it into something monstrous, exactly as the Nazis did in World War 2?

The combination of these themed plotlines has left the PCs unsure of who their allies are, uncertain of who can be trusted, certain that some of those they trust do not have their best interests at heart, feeling isolated and vulnerable, and made them willing to compromise their personal integrity for the bigger picture. They are, in other words, becoming just a little monstrous themselves. That’s a formula for inducing fear, but it has not yet manifested in horror; it merely contains the potential to do so. That final step requires events to make the self-identification with potential monstrosity unavoidable and the impact that the plotlines have had on the characters, undeniable and palpable.

Each of the PCs has his or her own personal demons against whom they wrestle from time to time, and that will make these plotlines resonate with these particular characters in one way or another, whether that is the potential within the character to perform monstrous acts, or the loss of self-identity in service to a cause, or the capability of psychological diseases such as addiction to drive one to otherwise unthinkable acts, or the price of caring for others even when they misbehave.

This plotline has been underway for three sessions so far, and has one more session of buildup before the final part yields the horror that is implicit within these situations for the PCs to experience, an event that will further shape their personalities hereafter, in ways that – in themselves – contain the potential for monstrosity. If it weren’t for a couple of missed sessions, this big finish would have taken place this weekend – making this a Halloween Plotline.

It was no one event or plotline or situation that brought the PCs to where they are now; it was a steady accumulation of things that added up to a horrific total.

Moments of Discharge

It is absolutely essential that there be moments of tension discharge without altering the root cause that is generating the tension. The PCs need to make progress, only to find that the ‘other side’ has made greater progress. It’s also essential that you create robust plotlines that can withstand the inadvertent discharge of tension, whether it be from a character’s emotional outburst clearing the air at an inopportune moment or the joke of a player who is feeling the effects of your psychological manipulation a little to strongly. A key component of the solution is the capacity to increase or decrease the intensity with which situations are presented. After the relief of a planned discharge, a brief increase in the intensity of the situation as it heads toward a confrontation will restore the progress toward the emotional climax while still permitting the relief of the discharge; this is necessary to sustain the mood.

Paradoxically, if you don’t provide relief, the situation becomes the new ‘norm’ and begins to lose its impact – and the climax loses its impact right along with it.

That’s relatively easy to do with a planned discharge of tension, but is also the best tool that you have for unscheduled relief as well.

The absence of distraction

The stronger the identification with the character being played, the more keenly the player will feel the effects of what their characters are experiencing. Call it Horror By Proxy. To succeed, your adventure has to minimize or even eliminate the distractions of other levels of abstraction in the representation of reality – game mechanics, character sheet consultations, die rolls. If your adventure is not more role-play than roll-play by a huge margin, the horrifying becomes just another roll of the dice, another round of combat.

Battle is, in itself, an inherent release of tension, because it permits the characters to engage the source of their fears in a direct manner that takes the players out of immersion and into abstract simulation. It follows that opportunities for combat, as with all other forms of making palpable progress, needs to be carefully planned.

It doesn’t matter how established a principle wandering monsters might be, if they are going to undo all you hard work with their very presence in the adventure, you should forgo them, or defer them at the very least.

Remember the goal!

Always bear the ultimate goal in mind – to place the PCs in an uncomfortable situation that the players will feel and then permit them to resolve that situation, relieving the discomfort and generating entertainment for the players.

There are times when its important for the characters to have fun in order for the players to enjoy that entertainment vicariously. Horror depends no less on the characters experiencing fear for the entertainment of the players. Fear is a part of life, and every now and then, that should manifest within a game. Taking advantage of Halloween to make your efforts in doing so more effective is only good sense.

In a similar way, the charity and generosity of spirit that characterizes Christmas should be exploited in December, the sense of renewal of hope and opportunity at Easter, and so on. Christmas Movies at Christmas time are a self-fulfilling prophecy, representing the spirit of the occasion; Horror in late October is exactly the same.

Happy Halloween, everyone!

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The Spoor Of Darkness: Dealing with Spam

An article that is only indirectly gaming-related today. Most of that relationship is narcissist in nature, because this is an article about Campaign Mastery itself, and about the environment – the internet – in which it resides. But I thought it sufficiently important, in light of recent events, to publish anyway.


The recent DDoS (Distributed denial-of-service) attack on the DNS Servers belonging to Dyn DNS was alarming and disturbing – but it came as no surprise to me. The reason is Spam Patterns, specifically spam generated by automated malicious software known as Spambots.

You see, I recently migrated my anti-spam protocols to a new methodology that I had devised. As a result, I was paying more attention to the Spam being received by Campaign Mastery than usual, and tracking it back to the originating networks, and started seeing spambot-generated spam coming from unusual places.

IBM. AT&T. Time-Warner. AOL. MIT. Microsoft. Places like that.

That led me to suspect that something new was going on, and that systems that would normally be hardened and resistant to such rogue software were being compromised.

So I was expecting something to go down, and hoping that the relevant authorities had been paying attention to the same things that I was (or to even better indicators); hence it came as no surprise when something did happen. Alarming yes, but surprising, no.

But, as it turns out, those weren’t the primary originators of last Friday’s attack. And the spambot infiltration of unlikely places has continued since. In other words, last Friday had nothing to do with the compromised system security indicators that I was seeing; those are still out there. Add disturbing to the mix, because the implication is that another sword of Damocles is poised, ready to strike.

So far, everything I have described sounds like a great intro to a science-fiction / secret agent adventure – one attack revealing another – but this is all very real.

Why take spam seriously? Isn’t it, like, just an annoying inconvenience?

We’ve lived with Spam for so long that people are starting to treat it like part of the furniture, the price of being on the web. And that’s a serious problem for the entire internet.

Based on the spam that I have been analyzing over the last two months, automatically-generated spambot-created spam outnumbered the old-fashioned kind about 99-to-one. As I said, a spambot is a piece of rogue software that is somehow placed on a system that generates spurious email messages aimed more-or-less randomly.

It used to be the case that the major purpose of a spambot was to target websites that didn’t pay enough attention to the comments being posted on them so that the websites being linked to within the spam would rise in ranking on search engines such as Google, enabling them to ensnare unsuspecting visitors whose systems would then be compromised, enabling hackers to do whatever they wanted – distribution of viruses, identity theft, compromising of bank accounts, or – on command – becoming a vector for a denial-of-service attack. And, of course, raiding the email accounts of the users to further distribute itself.

Every piece of automatically-generated spam received from somewhere indicates that someone has gotten something behind the defenses of that system. What if the spambot itself harbors a more serious payload, and the spambot activities are just a means of announcing to the hackers, “I’m here, I’m in place, awaiting your orders”?

That’s why I take spam seriously, especially when two things start happening: I start seeing it turn up in places it’s never turned up before (but that could just mean that someone who has my email address has been infected with a spambot) and when it starts coming from places that I never expected it to originate. Lately, I’ve been seeing both – so I’m concerned.

Are internet providers doing enough to combat spam? And what more can be done?

In theory, the way to deal with spam is to identify the originating network and alert them to the abuse of their systems. They then identify whose accounts have been compromised, perform the appropriate level of spring cleaning, and the spambots go away. It doesn’t work that way; the networks seem to have gone out of their way to make it as difficult as possible to report spam and other abuse. Whether this is because their security specialists assume that everyone who knows enough to report system abuse is also a systems security expert, or because they just don’t want to be inundated with reports, doesn’t matter; the end result is the same.

With the rise of WordPress and other blogging platforms, there are more unskilled people looking after their own network security than ever before. If ever the time was right for a pushbutton solution, it’s now long overdue.

Here’s what should happen: A user logs into their website’s administration section, goes to their comments-handling utility, and sees that there is something in their spam folder. They open the spam folder within their inbox and look each item, verifying that it is indeed spam. They then push a button or click a link that:

  • extracts the relevant information from their database;
  • constructs an email alerting the source of the abuse of their systems being compromised;
  • appends the relevant information from the database;>/li>
  • performs a lookup and obtains the email address for reporting systems abuse;
  • sends that email to that address using the account registered as belonging to the administrator of the website receiving the spam;
  • and then deletes the spam.

Having established with their login that they are an authorized and real human being, the recipient of that email knows to take it seriously – especially if they start getting hundreds or even thousands of alerts to the same problem. But if additional verification is required, a second password specifically required to authorize a spam report or some other real-human verification test is all that’s required.

This puts the onus on the people hosting the spam originators to do something about the problem instead of letting it fester, untreated. (Are you paying attention,

None of that happens at the moment. When you boil the current situation right down, people have three choices: ignore the spam and hope it goes away, do all of the above manually (which takes a lot of time and effort), or simply delete it. Sources who generate a lot might get blacklisted or might not – which simply means that your website is no longer reachable from the compromised systems in any way. So far as that part of the internet is concerned, your site ceases to exist – for both legitimate users and the spammers.

I hate this approach. Not only does it potentially deny your website to the very people you want to read it, but it can be turned against people simply by making it look like spam is originating from a website that you want to deny to people. If enough internet users block a website, that business is no longer someone that those internet users can do business with. You don’t sell your goods and services, your business goes broke, you go away – leaving the market open to a shadier competitor who was willing to employ those tactics. And on top of that, it doesn’t actually solve the spam problem – it just hides it from you.

But, in the absence of the better alternative that I have described, that is the best choice that site administrators have.

A story of transition

If there was even a half-practical alternative, I wouldn’t use it, and wouldn’t have been using it since July 2014 (as described in “Fighting The Spam War“).

Ever since I instituted that anti-spam policy, I have been worried about blocking legitimate visitors to the site, condemning internet neighbors because of the one bad apple who happens to “live” next door. I did things that way because I saw no alternative. Which brings me back to my new anti-spam protocols.

I’ll be honest – they are a lot of work. I’d rather not do them. But the old procedures were no longer working sufficiently effectively, and spam levels had starting to rise to unacceptable levels – in fact, had been at those levels for a good six months or more. I was dealing with 200 spam “comments” a day on a good day and 450+ on a bad.

One of the major flaws in the old system is that it had no memory. A site could be blocked one day, go quiet for the next two or three, get unblocked, and then spam again. Or the site could be blocked, and hundreds of failed attempts to reach the site could be documented – and even if these were legitimate web traffic trying to visit Campaign Mastery, would be treated as spam attempts because one a block was instituted, there was no way to distinguish between the two.

One particular network got blocked for four months, in which time it accumulated more than 5,000 attempts to reach the site. Were these all attempts to spam it? It seemed unlikely. And that was the straw that broke the back of the old, flawed system – when the potential for blocking legitimate traffic became more than I could tolerate.

Introducing the new Anti-Spam Protocols

The new protocols took me three months, on and off, to design and get close to being right (I’m still making minor tweaks). And at the heart of them is a spreadsheet which provides that memory that I spoke of. They are designed to be as little work as possible – but they still consume a good hour or three of my day, every day. That’s the bad news.

The good news is that they ultimately classify all spam originators into one of six categories:

  1. Do Not Block, which indicates that I have verified that legitimate traffic outweighs spam by a significant ratio;
  2. Block Individually, which indicates that each IP address should be given individual treatment because there is a significant likelihood of non-spam traffic;
  3. Evaluation in Progress, which indicates that a statistically-significant number of attempts to reach the website have been blocked relative to the number of spam comments originating from that source, which will enable the originating network to be classified into one of the preceding categories;
  4. Block Collectively, an interim state in which traffic from an originating network is blocked for a period of time relative to the nature and frequency of the actual spam received, and which may enable a statistical appraisal of the traffic originating from that network (this is a necessary precursor to category 3 assessment), and which is the default into which ALL traffic falls;
  5. Green Denied, which is a stage that can eventually lead to a classification into category six if egregious behavior persists;
  6. Block Permanently, indicating that sufficiently significant spam levels have been observed with no legitimate traffic that I am comfortable that a Permanent blacklisting will not affect real people who want to read what the site offers.

As I write this, 33 networks are in category two, one has made it all the way to category one, and one has been relegated to category five. By sheer coincidence, the two worst offenders to date (43 and 53 spam in 96 hours, respectively) are both blocked until the 20th of December. That’s 60 and 73 days, respectively. One is a network, the other is an individual IP address.

This is clearly a major improvement on the old system for three reasons: (1) it’s more granular; (2) it blocks for finite periods rather than indefinitely if the traffic keeps coming; and (3) it permits analysis of the actual traffic instead of basing decisions on worst-case assumptions.

Eventually, it will permit me to make permanent decisions and stop using it – saving not only those 1-3 hours a day, but also the time that would have been lost under the old system.

So, how does it work?

The whole thing is actually based on the generic crime-and-punishment system of the American courts. Probation, suspended sentences, jail time, witness relocation, being let off with a warning for a first offense, consideration of past offenses, even a statute of limitations, all have analogues within the process. It has many of the same faults, flaws, and compromises, as well.

Caught committing a crime

A spam comment is received which has the originating IP address of (say) 345.367.400.894 (note that this, like all the examples, is a completely fictitious IP address which can’t actually exist in the real world.

The first thing I do is log it into a row of the spreadsheet, with the date on which I am doing so, the number of spam received from that IP since I last did my spam processing, and the number of those that conform to a recognizable spambot pattern. Then the spam is deleted, ensuring that if I get interrupted, it won’t get processed twice.

The First-Offense Warning/Suspended Sentence

When all the spam that has been received has been logged in, I sort the entire log by IP number. This groups the newly-arrived spam with the history of the originating record. What I do next depends on that history.

To keep the process clear, let’s assume that there is no history – that this is the first time that I have received spam from this particular IP address according to the system’s records.

The Trial

When this happens, I perform what is called a “Whois lookup” which identifies the owner of that particular IP address. That’s how I know that I’ve received spam recently from that impressive role-call of companies that I named at the start of this article. I record the range of the network – that is, the range of IP addresses that belong to it, on the assumption that the entire network may has been compromised until proven (probably) otherwise.

Some networks have a bad reputation with me, earned through being recognized as the source of a LOT of spam over the years. If I recognize the network as a known producer of spam, that gets recorded. Similarly, some countries generate more spam than others (and not a lot of web traffic to the site) – if I recognize the country of the network as being in my top-five unprotected countries for spam, that gets recorded as well. Both of these factors induce harsher treatment of the ‘crime’.

A few countries generate significant levels of traffic to the website. These are considered “protected” countries, in which a higher tolerance level for spam is justified by the traffic. My top-five traffic sources are the US, Canada, the UK, Australia, and France, and those constitute the ‘protected’ list at the moment. If the network from which the spam originated comes from one of those, that gets recorded as well.

There are some sources that I know to be internet providers to ordinary people (not just businesses), or to be more likely to have people interested in RPGs (which is what the website is about). That gets taken into account. Finally, there are some types of network servers that, while useful, are more prone to abuse because of the anonymity that they are designed to provide, called TOR networks. If the description of the network indicates such an origin, that gets taken into account as well.

All of these factors are weighted and weighed up according to a numeric calculation and compared with an “action trigger” that indicates a sufficiently serious level of spam that action is warranted. At the moment, that trigger is set to a value of “4”. Over time, it will increase, as will the weighting given to recidivists.

If this target isn’t reached, the “judge” lets the “offender” off with a warning and a suspended sentence. If no further “crime” is committed in the time frame of that suspended sentence – which is calculated automatically based on the specifics logged – then it simply becomes part of the “criminal history” of that network, and – in due course – gets expunged completely, so that it will no longer be taken into consideration in future cases. The standard period at the moment is five days, but that can and does vary quite a lot. It could be as little as two – or as many as 6. Getting to a week generally means that the “crime” is sufficiently serious to merit immediate “incarceration”, i.e. blocking.

Second Offenses

Let’s say that the next day, a piece of spam arrives from 345.367.400.896. This is a different IP belonging, let’s say, to the same network as 345.367.400.894, which is serving its suspended sentence.

Right now, in this part of the process, I’m not interested in individuals; I’m hunting for criminal organizations. These are both part of the same network, and there’s no instruction to give individual treatment to them – the network again goes before the judge, and part of the “evidence” is the suspended sentence. Between the two crimes, there might or might not be enough guilt to warrant “jail time”, It’s about 50/50 and depends on the exact specifics. If there is a sentence, the whole network serves it, and it could be anything from 2 to 7 days. Three or four are the most likely.

Jail Time

So the network goes to jail, i.e. gets blocked. The sentence is actually divided into two equal halves – time to be served, and time to be out on parole. In the first half, the network is blocked, which means that traffic originating from that network is counted. Some of it will be spam, some of it might not be. That information gets recorded when the network is “released” and compared with the number of spam likely to have been received based on the tally which got the network “locked up”. This determines which type of parole is served – green or blue.

“Green” parole

Based purely on the number of spam comments that got the network locked up, this tests whether or not the network should be treated as individuals instead of collectively. It is a significant step towards “Do Not Block” status. Green Parole means that for a specific period of time, the network is not blocked, no matter how many spam gets received, but that records are kept for each individual IP address within the network. At the end of the time period (or sooner if significant levels of spam are received), the network may receive “block individually” status, or it may even receive “do not block” status, though that’s rare. Or it may fail, indicating that virtually all the traffic that was blocked was in fact spam, leading to “green denied” status. Or it may simply get thrown back into the general population, but that it also rare.

It’s all about the pattern and quantity of spam received. The network is placed under a microscope and treated according to the results. If all the spam appears to be coming from only a small handful of IP addresses within the network, that’s a “block individually” result. If there’s a whole lot of spam coming from a lot of different IPs, that’s Green Denied – a permanent restriction to the general population which leaves the network vulnerable to being classified as “block permanently”.

Green Parole is the equivalent of being in witness protection so far as the anti-spam protocols are concerned. It’s a fresh start and a chance to weed out the bad apples. What it really means, though, is that there has been enough web traffic over the projected spam levels to permit statistical analysis of the member IPs. Right now, there are 7 networks on “Green Parole”.

“Blue” parole

Blue Parole is a lot less forgiving. For the second half of the sentence, the network is “released on parole” (unblocked). If any spam arrives during this time, the network not only goes back to jail for the other half of the sentence before commencing a new parole period, the fresh crime is added to the sentence as well. Right now, there are 28 networks on Blue Parole – which indicates either that the number of blocked “hits” was in line with the expected levels of spam, based on the evidence when it was “locked up”, or that there were no hits at all (so there is no data to use for an analysis).

What’s more, past periods of blue parole are counted, and judged quite harshly. That “green denied” network that’s blocked until December 20? It had served 8 periods of blue parole. If it re-offends in the 73-day parole period that follows its jail term, it will be “locked up” for at least 133 days. Since this is longer than I am willing to fuss over the calendar involved (more than 3 months), it will instead be “life imprisonment without the possibility of parole” – also known as Block Permanently.

A criminal record

Networks don’t receive a criminal record for life. Assuming that they make it through their blue parole, they enter gray status. Grey means that they are waiting for the statute of limitations to run out on their original crime. If jail time was not awarded to a network because they behaved themselves while sentence was suspended, they also have this status. The current statute of limitations is the period of the original sentence plus 14 days. During this time, anything on their record counts for 1/2 when a “new crime” is committed. This is just enough, in most cases, to turn what would otherwise have been a suspended sentence into new jail time.

Individual Judgment

Our hypothetical example had two spam arriving over a four day period. Let’s say that while it was blocked, 15 blocked hits were recorded by the system. While it’s possible that this was another 15 spam attempts, it doesn’t seem very likely – not in a 3- or 4- day period. It’s certainly enough to permit statistical analysis, so our example network goes into Parole Green. For the duration of the parole period, spam is counted but triggers no action – until it reaches a level great enough to account for those 15 hits. If it gets to the end of its parole period without enough spam to account for the traffic recorded, it earns individual treatment (status 2), also known as “Block individually”.

That means that each IP number within the network is treated as though it were a network in its own right. Since all the criminal activities to date have been logged against the network, and not the individual IP – they started as individual records but get conflated into a single record – they all get tossed out, and the network starts over with a clean slate.

If you have an organization of as many as 33,554,432 individuals – and some networks have that and more – it doesn’t take many bad seeds to run up significant “jail time” when all their “criminal acts” are aggregated. It’s a lot harder for an individual to accumulate enough misdeeds in a short enough time period to permit analysis of them as an individual; many times, an IP might be locked up, paroled, released, and even had their sentences expunged through that statute of limitations, endlessly repeating this cycle of misbehavior.

But each time one is released, their information is checked on release, and if there is enough to make an assessment, it may earn a coveted “Do Not Block” status, indicating that its social probity – i.e. the internet traffic reaching the site from it – outweighs the spam that is received from it. If the one network earns enough of these and has no long-term inmates amongst its population, the entire network may be granted this status.

On the other hand, recidivism counts can accumulate; each jail term and parole period is longer than the last, and eventually the IP may be blocked for more than 3 months – earning it a “block permanently” status.

The Aging Process

After all the spam has been classified and treated according to its current status within the system, the final step is to roll forward the clock, dismissing any records that have aged beyond the “statute of limitations”, concluding parole periods, and so on. This also includes releasing from ‘prison’ any blocks that have expired, resetting the system ready for the next batch.

Flaws and Weaknesses

No human process is without flaws, and this is no different. It’s flaws and weaknesses, too, are largely reminiscent of the human institution of imprisonment.

First, I dislike the need to bias the results for known spam originators, both in terms of networks and nations, just as I dislike the use of racial profiling in criminal investigations. I do so simply because years of permitting the same thing to happen have shown that some people using those services or residing in those nations can’t be trusted, and it makes the system more prone to correctly processing and preventing the receipt of more spam.

Second, human error can and does happen. A network block can be reported as cleared but the block not actually removed, for example. Or I might misidentify someone by typing in the wrong IP address, resulting in the equivalent of wrongful imprisonment. That’s one of the reasons it was so important to have a statute of limitations and for all statuses to be subject to periodic review if site behavior changes.

Third, the system can break down in one of two ways: being flooded by too much spam to process, or as a result of not processing spam received at least daily and preferably two or three times a day.

Fourth, and finally, the entire technique is vulnerable to IP address spoofing, where the IP address that gets reported to me is false, a deception perpetrated by the spammer. There have been a few cases of this that I think I have detected (not those associated with the prestigious names I listed earlier, I must add). Briefly, when you block an IP address and more spam shows up supposedly from that IP address, I regard it as suspect in this respect, and treat it accordingly, discounting it in terms of judging the apparent network).

But my old methods were prone to the same failings, and lacked the safeguards built into the new one.

The Tools

All this is possible through a combination of three tools, both WordPress plugins. The first is Akismet, which learns to identify the spam and places it into a special “spam” folder, separating it out from real comments. While there was the occasional false positive in the first few months of use, for the remainder of the many years that Campaign Mastery has used it, there has been a 99.9999% accuracy in that respect – perhaps one in one hundred thousand comments identified as spam are actually genuine. False negatives, situations in which Akismet is unsure, happen more frequently; but that’s exactly the way you would want it to be, when you think about it.

The second tool is the spreadsheet that I have constructed, and the procedures for using that spreadsheet. Almost all the operations are manual in nature, but some calculation gets performed automatically, especially the dates on which conditions expire. While it would be convenient for more of this operation to be automated, it’s not a huge deal – and does give me a greater level of control over the process.

The third tool is the one which provides the functionality to implement the judgments made using the spreadsheet. This is done with a plug-in named Wordfence, which is excellent in what it does and getting better all the time.

We’ve been using both of these for virtually as long as Campaign Mastery has been in operation, and in that time have processed 1,299,127 pieces of spam. Appalling though that number is, I would estimate that the combination has prevented at least three-to-five times that much spam from even reaching the site – call it 4 million pieces of spam over the last 8 years or so. Note that this number is higher than the spam levels reported earlier because there have been times when hundreds or even thousands of spam were arriving a day, as I described the last time I wrote about this subject.

Half a million spams a year. 1370 a day, average. Even if each only took ten seconds to process each one, that’s still close to 4 hours every day. In fact, it often takes 20 or 30 seconds to assess each piece of potential spam – so if I had to operate without these tools, I would spend about 10 hours a day doing nothing but handling spam – on average.

In fact, one of the triggers that led to the creation of the new anti-spam protocols was spam handling routinely exceeding an hour a day, up from about 10 minutes. Under the new protocols, it still takes about an hour – but it’s a far more productive hour, with far greater confidence in what is being done, and what isn’t.

Protocol Impact

To date, I haven’t heard from anyone complaining that the site was unreachable. That’s good. Any disruptions in that respect are temporary, unless the source network is being really seriously abused. And it’s cut the Spam being received from that 150-350 daily tally to between 20 and 35 a day, and sometimes less – with the confidence that minimal impact is being experienced by the real visitors to the site. That is a ten-fold reduction, And that ratio is getting better all the time.

The End Goal

One of the main reasons why it’s a lot of work is because networks are being given every opportunity to deal with their own problems, i.e. to “reform” themselves. Networks and IPs have to be dealt with, time and time again. But there is light at the end of this particular tunnel, and it’s not an oncoming train.

The end goal is to have the entire internet classified into one of the two extremes – “block permanently” or “do not block ever”. When that happens, I will happily blacklist the real offenders, secure in the knowledge that genuine visitors to the website won’t be affected. And I can put the headache of spam behind me – so far as Campaign Mastery is concerned.

The Bigger Picture

There’s only one fly in that prescription: the fact that none of this is doing anything to actually stop the proliferation of spam at the source, and the potential for that continual flood to be a vector for more significant harm. Spam is, or at least can be, a conduit of evil – or, at the very least, the spoor of such a conduit, the visible manifestation of compromised network security. Last Friday showed what that can mean for all of us. It does me no good to be sitting in a protective cocoon if the internet itself goes down, in whole or in part.

What I have devised is a way to weed the spam producers out from (most) of the legitimate web traffic to my site. I can’t fix the entire internet, but I can try to keep my little corner of it clean – and if the spam producers stop getting the results they want, maybe they’ll stop wasting their time with it. Okay, maybe that’s too much to hope for.

But it would be a start if those who could would take spam a little more seriously – and act on that.

The Gaming Connection

I promised at the start of the article that there were be a gaming connection to all this, and here it is.

This is a practical example of something that I have been extolling in the pages of Campaign Mastery for quite some time – the power of analogy.

While I didn’t start out to model the new anti-spam protocols on the generic criminal-justice system, it was only when I grasped the similarities and consciously looked for other applications of that analogy that refinements like the “statute of limitations” revealed themselves. In fact, about half of the new spam protocol was a result of “analysis by analogy”.

I used this same principle to construct an entirely new view of psionics some time back (it was part of the Examining Psionics series back in 2010. And I try to apply it whenever I am trying to solve something complicated and that I don’t fully grasp yet.

Not only does it illuminate aspects of the situation that I hadn’t thought of, not only does it give me a handle on understanding the things that I don’t understand, but it can actually suggest solutions to parts of the problem that I wasn’t even aware of. In fact, that’s how you tell that you have an illuminating analogy – if it doesn’t do at least one of those, and preferably all three, look for another one.

So think about that the next time you have a complicated situation to analyze – whether it’s trying to figure out what a villain’s grand scheme is, or how a character will react to an unusual situation, or trying to get a handle on some house rules (or just understand the official ones).

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Blog Carnival Anchor – Ordinary Life (Nov 2016) plus, How Long Should Potions Last?

rpg blog carnival logo

In addition to everything else I have going on here at Campaign Mastery, next month we are scheduled to host the Blog Carnival. The current carnival over at of Dice and Dragons is all about potions, and – despite having covered that subject in depth in the first part of the Spell Storage Solutions series – I’ll make a stab at saying something fresh on the subject in a bit.

Before I get to that, however, I want to discuss what Next month is all about.

Ordinary Life in RPGs

The theme is Ordinary Life.

This is a deceptively plain brown wrapper for a variety of content, falling into three main areas:

  • The Ordinary Life of the GM and how it impacts on their gaming, and vice-versa.
    • What compromises do you have to make?
    • What tips and tricks do you have for making Gaming part of your everyday life without getting characterized as “weird” or a “nerd”?
    • Or perhaps you’re a veteran who would like to educate younger readers on how gaming used to be a closet activity – and how it came out of the closet and became socially acceptable, or at least tolerable?
    • Or perhaps, how gaming has changed your life, and what you can learn from it? I saw a social media meme just the other day on how to describe gaming on your resume….

    Lots of choices there, and that’s not even what I consider the main vein of gold to be mined by this Blog Carnival!

  • The Ordinary Life of the Players and how that impacts on the game.
    • If one of your players has had a bad week, do you consciously twist the game in a direction they will like to get them ‘in the mood’ or permit them to blow off steam – rather than letting it interfere with the game in some more substantial way?
    • To what extent does ordinary ‘real’ life influence how players will react? What are the possible consequences for game planning?
    • Or, you might talk about the interaction of player and character personalities.
    • Or, perhaps, whether or not a player’s mood should be reflected in the mood of their character? I can see arguments both ways on this one. If yes, you could be letting the player blow off steam, as noted earlier, if no, you may be permitting them to step outside the bubble of ‘negative energy’ that filters people’s perceptions when they are experiencing troubled times in their personal lives. Is Gaming, and should gaming be used for, mood alteration?

    Again, lots of potentially interesting articles there. But this is still only one-third of the potential arena of discussion within this broad subject.

  • The real core of the subject (and potentially the easiest to write about), though, is The Ordinary Life of the PCs and how the GM makes the game seem real.
    • I’ve mentioned in other articles how ‘real life’ is incorporated into the Zenith-3 and Adventurer’s Club campaigns. How do you do it?>/li>
    • How do you avoid the PCs “real lives” becoming a soap opera? Or do you even care?
    • What sort of things do the PCs get up to when they aren’t out slaying monsters and behaving heroically?
    • If yours is the sort of campaign that makes everything dramatic and larger than life, how do you do that? What are your techniques?
    • Or you could write about just one aspect of the ‘real lives’ of the PCs in your campaign. What’s it like to go shopping in the Bazaar? What might you expect to find in a realistic Village Market?
    • Our real lives are shaped around work, rest, food, and play; how are these represented in your games for the characters? Is one category given short shrift, or is it a sequential deal where each takes the spotlight on occasion, or what?
    • How do you come up with incidents to populate your characters’ “real lives”?
    • Four of the dominating influences on our lives are Politics, Religion, Law, and Social Structure / Occupation. You could write about one or all of those in your campaign, and how they affect the PCs.
    • And that’s just scratching the surface! There are lots of other aspects of the ‘real lives’ of the characters that could make great topics of conversation.

For such a plain brown wrapper, there sure is a heck of a lot of potential underneath the surface. Everyone should be able to write something about at least one of these topics – and barely scratch the surface!

I have made space in my schedule to write and publish five posts on the subject, but which of the above I choose as the subject for each is still up in the air. There is so much ground that could be covered that you could write a fortnightly post for a full year just from the suggestions above. More, if you focus on individual PCs and not the big-picture. Still more, if you simply offer suggestions of events that PCs might encounter in their daily lives.

This post is to serve as the anchor for the Carnival; everyone should either link to it (to generate a pingback) or post a comment here when they post an article as part of the Carnival.

And so, to the main subject of the day (in terms of value for readers):


How Long Should Potions Last?

I don’t mean, how many doses should they contain; I’m talking about expiry dates.

This is a question that pivots directly on the question of what a potion actually is. Are potions medical concoctions, perhaps with a magical energy infusion, or are they a form of magic directly, with the ingredients used simply to give form to the magical effects?

Indefinite Potions

The latter would indicate that the “ingredients” don’t necessarily have to be incorporated in the consumable ‘liquid’ of the potion (which may take some other form, if you like). Instead, they are used to give ‘form’ to the potion, is more literally ‘liquid magic’. As such, it would last indefinitely – energy doesn’t normally spontaneously change form.

This gives rise to a number of possibilities that the GM can exploit in terms of characters changing or altering the effect that a potion has simply by reconfiguring the ‘energy matrix’ (or equivalent) into some other pattern.

To prevent abuse, I would suggest that this only be possible through difficult and expensive rituals, but there is something appealing to an arcane sygil on the carpet that causes healing potions to spontaneously explode.

Of course, it is possible that this is “lost knowledge” possessed only by one of the PCs’ enemies…

A somewhat weaker and more controllable variation based on the concept of Reducing Metamagics, which I proposed in 2009’s Broadening Magical Horizons,, would be to adjust potion effectiveness with metamagics, using the reducing metamagics to maintain a net zero adjustment in spell level – meaning that you don’t have to know what the original spell level was. For example, according to the Pathfinder core rulebook, “Extend Spell” (doubles the duration of a spell) at the cost of +1 spell level, while the Reducing Metamagic feat “slow spell” doubles the casting time at the cost of -2 spell levels. Potions normally take effect one round after being imbibed, so the combination would enable a user to double the duration of effect of a potion twice (either a tripling or a quadrupling depending on how the GM handles the effects of stacking) in return for delaying it’s effects by a round.

This might well be what a PC mage learns to do from capturing the workbooks / research of the enemy in question, signaling that part of what the enemy was able to do has been understood, but part has not and can’t be replicated by outsiders that easily.

Decaying Potions

The polar opposite has the material ingredients of the potion being genuine ingredients which will eventually decay. The question then becomes how quickly this happens; if it is too short a time-span, consumable potions will never be found in treasure caches.

Of course, you could always specify that such potions can be temporarily ‘revived’ by a process costing half the price of a ‘new’ potion, i.e. half the price listed in the appropriate rulebook. This has multiple logistics implications – potions are useless when found, but can be (effectively) ‘traded in’ when the party get back to town for functioning potions, effectively representing a (fragile) form of “Half price voucher”. Once redeemed, the party has only a limited time before the potion becomes dead once again – meaning that the party have blown their hard-earned gold.

There are other possibilities. Potions might retain their effects but become poisonous – nothing so severe as the ‘official’ poisons, but still significant. Imagine a healing potion that restores Xd8 hit points of damage – but thereafter does one point of damage per round for two-or-three rounds per point of healing effect. Or perhaps it’s X points of damage for eight rounds. Or you could decouple the effects and roll Xd8 for the healing (happens all at once) and then secretly roll Xd8 for the level of poisoning (at Y points per round, starting the round after the healing takes effect).

There are other possibilities that can be fun. Perhaps the matrix ‘calcifies’ – the potion is still viable, but for an unknown period after consumption, the character imbibing it is immune to other forms of magic that might affect them. This period should be variable and the character should never know how long it will last, only that it has or hasn’t yet worn off!

The severe downside to all of this is that it adds to the logistical overhead on the GM, who has to keep track of how old potions are. This can be minimized simply by determining in advance the date on which the potion was last ‘refreshed’ and keeping track of the game date, something most GMs do anyway.

Spoiling Potions

There is also an intermediate possibility that is worth exploring. Potions might be fine until exposed to the air, triggering the start of the decay process. Each day that subsequently passes increases the chance that the potion has gone ‘bad’ in one of the manners discussed above by 1 in 20 – which means that as soon as a potion is identified by any means other than a convenient (and possibly misleading) label, the clock starts ticking.

This avoids most of that logistic bookwork by reducing it to a d20 roll made at the time of imbibing.

I certainly would not recommend the more realistic option of checking each potion in the party’s possession daily, though that has the option – if the risk is capped – of creating a greater degree of uncertainty. “Should I or shouldn’t I risk it” can distract players at exactly the worst possible time – from their point-of-view!


Most medications have a use-by date, beyond which they are either reduced in effectiveness, increased in danger of (potentially lethal) side effects, or become outright dangerous. And each medication is different in this respect. Now, I’m not suggesting that GMs go that far – but perhaps specifying one of two of the most useful potions individually might be a worthwhile exercise. Water Breathing, Healing, and Invisibility, plus a one-size-fits-all solution for the rest, would probably be a worthwhile exercise.

The assumption is, generally, that potions last forever. That’s most unlike anything in the real world. Certainly, you can retain that option – opening the door to doing other interesting things with potions that would keep players on their toes – or you can make this aspect of the campaign more realistic, increasing the element of the fantastic in the process.

It’s rare to be able to do both with a single rules option, and only makes this something worth considering carefully in your future campaigns.


There is a way to instate these ideas in an existing campaign. All you need do is start thinking about potion bottles as well as the contents. Perhaps they weren’t quite as adept in the old days, and the PCs have just been lucky without knowing it…

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The Bigger They Are, The Bigger The Headache: The Proxemics Of Scale


I’ve been thinking a lot about the size of creatures lately, because it seems to me that size poses unexpected problems for the GM.

This is a subject that’s been at the back of my mind for years, ever since it was pointed out to me that Dragons are never as tough as they are made out to be because the PCs can easily surround the creature, spreading out to attack it multiple times in a round, while it can only target one or – at most – two PCs.

One player that I know of refers to them as Mobile Caches, and invested quite a lot of effort back in my second AD&D campaign keeping track of them so that if he ever got short of cash and magic, he could stop by and make a withdrawal.

My response to this particular problem has always been to enhance Dragons, making them a lot tougher. And, in terms of this specific problem, this solution works. But, a while back, it became clear that this was just part of a larger problem.

The Scales Of Giantism

Take a look at the illustration above, generated specifically for this article. It illustrates two scales of Giant.

The large standing figure is what most D&D / Pathfinder players will think of as a Giant. The PCs, at full stretch, might be able to reach it’s knees. The shoe illustrates a situation that arouse in an offshoot of my superhero campaign, in which a very large robot was attacking one of the PCs, triggering a conflict with all of them; in the actual game, I used an old boot to give scale to the enemy, but the running shoe illustrates the situation perfectly adequately. The PCs can’t even reach the top of the foot without climbing. This is the scale of the Giants in Gulliver’s Travels, the scale of Galactus in the Comic Marvel Universe (as opposed to the rather silly ‘cloud’ from the second Fantastic Four movie).

The more I contemplated these two situations, the more problems became apparent (even completely ignoring the cube-square law which says that the first is only marginally-plausible and the second completely impossible).

The show is also roughly the size of a whole Dragon, which is why this particular illustration is so useful as a discussion tool.

Not The Same As People Scaled Large

People are used to having a certain amount of space around them. When something invades that space, we get uncomfortable. The study of this and related phenomena is called Proxemics. The cultural anthropologist who coined the term described four zones of intimacy:

A chart depicting Edward T. Hall's interpersonal distances of man, showing radius in feet and meters, by WebHamster - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

A chart depicting Edward T. Hall’s interpersonal distances of man, showing radius in feet and meters, by WebHamster – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

  • Intimate distance: for embracing, touching or whispering
    • Close phase – less than 6 inches (15 cm)
    • Far phase – 6 to 18 inches (15 to 46 cm)
  • Personal distance: for interactions among good friends or family
    • Close phase – 1.5 to 2.5 feet (46 to 76 cm)
    • Far phase – 2.5 to 4 feet (76 to 122 cm)
  • Social distance: for interactions among acquaintances
    • Close phase – 4 to 7 feet (1.2 to 2.1 m)
    • Far phase – 7 to 12 feet (2.1 to 3.7 m)
  • Public distance: used for public speaking
    • Close phase – 12 to 25 feet (3.7 to 7.6 m)
    • Far phase – 25 feet (7.6 m) or more.

Even beyond personal contact, which is the context into which the diagram, and the definitions, have been framed, there are psychological effects of confinement, i.e. the removal of space. Prison Cells which invade the “personal space” are generally considered cruel and unusual punishment; invading the Intimate Distance is the equivalent of being confined in a coffin or torture device. Most two-person cells enable the inmates to be separated by Social Distances; anything less is believed to produce hostility and conflict in the long term.

Problems come when we scale these distances up with increased size for larger creatures, like Dragons and Giants. Not only does this require these creatures to inhabit extraordinarily size-y spaces, they provide ample room for that spread-out-and-surround tactic. It feels psychologically comfortable to us because we apply human perceptions to the scaled images. This is a huge mistake to make, if you’ll pardon the pun.

Take a look at animal enclosures at a well-run Zoo. You’ll find that each species has a different standard of personal space. Dogs, for example, have no problem living in a Kennel that would clearly intrude on personal space if it were scaled for a human – provided they are completely closed up within it. Domestic Housecats like to have a lot of space around themselves, but are fine in far tighter confinement. Lions, on the other hand, need a lot of space. Mice are happy in tighter confines again, as are some species of snake.

The lesson here is that humanoids are not human, and human scales of what is comfortable need not apply. As for Dragons, they aren’t even humanoid. They might be as comfortable, or even more comfortable in what would be a tightly-confined space for a human scaled to Dragon-sized. After all, head and tail are usually described as flexible, even sinewy, more like snakes than human arms and legs.

Does a dragon really need all that room? A hastily-sketched image but it illustrates the point.

Does a dragon really need all that room? A hastily-sketched image but it illustrates the point.

Part of the problem is that Dragons do need a lot of room to spread their wings, and providing that room comes reasonably close to the human comfort zone. Another is that the “hoard” has to take up an impressive amount of space. But Dragons are intelligent – is it really worth being left so vulnerable just to be able to spread your wings indoors? Any chamber with a doorway large enough for the Dragon to squeeze through is good enough.

Another element of the problem are those really impressive miniatures that you can buy these days. They really look fantastic – but they are immobile. To some extent, you get a better representation tactically by having a separate figure of some sort to represent the head and a long strand of licorice or “killer python” confectionery for the tail and neck. This gives them the mobility that they should have.

“Smaller” Giants

I often find it useful as a referee to convert things back to the human scale. If you were the giant, what might those lilliputians be able to do to you? With the smaller giants, the analogy would be of some species of animal that doesn’t leap very well, but that stands about a foot off the ground or thereabouts. A great cat – a small leopard or tiger – with something wrong with a hind leg (preventing the leap) is fairly close to a group of PCs with swords slashing away at the target. Unable to reach the vital torso area directly, it’s first combat objective has to be to get the target down to its level – to hamstring it. Once that happens, the vitals become accessible, and the target can be killed – but it would be extremely rare for this to be as a result of direct damage; instead it would be by blood loss.

I referee accordingly. I don’t care how much damage the PCs do, they aren’t going to kill a giant outright, critical hits perhaps excepted; instead, I translate the effects that their damage would do, and base my interpretations of the effects of their strikes accordingly. To a certain extent, this requires disregarding the number of hit points that the Giant might have. In theory, I’m apply scaling to the weaponry of the PCs. A sword that might penetrate a foot does in no more than an inch, probably less. If the giant is 30′ tall, that’s a scaling of about five times – so ten points of damage becomes the equivalent of 1/5th that, or about 2 points. But that’s too much work, a lot of the time, so I do it more by instinct than by maths.

After all , while “divide by five” is easy maths, “divide by 6.75” isn’t.

The reverse scaling should also apply – if the giant dishes out what would be ten points to another of its kind, that becomes more like 50 points when applied to a human-sized PC. That usually seems excessive, however, so I only half-scale it – 25 points. By ignoring the numbers and translating the rolls in this way, I sacrifice some mechanical verisimilitude and rules fidelity for a better look-and-feel to the game.

“Bigger” Giants

And so, to the really big giants. These don’t happen very often in fantasy gaming, but do come along from time to time in Superhero games – anything that’s more than ten times scale, or 50′ in height, becomes a candidate. Take that shoe on the accompanying illustration: Most figures are at roughly 5′ to the inch, i.e. a 5′ person would be represented by a figure that’s about an inch tall. Most shoes are roughly a foot in length, perhaps a little more or less. That’s 12 inches – so a shoe on the battlefield is representative of a creature of scale 12, or between 60 and 75′ tall.

How do creatures that are no more than an inch off the ground inflict serious, potentially lethal, damage to a human? Poisons, or burrowing into vitals, or swarming over like army ants. Anything less can inflict harm – perhaps even enough to knock a creature of this size off its footing.

Let’s contemplate a couple of weapons, and apply the scaling principle. A sword would be about half an inch in equivalent length – less than a nail, more than a thumbtack. But most strokes wouldn’t go all the way to the hilt, so the thumbtack is roughly right. How much damage does a thumbtack do when you drop one on your unprotected foot? Nothing. It takes the mass of the person to inflict the damage.

Should clothing thickness scale? Ordinary leather/cloth would be like tissue paper to a creature of this size. Something much thicker and toucher would be logical – say Rhinoceros Hide. That is, according to Wikipedia, somewhere between 1.5 and 5 cm thick – call it between six-tenths and two inches thick, or average it to a simple one-inch thick. This is going to be a LOT more protective than ordinary leather armor, and the sword has to get through that in order to do any damage to the flesh of the giant (it only gets worse when you’re talking giant robots).


The thickness – at it’s thinnest point – of a human leg is an inch or two above the ankles. Mine are about 3 1/4 inches thick, front to back, and about an inch-and-a-half across. Scaling that by twelve gives 3’3″ x 1’6″ across. The bone at that point is a little over an inch thick – scaled, that’s about 13″ thick.

That’s not a leg – it’s a tree-trunk with a stone column in the center, wrapped in an inch-thick sheet of foam rubber and leather, which in turn is wrapped in a foot of cured leather. A sword might pierce all the way through, but the right tool for this sort of job is an axe (or better yet, a chainsaw). Chop a hole in that foot-thick hardened rhinoceros hide. You’d be lucky to take less than ten minutes – that’s thicker than the logs they chop in competitive axe trials, and those guys are easily three times as fast as your ordinary tree-feller. And ignoring the possibility of having to get through battleship-plate metal armor. But, assuming that you do, without – miracle of miracles – blunting your axe, you then have to do it again to get through the giant’s flesh to reach the bone. At which point a sledgehammer (or jackhammer!) is the tool of choice for actually breaking that bone. All while the owner is fighting back.

Quite frankly, you’ve got as much chance as a been has of stinging through steel-capped work-boots – unless it manages to get itself INTO the boot, it’s not going to happen, not in time to do you any good.

Okay, so now you’re a PC, in charge of bringing this brute down – how to do it?

Step One: Ranged weapons and magic aimed at the eyes to blind it. Step two: when it can no longer see what you are doing, everyone grabs the heaviest rope that you can manhandle between you – the sort used to tie ships up to docks or anchors, about 3 inches thick, and weighing probably 60 pounds a foot – and, moving as fast as you can, wrap it around is feet while he is groping in the direction he thought you were. Step 3: Once you trip him, go for the underarms or neck and try to find a way inside the armor to a vital point – probably the neck, assuming something the equivalent of a jugular. If not, there are other, similar blood vessels – if you know where to find them. It won’t be easy – the equivalent of using an axe in a broom closet – but it should be doable. Then Step 4, back off, take cover, and wait for blood loss to do the job for you. Total elapsed time: probably ten minutes, game time.

Until you actually think of it in scale, you can’t appreciate the scale of the problem, or find the solutions. And that’s true of every really-big creature, or its robotic equivalent. But it makes a great story afterwards!

Content Bonus!

I thought people might be interested in the map that I generated for the main illustration that accompanies this article, minus the distortion caused by the 3D rotation, and the tiles that I created to build it from. So here they are:


Yes, the original version was a lot bigger – in fact, even the hexgrid tiles below are slightly reduced in size, and the original image was 7000 pixels tall. But it was just too slow to edit it – 5 minutes for each of the shadows? 5 minutes each time one of the figures had to be resized? Of necessity, I had to reduce the size, first to 2400 pixels, then to 1000, and finally to this 281×550 image.





Just right-click on the image you want to save it.

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Essential Reference Library for Pulp GMs (and others): 5th Shelf


Finally, it’s done! This has turned into the largest single post ever published by Campaign Mastery, and by a huge margin.

So, what happened? Well, when the initial blowout took place I calculated, based on the Europe results, that I could expect to have to add another 216 entries or so, at an average of four-point-six in each section. I then divided the list of extras in two – half for last week’s post, and half for this week. Last week’s post was used to test the validity of the original estimates, and they seemed to track fairly well.

Because a full quarter of the list of entries were already done, just needing some copy-and-paste work, I had reasonable expectations of being able to post this article on time, especially since I devoted most of my Tuesday, and half of my Wednesday, to getting an early start. I predicted that sometime Thursday night or Friday, it would be all systems go.

On Tuesday I did the basic structure, the introductions, and populated the Caribbean section. The goal Wednesday was to do China, leaving the rest of Asia to happen on Thursday, and the balance on Friday. And, if there had been four-point-six entries per subsection, that schedule would have been achieved.

Came Friday Night, and I was only just getting to Africa; Asia had seen quite a blowout in entries. On top of that, I kept thinking of sub-sections and whole sections that had been overlooked, and extending the list. And then Saturday came and went, and then Sunday Morning. It’s now 4AM Monday Morning, and the words – aside from this sidebar – are done.

Almost every category and subcategory have blown out. Instead of 104 recommendations, this list contains 270. Instead of being about 18000 words, a third of which were already written, it now contains more than 36,000 – plus HTML code that carries it past the equivalent of 43,000 words. That’s almost 8000 words a day – when my usual average is forty-five hundred.

So the post may be late – but I haven’t been wasting my time. Without further ado, here are the contents of the Fifth Shelf…

The Fifth Shelf: The Stranger Places – Introduction by Mike

In these days of sat-nav, when virtually every inch of the planet’s surface has been photographed and mapped to within an inch, it can be hard to appreciate the impact of not knowing. Even the iron curtain fell, and the soviet union not long after, and people can now tour Russia and China in relative impunity. Relations between Cuba and the US have thawed and are beginning to stabilize. The only place that even comes close to presenting the facade of mystery that was once so prevalent is North Korea, and even that is but a shadowy reflection of the great unknowns of the past.

It wasn’t like that in the Pulp Era. Like the age of Steam that preceded it, the world could be divided into three categories: the places that were well known, the places that the average person might know a little about, but which would still be strange and exotic, and the places where anything might exist, and wonders remained to discover. Only the number, size, and shape of those unknowns had changed.

Some places had recently undergone intensive exploration and discovery just prior to the pulp era, and the discoveries of Ancient Egypt (and, to a lesser extent), the Incas and Mayans retained a grip on the imagination of the common man that lingers to this day.

These places of mystery are the subject of this shelf of the reference library, and so far as they are concerned, the GM is in an incredibly privileged position. Not only can he draw upon all the modern knowledge of these places of mystery, he can ignore, edit, and rewrite that modern knowledge as he sees fit, in the name of excitement and adventure.

Not that being unknown stopped the writers of the past, who populated these unknown regions with all sorts of strange things. Not being constrained by reality, they were free to invent all manner of strangeness – and many did so. Some of these strangest places of all were advanced as serious – if fringe – theories, and some of those have since been found to have a grain of truth. Others seem to be total and utter mythology.

Things are complicated still further by the fact that these were amongst the least politically-stable locations of the twentieth century. That places information about the way they are at arm’s length to the way they were, further marginalizing the value of modern reference materials.

When I was a child, one of my relatives had a board game that included a world map. I don’t remember the game’s name, or how to play; what I remember is speculating endlessly about what might be in these strange places that I had never heard of before, And that was in the early-yo-mid-70s, and despite being very well-read for my age at the time. The place names alone held an aura of wonder. Khartoum. Cairo. Constantinople. Istanbul. Nepal. Bermuda.

In the Pulp Era, that mystique should not only be alive and well, the reality should mirror it – rather than reflecting the more-prosaic reality that has been uncovered. These are places where one can step into the looking glass.

Relevance to other genres

“Sense Of Wonder” is something that most genres try very hard to manifest, whether it be the alien in a sci-fi environment or the fantastic in a fantasy existence. While prosaic reality makes an essential foundation to provide some point of connection for the truly bizarre, necessary for players to interact with them, these places provide the foundations for the only-slightly-less-strange, and many can be imported more-or-less whole. So the people who live in this desert are insectoid, humanoid-ant-people? That doesn’t make the Bedouin any less a great cultural role model, modified if necessary for the caste-system of an anthill.

The results are too outré for a wild west campaign. Anything and everything else that I can think? It would fit right in.

old globe and books

image credit: / Philip A.

Shelf Introduction

There is a particular difficulty involved in stocking this shelf, for the most part: the relevance of books about the reality is at its most marginal, while books about what might be there tend to be few and far between, and mostly focus on the local mythology – which goes in an entirely separate shelf of the library.

The only real solution is to present the reality of those places that are undeniably real, with the advice that this should be just the beginning, a jumping-off point – and that GMs should unlimber their creativity. Style and Flavor are at least as important as facts when it comes to these places; be true to the style and flavor, and you can twist and distort the facts as necessary.

There are 14 sections on this shelf:

The Caribbean Some of the most picturesque waters on earth are to be found around the islands. It’s harder to do these days, but in the Pulp Era it was entirely conceivable that an entirely uninhabited piece of land could be discovered, a tiny speck never seen before. The Caribbean is home to more than 700 islands, islets, reefs, and cays. Four of the most iconic get dedicated subsections: Bermuda, Haiti, Cuba, and The West Indies / Jamaica.

Asia There is hardly a single location in the Asian area that has not been transformed in one way or another in the course of the middle- and later-twentieth century. Our recurring theme was to be rather confined in the choices of what to recommend. Even the most politically-stable countries in the region, like India, have undergone massive changes.

Africa excluding Egypt Most of the great explorations of the African Continent took place in the 19th century or even earlier, but to most people, much of Africa was still a mystery. At the same time, for each of the African nations, the 20th century contained at least one period of turbulent, blood-soaked revolution in which that nation changed quite radically. Most of what might apply today certainly does not have any validity to a pulp world, so we have tended to be very restrained and judgmental in our approach to this content.

The Middle East A region which has changed dramatically since the 1930s in terms of its politics and the cultures of different nations. A huge proportion of anything relevant to real tourists – which is what you mostly expect to find – will be completely irrelevant to a pulp setting. As such we have been both harshly judgmental in choosing content for this section, and have limited ourselves to the one major nation within the region – Turkey, and the city that traditionally stands at the crossroads between East and West, Istanbul.

Egypt & Egyptology – There is good reason why the heart of the first Indiana Jones movie centered around Egypt. While the greatest age of discovery in the area took place before World War I, fascination with the exotic architecture of Ancient Egypt and its treasures endures to this day. It is easily the best-known part of Africa, by a margin of hundreds-to-one. We have deliberately restrained ourselves in this section. Of course, adding Pulp sensibilities to this already iconic setting only makes it more exotic!

The Atlantic Something of an afterthought, we confess. The North Atlantic in Winter is subject to some of the most hostile weather conceivable on a regular basis, at least in comparison to the rather more placid Pacific. There have been suggestions that this ‘trapped’ Europe’s explorers for centuries, prompting them to turn their attention to the African continent – but the lateness in history of exploration of Africa beyond the northernmost regions casts considerable doubt on this theory in our opinion. At this point, we aren’t sure what we’ll find for this section – it may even be empty. But we’re going to look, and recommend the best of what we find.

The Bermuda Triangle – In the real world, this alleged phenomenon has largely been debunked and discredited. In a pulp universe, don’t place any bets either way.

Antarctica Underneath the snow and ice of the coldest region of the world there is a for-real continent. If we could only excavate, who knows what fossilized remains might be discovered? Even today, exploration of Antarctica is difficult, dangerous, and has barely begun. We don’t expect to have many entries in this section.

The Arctic Rather better known is The Arctic – but in the pulp era it was far from certain that there wasn’t land beneath the ice. Most educated scholars didn’t think there was, but couldn’t be certain. Only explorations beneath the ice shelf by submarine established reasonably conclusively that it was free-floating.

The Hollow Earths – We’ve labeled this category Earths, plural, because there are so many conflicting and competing versions of the broader concept of a green and viable environment under the Earth’s surface. Many legends have these accessible through the poles, but recent discoveries of the extent and complexity of the Mexican cave/underground river systems suggest that this may be a viable alternative. (We looked for, but didn’t find, any books on that subject while doing the Mexico section of the last shelf). But Mike is going to look again, so who knows?

Lost Cities & Civilizations – As unreal as Hollow Earths and Bermuda Triangles might be in real life, these are completely real – well, almost completely – but are often given a quick touch-up with a fresh coat of paint for Pulp purposes. The real things are just the starting point!

Atlantis, Mu, & Lemuria – And, speaking of Lost Cities & Civilizations, the most controversial ones of them all deserves this category of their own.

Picturesque Places – We may or may not have anything in this category, which was originally created to hold a single item that has had to be relegated to Honorable Mentions. But Mike is looking for alternatives to recommend and hasn’t yet finished the hunt, so there may be a last-minute inclusion.

Strange & Exotic Places – As if the places listed above weren’t strange or exotic enough, we have this final catch-all category for a few leftovers that didn’t quite fit elsewhere, or that fitted multiple categories. Within this miscellanea, there is a dedicated subsection devoted to Florida’s Coral Castle. It won’t surprise us if many of you have never heard of this place. The Coral Castle is a limestone structure created by Latvian-American eccentric Edward Leedskalnin in Florida, supposedly single-handedly by using… well, accounts vary. Anti-gravity, Reverse Magnetism, Telekinesis… somehow, if the myths are to be believed, he was able to move and shape numerous stones weighing many tons, over a period of 28 years, starting in 1923. In 1936, he moved the entire thing ten miles a process that took only three years. No-one knows for sure how he did it, since there is no record of trucks or heavy equipment being used. When asked, Leedskalnin would only say that he “understood the laws of weight and leverage well.”

A Recurring Note On Images:

Wherever possible, we have provided an illustration showing the cover of the book or DVD under discussion scaled to the same vertical size (320 pixels for Recommended Books, 280 for DVDs, 250 for items in the ‘For Dummies’ Sections). Where there was none available, we have used a generic icon.

NB: Prices and Availability were correct at the time of compilation but are subject to change.


Books About The Caribbean


Spacer 311-caribbean-the-islands

311 Caribbean: The Islands – Donald Nausbaum

The only photographic album of the Caribbean that we are recommending, this is a record of the author’s photographic journey through the islands over a period of years, and the results seem comprehensive, encompassing islands from the well-known (Trinidad, Jamaica) to the relatively obscure (The Grenadines). New copies of this 168-page book will set you back $45, but used copies start at just $10.


312. A Concise History of the Caribbean – B W Higman

This is our second choice of history books covering the region; the one that looked the most promising was too expensive (you’ll find it – eventually- in Honorable Mentions). But the margins were small, and this 374-page “concise history” will have to do. Kindle and Paperback.


313. Mosquito Empires: Ecology and War in the Greater Caribbean, 1620-1914 (1st Edition) – J R McNeill

While this book stops short of the pulp era, this book’s premise – exploring the links between ecology, disease, and international politics in the societies of the Greater Caribbean – sounds too useful in understanding the place to ignore. The hardcover is completely out of reach at $90+, but there are Kindle Editions and 26 used copies of the paperback from $15 – and, when they run out, new copies of the paperback can be almost as affordable at $22.


314. National Geographic Traveler: The Caribbean, Ports of Call and Beyond – Emma Stanford and Nick Hanna

Ports of call “both large and small on islands throughout the Caribbean” are detailed in this travel guide. We expect limited utility from the book in terms of material relevant to the Pulp GM, and the price is quite high – but it also seems to be amongst the best of the broader travel guides to the region. Both used and new copies are available for about $17, and Amazon’s price of $22.51 is comparable once P&H are taken into account.


315. Caribbean (DK Eyewitness Travel Guides) – Theresa Storm and James Henderson with photographs by Linda Whitwam, Nigel Hicks, and Demetrio Carrasco

This much-cheaper guide might have been our first choice were it not for some specific problems identified in the customer reviews: “Coverage is superficial even for a guide covering the whole Caribbean. The section on Bonaire had all three ABC islands (Aruba, Bonaire, Curacao) jumped into one mess rather than having separate sections for each island.” “Does not include Southern Caribbean! Aruba, Curacao, etc.”. “I guess the Bahamas and Bermuda are not in the Caribbean…” Those three reports were enough to give us pause. On the other hand, a superficial guide might make it easier to invent the rest, which you would want to do for a Pulp flavor, anyway. It was the reported omissions that really detracted from our appraisal. On top of that, the description seems to focus more heavily on tourist activities than on things to see and experience – “Spotlights the Best Places (their capitalization) to dive, snorkel, sail, and play golf”. There is a newer edition that sounds rather more promising – but is a lot more expensive. In the hope that much of the content of the newer edition was also present in the older one, simply not being highlighted by the publishers, we’re including links to both.

2009 edition (much cheaper):

2016 edition (pictured, more expensive – but still cheaper than the National Geographic offering):



316. Caribbean Houses: History, Style, and Architecture – Michael Connors

If only a book like this were available for everywhere – we would happily have included them as standard entries in each subsection! “a lavishly illustrated account of the development of historically significant houses in the West Indies.” “The book is divided into five chapters, one for each European heritage: the Spanish Antilles, the Dutch Leewards, the English Islands, the French Lesser Antilles, and the Danish Virgin Islands.” “Authoritative text sheds light on the area’s … architectural and interior design history and gives the reader a unique view of houses that combine the tradition of European styles with the vernacular island forms and decorative motifs.” By not focusing only on modern buildings, this also sheds light on what the buildings would have been like at other points in history – including the Pulp Era.


317. Pirates: The True and Surprising Story of the Pirates of the Caribbean – Patrick Auerbach

You can’t talk about the Caribbean without discussing the most famous class of residents ever to call it home. This book, published in January this year, seems to avoid the myths and clichés from Hollywood, just as the title suggests. At a mere 82 pages, however, we have some concerns as to its depth and value for money. Kindle and Paperback.


318. Caribbean Currents: Caribbean Music from Rumba to Reggae, Revised Edition – Peter Manuel with Kenneth Bilby and Michael Largey

We almost didn’t include this book, fearing that there would be little content of value to the Pulp GM. Once again, guidance came from the customer comments more than any of the “official” reviews or description: “We know that much of the world’s contemporary is influenced by Africa and the Americas, but maybe you don’t realize how much of the old music was influenced by colonialism, how Cuban music ended up in Baroque music of the 1600’s … for example.” Which convinced us that this was a comprehensive guide that would encompass the pulp era and not simply be about the modern day, musical culture having changed so radically since that time. New copies start at $22 but used copies are more affordable.


319. Peoples and Cultures of the Caribbean: An Anthropological Reader (1st Edition) – Michael M Horowitz

Unless you’re silly enough to buy a new copy of this 1971 book, copies are surprisingly affordable. The thinness of the description leads one to expect a pamphlet or thin booklet at best, an impression reinforced by Amazon’s generic “cover image”. A glance at the details reveals otherwise: this is 606 pages and published by the Natural History Press, who have a reputation for publishing reasonably solid references.


320. Contemporary Caribbean Cultures and Societies in a Global Context – Edited by Franklin W Knight and Teresita Martinez-Vergne

We were very back-and-forth on the inclusion of this book. It could be absolutely brilliant and insightful, or it could be totally academic and entirely too modern-day to hold any relevance to the pulp GM. Quite frankly, we weren’t – and aren’t – sure. So we are listing it anyway, and quoting Amazon’s description in full:

“The Caribbean ranks among the earliest and most completely globalized regions in the world. From the first moment Europeans set foot on the islands to the present, products, people, and ideas have made their way back and forth between the region and other parts of the globe with unequal but inexorable force. An inventory of some of these unprecedented multi-directional exchanges, this volume provides a measure of, as well as a model for, new scholarship on globalization in the region.

“Ten essays by leading scholars in the field of Caribbean studies identify and illuminate important social and cultural aspects of the region as it seeks to maintain its own identity against the unrelenting pressures of globalization. These essays examine cultural phenomena in their creolized forms – from sports and religion to music and drink – as well as the Caribbean manifestations of more universal trends – from racial inequality and feminist activism to indebtedness and economic uncertainty. Throughout, the volume points to the contending forces of homogeneity and differentiation that define globalization and highlights the growing agency of the Caribbean peoples in the modern world.”

In terms of illuminating the processes that have resulted in everything from Reggae to Vodou, this could be absolutely brilliant. Or it could be completely irrelevant. Make up your own minds. New copies are expensive at $26+, used copies start at $7.40, and there is a $14 Kindle edition.

Books about The West Indies

The West Indies comprise three separate subregions of the Caribbean: The Lesser Antilles, the Greater Antilles, and the Lucayan Archipelago. In some contexts, it can also be synonymous with the entire Caribbean Basin, and even areas with a cultural connection beyond mere Geography – the West Indies cricket team includes members from Guyana, which is actually part of South America. The Greater Antilles includes the Cayman Islands, Cuba, the Dominican Republic and Haiti, Jamaica, and Puerto Rico; The Lesser Antilles comprises 24 nations; and the Lucayan Archipelago includes the Bahamas.

Several of these have been given dedicated sub-sections; these are books about the area generally, or about the rest.


321. A Short History Of The West Indies (Fourth Edition) – J H Parry, Philip Sherlock, and Anthony Maingot

Amazon only list the first of the authors and provide virtually no information about the contents of this book. The information that sold us on including this work comes from one of the customer comments: “This is a very readable history of the islands in the Caribbean. There also is some supporting discussion of mainland British colonies. The material generally is informative and the writing generally is reasonably good.

“Probably the major advantage of this book compared to alternatives is the solid discussion of the political development of the islands in a way that is easy to follow and remember. With so many disparate islands being discussed, it is easy to get lost. The discussion clearly distinguishes between the larger and smaller islands and that makes it all clear.”

There are some drawbacks regarding typographic errors and authorial stylistic changes partway through the book, but those don’t detract from the clear value of the book to the Pulp GM.


322. The West Indies and the Spanish Main – James Rodway

The first of two books by the same name by different authors. We know next to nothing about this particular one except the title and author and the fact that it is an old book that has been reprinted by scanning the old text. From the single customer review, we can see that it’s a history of the region, and that the reviewer thought it was well-written. This book is only 114 pages in length, so there is no chance that the two titles refer to the same book. There are only just enough copies to clear our minimum requirements but those tend to be on the cheap side, and the Kindle edition is free. There appears to be no contents page.


323. The West Indies and the Spanish Main – Anthony Trollope

“British Postal Service employee and successful Victorian novelist Anthony Trollope sailed aboard the Atrato from the English port of Southampton to Kingston, Jamaica, in November, 1858 to survey land and conclude treaties in the West Indies and Central America for the English government. In the course of his extended sojourn, he also wrote a book — not about official business but rather about the islands he visited and the people he met; about breathtaking landscapes, exotic foods, the tropical climate, earthquakes, Panamanian railroads, Cuban cigars, racial hierarchies, and colonial customs.” 1858 is, of course, quite a distance removed from the Pulp Era – some sixty years, in fact – but colonial subjects like the West Indies changed relatively little in that time, and a lot of the content will remain useful to the Pulp GM, especially for flavor content. This book is 384 pages long – hence the certainty that this is not the same as that previously listed.


324. Pirates of the West Indies – Clinton Black

To look at the cover, you might think this is a children’s book. It’s not; it is, instead, a short book (144 pages) published by Cambridge University Press, providing a “concise history of the lives of ten of the most important pirates of the Caribbean Region” that “sheds new light on popular notions of piracy and stereotyped conceptions”. There are lots of cheap copies, both hardcover and paperback.


325. Insight Guide to the Caribbean and the Lesser Antilles

The Lesser Antilles are a chain of tropical islands that stretch from the Virgin Islands to Trinidad and Aruba. This travel guide lists a number of landmarks that would have existed and made great specific locations in a Pulp Campaign such as the Brimstone Hill Fortress in St Kitts.

We liked the promise of “descriptive place-by-place accounts” and the promise of “detailed high-quality maps”.

While this book is 368 pages, it also comes with an app that delivers the information like Hotel Recommendations and prices that are subject to change – and are of no interest to the Pulp GM; we hope that this means that this space-filler has been excluded from the text itself, leaving a greater preponderance of useful material.

This book has only been released last month, so it is very new, but already Amazon has almost sold out of it, having only 15 copies left in stock – but it would be cheaper to buy from one of the third-party vendors, anyway. The misspelling of “Antilles” on the cover is a bit of a concern, though.

Books about Bermuda



326. Fodor’s Bermuda Travel Guide

We have two travel guides to discuss that focus on this famous resort destination – because we could not choose between them. Choice number one is Amazon’s best-selling travel guide to Bermuda, available in two different editions – a 2014 one of 240 pages, and the 2016 edition of 224 pages. We always find shorter page counts to be a concern. That said, these do look to be excellent guides to more than the usual tourist traps and activities – not that Bermuda, at just over 20 square miles, has all that much room for anything more.

2014 edition (pictured, much cheaper, Kindle and Paperback):
2016 edition (more expensive & shorter):


327. Moon Bermuda

Usually, we prefer books written by a local resident. Moon’s guide to Bermuda is just such a book, and at 368 pages, it’s getting close to double the length of Fodor’s. That means a lot more content. Time-wise, this fits right in between the two editions of Fodor’s. Counterbalancing those advantages is the book’s description, which seems a lot more tourist-oriented, and the excerpt provided on getting Married in Bermuda, which is full of wonderfully-useful detail – for a campaign set in the modern day. Price-wise, this sits in-between the two editions of Fodor’s as well – and therein lies the rub: we can’t tell, from the information provided, how much of the content is relevant, but the topic is too minor (in pulp terms) to recommend buying both. So we leave the buying decision in the hands of the reader.

Books About Haiti

Haiti was devastated in 2010 by an Earthquake that was just the latest in a string of political, social, and economic disasters. There are a number of scathing books about the relief efforts and the impact of corruption and vested political & religious agendas in the aftermath. Even before this tragic event, Haiti was synonymous with political instability; Mike can remember the statement “It’s Wednesday, there must be a coup in Haiti” seeming both accurate and withering in the early 80s or 90s. All of which makes it very difficult to find books whose content is not contaminated by post-pulp events.


328. Taking Haiti: Military Occupation and the Culture of US Imperialism, 1915-1940 – Mary A Renda

In 1915, the US invaded Haiti and began a military occupation that would last for nineteen years. This explores what Americans thought and wrote about Haiti in that period, which completely overlaps the Pulp era. It’s that direct relevance that elevates this book over the broader history below.


329. Haiti: The Tumultuous History from Pearl of the Caribbean to Broken Nation – Phillippe Girdard

This book explores the cumulative effects of multiple failed attempts by the US to create a stable democracy in Haiti, coupled with the legacies of colonialism and slavery dating back to the War Of Independence (1791-1804) and the ever-present poverty of “The poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere” have created the political instability for which Haiti is renowned, painting a portrait of a population caught in a trap, an endless cycle of corruption, revolution, and failure.


330. Haiti in Focus: A guide to the People, Politics, and Culture

The description of this book makes it clear that it looks beyond the popular perceptions of Haiti to the real people and culture, and adds to the themes of the book listed above in the process. The best guide to the populace of Haiti and their culture that we could find.


331. Haiti (Bradt Travel Guide)- Paul Clammer

This 2013 book claims to be the only stand-alone guidebook on Haiti on the market. That wasn’t true when it was published, and isn’t true now, as our next recommendation will make clear. Nevertheless, there’s a lot of content that looks interesting and useful – “…packed with practical information covering … travel routes, wildlife and Vodou … insightful information on Haiti’s rich artistic and musical heritage… and … discusses the medicinal merits of Haitian rum”. Customer comments are lavish with praise.


332. Lonely Planet Dominican Republic & Haiti – Paul Clammer, Michael Grosberg, and Kevin Raub

This guidebook dates from 2011 and was co-written by the author of the previous recommendation. The contents listing suggests that this contains a lot of useful information that the previous listing may lack, including an annual festival calendar, over 39 local maps, and coverage of many of the cities and towns. Amazon claims there is a newer edition but the titles don’t match. Because this is a very out-of-date book, however, it is very inexpensive.


333. The Spirits and the Law: Vodou and Power in Haiti – Kate Ramsey

The vexed history of the Haiti political leadership and their relationship to the religion of Vodou, banning many of the key practices (and sending the worship underground). This book provides context and motivation for many of the events discussed in earlier recommendations (323, 324, 325, and 326). We’re not sure of how much relevance there is for the Pulp GM, and that’s the only reason this book is languishing at the end of this subsection. Technically, it’s too expensive to include, but in terms of telling “the whole story” it looked too useful to ignore.

Books about Cuba



334. Havana Before Castro: When Cuba Was A Tropical Playground – Peter Moruzzi

“Hundreds of vintage photographs, postcards, brochures, and other materials evocative of [the] time and place”, this collection “documents how the city of Havana evolved from a Prohibition haven and rich man’s playground” (in the Pulp and Pre-Pulp Era). 256 pages, which is quite large for this kind of collection. Kindle and Perfect-bound Paperback. The text should be equally valuable as reference for the Pulp GM.


335. Havana Nocturene: How the Mob owned Cuba and then lost it to the Revolution – T J English

“To underworld kingpins Meyer Lansky and Charles “Lucky” Luciano, Cuba was the greatest hope for the future of American organized crime in the post-Prohibition years. In the 1950s, the Mob – with the corrupt, repressive government of brutal Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista in its pocket – owned Havana’s biggest luxury hotels and casinos, launching an unprecedented tourism boom complete with the most lavish entertainment, top-drawer celebrities, gorgeous women, and gambling galore.” Although principally focused on a post-pulp era, there are a number of references to how the Mob reached the level of ascendancy described in the above description. And you can always twist history to bring the Gangster’s Paradise into existence early, with this as a foundation – or perhaps giving the PCs a chance to slow the takeover would be more satisfying? Clearly you have options for how to employ this material, but it definitely deserves a place in this list.


336. Cuba: 400 Years of Architectural Heritage – Rachel Carley and Andrea Brizzi

Another photographic album, but this one dedicated to the architecture of Cuba. Rare photographs and “exquisite” commentary. There are four or five books on this subject, but most are in the $60+ price range; New copies of this in hardcover form are the same, but there are very affordable used copies of the paperback, and almost-affordable used copies of the hardcover. 224 pages, again fairly lengthy for this sort of book.


337. Lonely Planet Cuba – Brendan Sainsbury and Luke Waterson

There aren’t many travel guides to Cuba yet, and too many of them would not be relevant to the pulp GM anyway; too much has changed since the 1930s. We’ve selected this one because it includes sections on the history, architecture, cuisine, music, dance, landscape, wildlife, literature, arts, and politics of Cuba, has over 80 color maps inside, and (possibly missing if you buy used) a free pull-out map of Havana in the print version only. 544 pages.


338. Lonely Planet Havana (City Travel Guide) – Brendan Sainsbury

The perfect accompaniment to the map in the preceding travel guide is this book from the same travel line, and written by one of the two authors of the Cuba guide.


339. Cuba Culture Smart – Russell Maddicks

As with the travel guides, our great concern is that there will have been too much change in the Revolution and Castro years for this to be relevant. The description of this book suggests that, in fact, very little changed from the time Castro took over until the thawing of relations with the US; the country was stuck in a “cold war time warp” that is only now beginning to change as the nation stumbles headlong into the 21st century. “Culture Smart! Cuba will take you beyond the usual descriptions of Havana nightlife, vintage cars, and hand-rolled cigars and give you an insider’s view of an island that is teetering on the brink of historic change. It offers insights into Cuba’s fascinating history, national icons, unique food, vibrant cultural scene, and world-renowned music. Practical tips help business travelers gain an edge on the competition. But most of all, this book aims to show you how best to break the ice and get a better understanding of the infinitely resourceful Cuban people, who despite severe hardships and shortages over many years remain optimistic and fiercely proud of their heritage and culture.” There’s a much smaller cultural step from the Cold War back into the Pulp Era, and the key phrase in the preceding quote is “teetering on the brink” – meaning that most of the content is actually going to be fairly relevant.

Books about Jamaica



340. The Rough Guide to Jamaica – Robert Coates and Laura Henzell

We’ve recommended a lot of the Rough Guides because they have a tendency to include useful information that other travel guides lack, excluding them only when there are reports of omissions or significant errors. While none of the commentators indicate that this is or is not the case in this particular book, they rate the book very highly. Lots of copies available and new doesn’t cost that much more than used. There is also a Kindle version.


341. History Of Jamaica – Clinton Black

Black is the Government Archivist for Jamaica, making this 176-page book as definitive as it gets. There is a reported bias against Europeans in the history, but they didn’t exactly cover themselves in glory during their ascendancy over the island – the Spanish period, the British Occupation, the introduction of slavery and the sugar plantations, and the British Colonial period which was followed by independence from 1962.


342. Jamaica Culture Smart

Like many places, the mass media have sensationalized the dangers and stereotyped perceptions of Jamaica. In defiance of these perceptions, and despite genuine economic and social problems, Jamaica is regularly ranked among the five happiest nations on Earth in the annual Happy Planet index. This book promises to take you beyond and behind the clichés. Paperback and Kindle.

Books about The Panama Canal

Work commenced on a Canal across the Panama Isthmus to connect the Pacific and Atlantic oceans in 1881, but France abandoned the project in 1894 due to engineering problems and a high worker mortality rate. In 1904, the United States took over the project and completed it in 1914. In the first 6 months of its operation, 1,000 vessels made the six-to-eight hour passage through the Canal, a tally that has risen steadily ever since, reaching a peak in 2008 of 14,702 transits. It is a key strategic location in world commerce and has been since its opening.


343. Portrait of the Panama Canal: From Construction to the Twenty-first century – William Friar

A collection of historic and contemporary photographs and accompanying text to celebrate the centenary of the initial groundbreaking on the Panama Canal. At 80 pages, an unusually small collection, but at least some of them, probably hard to find, should be from the Pulp Era and copies are extremely cheap – used copies start at 1 cent.


344. 100 years of curiosities at the Panama Canal – Jaime A Troyano

The first of two books by Troyano, who worked as a guide for the Panama Canal Authority for 15 years. He began collecting photos and anecdotes about the canal’s history with which to regale the tourists he was escorting, and turned them into this book. Kindle and Paperback.


345. Panama Canal Facts, Myths & Legends – Jaime A Troyano

The origins of this book are obviously the same as that previously listed. This doesn’t quite meet our normal standards of availability, but the source is sufficiently authoritative and the adaptability of that content that isn’t directly relevant is likely to be high, so an exception has been made.


346. Piloting the Panama Canal: Experiences of a Panama Canal Pilot – Esther Miles

And, speaking of authoritative sources, the author of this book spent “many years” as a pilot responsible for guiding vessels through the Canal, and through her eyes, the reader comes to see life as it actually was along the Canal (the Suez might dispute the appellation of ‘most famous canal in the world’). This focuses on the period before the Americans signed a treaty handing control of the Canal over to Panama. Along the way, you get introduced to the famous and infamous people who passed through this part of the world – some of whom may be pulp relevant. Even if not, though, it seems most unlikely that there would have been substantial change in the nature of this job from the Pulp Era, and it is that relevance that earns this book a place on our list. New and Used copies are the same exact price at the moment.


347. The Gringo Guide to Panama: What to know before you go – JuliAnne Murphy

In 2008, expat and author Murphy relocated to Panama for business reasons; the experiences of the next two years led to this book, in which she describes all the things that she wished she had known before making the move but didn’t know to ask in advance.


348. The Gringo Guide to Panama II: More to know before you go – JuliAnne Murphy

The sequel to the previous recommendation. This was not as well received by readers, several of whom were under the impression that this was a revised edition and not a sequel. There are reportedly a lot of comments within the book pointing to the earlier volume, which may become annoying after a while. In general, the first book is the more essential, while this contains more personal anecdotes and color.


349. Panama Culture Smart – Heloise Crowther

The product description is a canned series description, but customer comments suggest that this book fulfills the brief quite successfully. “It covered all of the basics of the customs, culture, history, food, etc. for what turned out to be a very charming country. This book is a must read for anyone that is traveling to Panama and wants to go beyond the boundaries of a guided tour or 4 star hotel stay. If you prefer to get to know the people and culture of Panama choose this quick read to get you started.” 168 pages, which is a little more substantial than a “quick read” in our opinion.


Books about Asia



350. Asia – Oliver Föllmi

The fourth volume in a series of photographic collections sponsored by Harry N. Abrams’ project Offerings for Humanity, this book contains images from Burma, Japan, China, and Vietnam, and many points between, all taken by Föllmi. This is not a lightweight collection; 352 pages, and each of them is 11.6 x 14.8 inches in size. Expect postage to be higher than usual. The Hardcover starts (new) at $24.95 ($65 through Amazon) but used copies can be a mere $16.95.


351. Asia: A Concise History – Arthur Cotterell

This history appears more comprehensive than we thought possible. starting with Assyria and Persia and ending somewhere close to the modern day – certainly World War II and its aftermath are included. Used as the textbook for a number of “History of Asia” classes. Of course, squeezing more than 3000 years of history for such a vast geographic region into a mere 450 pages, not everything can be reported in detail. Nevertheless, the author is not afraid to incorporate snippets and sidebars of little historical relevance but acute interest and flavor. While the book does refer to dates on occasion, it prefers to adopt a narrative approach that is reportedly easy to read. Kindle and Paperback.


352. How Asia Works – Joe Studwell

Some Asian countries have boomed, economically, over the last 35 years or so, while others have stagnated. Studwell boils the economies of nine Asian nations – Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, the Philippines, Vietnam, and China – into narrative form that anyone can follow, “debunking Western misconceptions, show[ing] what really happened in Asia and why, and for once makes clear why different countries have prospered while others languish. This 400-page book has been praised by everyone from Bill Gates to the Financial Times; 70 customer reviews average about 4.5 out of 5. Hardcover, Kindle and paperback.

Paperback: (pictured, costs about the same new as used, $10)

Hardcover (costs about the same new the paperback, cheaper than paperback used, fairly plain cover):

Kindle from either of the above links $8.22.


353. Insight Guide to Southeast Asia

There aren’t many tourism guides that cover the entire Asian region, or even a significant part thereof, and most are too modern-day-tourist in orientation. This appears to be the best of them, describing an “unrivaled range of amazing experiences and unforgettable sights – from the northern hills of Thailand to the dragons of Komodo, frenetic Manila to laid-back Vientiane, the sands of Ko Samui to Balinese temples and the ruins of Angkor Wat”. Throw in a photograph on (almost) every page and “detailed, high quality maps throughout” and affordable prices both used and new, and it was impossible to go past it.

Books About China



354. China: From Empire to People’s Republic 1900-49 (2nd Edition) – Michael Lynch

We’re accustomed to thinking of Imperial China as being from Centuries ago, and indeed, the first emerged around 2070 BC – so long ago that the Xia Dynasty was considered mythical until archaeological evidence for a Bronze Age dynasty was uncovered in 1959. The Xia were succeeded by the Shang, which is the earliest to be confirmed by contemporary records, and ruled for roughly 600 years circa 1600 BC. And so it comes as some surprise to many that the last Dynasty, the Qing, only fell from power in 1912, only six years prior to the Pulp Era. It was replaced by a Republic. A period of political instability followed this transition, and a modicum of stability was finally forcibly achieved in 1928 by General Chiang Kai-Shek, until he in turn was overthrown in the Chinese Civil War in 1949, founding the People’s Republic Of China. This history details this turbulent period.

Normally, we look for the older editions first as they are generally cheaper, but that was definitely not the case on this occasion; the first edition is now priced at $60 or more, while the newer edition is far more affordable. Paperback only.


355. The Generalissimo: Chiang Kai-shek and the Struggle for Modern China – Jay Taylor

We almost didn’t include this book, and we almost included it on the Second Shelf in the “notable real people” section. Ultimately, it was decided that the historical content outweighed the biographical. A deeply complex individual who was at once progressive and ruthless, conscientious and at the same time, temperamental. Understanding him is essential to understanding the China of the Pulp Period – unless, of course, you decide to extend the existence of Imperial China (there are other books below for you if that’s your intent). Even then, we suspect that the General would find himself at the center of events, either the strongest supporter of Government or its greatest enemy.

Used copies of the hardcover are cheaper than copies of the paperback, either new or used, but new hardcover copies are quite expensive. While the used hardcovers last, those would be our recommendation – followed by the paperbacks, either new or used, once the price of the Hardcovers exceeds $11.


356. The Last Empress: Madame Chiang Kai-shek and the Birth of Modern China – Hannah Pakula

Her husband may have behaved like a Dictator, his wife behaved like an Empress. You might think from that information that she was raised in a traditional Chinese manner, but she was in fact a Christian born to wealth and educated in America. She was inarguably a potent political force in Pulp-era China. Again, the most obvious place for this book is in the “Significant Real People” section, but the inclusion of period photographs and (most especially) maps, along with her undeniable influence over the history of China, made its relocation to this section a no-brainer. Kindle and Paperback, and much cheaper through third-party vendors (new or used).


357. The Dynasties of China: A History – Bamber Gascoigne

Six short years. The Pulp GM has three basic options when it comes to Pulp-era China. The first is to reflect the real history, in which there is nominally a republic, ruled by what is effectively a dictator, while civil war brews in the hinterlands; the second is to bring forward and amplify that period of unrest; and the third is to extend the life of the Chinese Empire. Any of these is extremely Pulp in tone. If you choose the latter option, you will need a history of the Empire and its Dynasties; we’re listing two, both by the same author. At 304 pages, this is the longer of the two. The hardcover is completely out of reach at $63 (used) and $89 (new), and new copies of the paperback are only half as unreasonable at $37+ – and all of them very limited in numbers. But there are cheap and reasonably-plentiful used copies starting at just $2.16.


358. A Brief History of the Dynasties of China – Bamber Gascoigne

With virtually the same cover and definitely the same author, you might mistake this for being the same book. It’s not – this is only 240 pages, and a lot cheaper. In terms of customer ratings, the two are distinguished only by plentiful reviews of the first and a paucity for this book; the overall ratings are virtually identical. The product description separates the two; the first is a proper history, while this book examines the subject by narrating the stories of representative real-life figures from each historical period. The two do not conflict or even overlap; they are complimentary.


359. A Brief History of the Boxer Rebellion: China’s War On Foreigners, 1900 – Diana Preston

“Fueled by hatred of foreigners and all they stood for, the ferocious uprising of Chinese peasants and ensuing siege of Peking in the summer of 1900 sent shockwaves around the world.” The rebellion only lasted for 55 days, but it shaped world perceptions of, and relations with, China for decades, and was one of the first signs of the imminent collapse of Imperial Rule.


360. Forgotten Ally: China’s World War II, 1937-1945 – Rana Mitter

When did the Pulp Era end? The rough end-point that we have been using is the start of World War II, just as the beginning is the end of the Great War – but when exactly is that? The official date is 1939, when Britain and France declared war on Germany over the invasion of Poland, but Pulp Adventures within the US (and a large part of the rest of the world) are clearly possible beyond this date. Perhaps it is the date of US entry into the War – Pearl Harbor? Even then, if given an intelligence or counter-espionage slant, Pulp adventures are possible. These become far more problematic after D-Day, so that has to be the “outer marker”.

But those are not the only possible dates. If one considers the Pulp Era to end in a gradual transition from pulp to post-pulp, when did that transition start? The start of the War, obviously – but, again, when was that? 1939? Pearl Harbor? Or perhaps it was earlier – The Spanish Civil War is often seen as a precursor to WWII. Or, arguably, the Japanese invasion and occupation of China in the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945), which commenced two full years before the invasion of Poland. Beyond the obvious participants, this also involved the UK, Soviet Union, and the USA – a noteworthy coalition.

This book reveals the “drama of invasion, resistance, slaughter, and political intrigue”. And, while it marks the beginning of the end of the Pulp Era, it conclusively does not mark the end of the end; at least some of the events of this period lie within that period. This is a part of history that the GM of a pulp campaign needs to know about. 464 page hardcover or 480 page paperback; we have linked to the former format because copies are cheaper (and note that new copies are currently cheaper than used).


361. DK Eyewitness Travel Guide: China

The 2014 edition is, according to customer reviews, a flawed book that nevertheless has an average rating from 37 reviews of 4.3 out of 5. 660 Pages, with the usual maps and floor-plans that you would expect in a DK Eyewitness Travel Guide, the four complaints of substance that stood out to us are 1. That while it is detailed, it is insufficiently so; 2. that this is particularly true concerning travel within China; 3. that the coverage outside the major cities and tourist attractions ranges from spotty to nonexistent; and 4, at least one reader perceived a strong racial prejudice against the Han Chinese, the largest ethnic group within China – though we looked for evidence of this prejudice without success in the extracts provided by Amazon.

Most of these complaints are not replicated in the 2016 edition, which is also 660 pages, though it is reportedly still poor in the logistics and relies on comparatively poor photography. A bonus for our purposes is that most of the new structures created for the Olympics are ignored, leaving more room for the potentially-relevant. Nevertheless, these are the highest-rated travel guides to China, which is only slowly (and somewhat reluctantly it seems) coming to embrace to the tourist trade. Both have different authors cited, making it harder to choose between them; we are recommending the more recent one as the best choice, but also including a link to the older and much cheaper edition.

2016 edition (pictured) ($12-19):

2014 edition ($0.01-$6):


362. China Survival Guide: How to Avoid Travel Troubles and Mortifying Mishaps, 3rd Edition – Larry & Qin Herzberg

Pocket-sized with 264 pages. Includes “practical strategies for lodging, walking, haggling, medical and bathroom emergencies, etiquette, crowds, and learning the twin arts of patience and persistence”. Tackles its subject with humor and panache. One customer review from 2009 complains that it’s out of date, others from 2012 praise its accuracy, which leads us to suspect that the content may not apply to the entire country. Paperback and Kindle.


363. Etiquette Guide To China: Know the Rules that Make the Difference! – Boye Lafayette De Mente

This might have topped our list, but it’s been completely revised and brought up-to-date to incorporate the etiquette of the Digital Age and the impact of modern commercialism on China. 192 pages, significantly shorter than the previous offering – though the “China Survival Guide” used an unknown amount of space for personal anecdotes (many of which should make good incidental encounters, properly “massaged” by the GM).


364. China: Empire of Living Symbols – Cecilia Lindqvist

There are more than 50,000 Chinese characters in use today, and all of them are ideographs, also known as ideograms – which is to say that each represents a complete and whole idea. Unless you read the Wikipedia page on ideograms, which strongly refutes this as a general principle, then discussing technical concepts generalized to cover the entire field. That, plus the product description and professional reviews, leave room to suggest that while they may have evolved since, the origins of the Chinese characters were ideographic in nature. Because the alternative is that Publisher’s Weekly, the Boston Globe, and London Review of Books are all idiots or armchair experts who got their reviews wrong in exactly the same way. Not impossible, but rather improbable – Occam’s Razor suggests that the more likely explanation is more likely to be the correct one, until further evidence to the contrary is presented.

Having thereby argued the expertise and validity of the content of this book, what is that content? “The origins of Chinese ideographs were not known until 1899, when a scholar went to an apothecary for some medicine made of “dragon bone.” To his surprise, the bone, which had not yet been ground into powder, contained a number of carved inscriptions. Thus began the exploration of the 3000-year-old sources of the written characters still used in China today. In this unparalleled and deeply researched book, Cecilia Lindqvist tells the story of these characters and shows how their shapes and concepts have permeated all of Chinese thought, architecture, art, and culture.”

In other words, the history of the language provides context for, and shapes, the culture. Which makes perfect sense to us – and justifies including this reference on the subject. Kindle and paperback, with used copies for just one cent.


365. Guilty of Indigence: The Urban Poor in China, 1900-1953 – Janet Y Chen

We are always a little wary of books written about areas of strong political control, unsure as to how close the author has had to toe “the party line”. If the publisher or author are from a more liberal nation such as the USA, those concerns are generally alleviated. In this case, we are told nothing about the author but the name, but the publisher is Princeton University Press, so the likelihood is that it is as independent of political interference as you are going to get.

In the early 1900s, poverty became the central issue for the future of China. This book studies the lives of the poor in this critical and chaotic period, the policies by which the government attempted to ameliorate the driving force behind growing political instability (and, ultimately, a “people’s revolution”), and the public attitudes toward the poor as they changed over time. Focuses particularly on two of China’s largest cities, Beijing and Shanghai. 320 pages, Kindle and Paperback. Note that at the current time, Used and New copies through third-party vendors were the same exact price.


366. When China Ruled the Seas: The Treasure Fleet of the Dragon Throne, 1405-1433 (Revised edition) – Louise Levathes

“1405-1433”? You may be wondering what this book is doing here. But lost Chinese treasure ships make a great MacGuffin, and the ‘miraculous’ survival in suspended animation of such a ship is always possible – in a pulp campaign! 256 pages, published by Oxford University Press. Kindle, Hardcover, Softcover, from $5.81.

Books about Beijing (known in the West as “Peking” in the Pulp Era)


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367. Old Beijing: Postcards from the Imperial City – Felicitas Titus

There are two editions of this collection of more than 350 vintage photographs and postcards; we have linked to them both, below. The images are accompanied by “extensive” historical background and commentary, but the images dominate, usually three or four to the page. With that many images on each, page size becomes important: 10.5 x 9 inches is adequate, but we don’t recommend the Kindle edition unless you are very comfortable perpetually zooming in and out. These are the sort of images that you won’t find on the net; you may find similar images from elsewhere but they will lack the authenticity that these provide, a surprising number of which are in color.

We were unable to determine what the content differences are between the editions, but suspect that the thawing of relations between China and the outside world over recent years has given the author access to records that were not available at the time of the first edition – a lot has changed in the four-year interval between the two.

Pricing is interesting to compare. Both Kindle editions are the same price and may in fact be identical. The older edition costs from $10.31 to $32.50 for the hardcover, and there are 15 used and an unknown number of new copies; the newer edition costs from $12.43 used, with only 13 copies available, and from $10.99 new, with 43 available. Amazon themselves are charging $13.32 for the new edition, but report that they have only 4 left in stock. This is actually the cheapest price, once postage and handling are taken into account. At those prices, we recommend buying from Amazon until copies run out; then new copies of the new edition until they get to about $12.50; then choosing between used copies of the older edition, used copies of the new, or paying a premium for a new copy of the new edition. Between the two, availability should not be a problem.

2012 edition (hardcover with dust-jacket, used):

2016 edition (hardcover, new and used):


368. DK Eyewitness Travel Guide to Beijing and Shanghai – with photographs by Chen Chao

The Amazon information on this book is slightly misleading. The 2011 edition is a paperback, the 2016 edition is flexibound. There are no 2016 paperbacks and no 2011 flexibound copies, and clicking on the button to change binding format takes you to the page for the other edition. Page counts differ by only four and the physical dimensions are identical.

The unfortunate fact is that there are no highly-rated travel guides to Beijing – Shanghai, we’ll deal with separately. The ratings for this book – 4.4/5 from 62, with Amazon having conflated reviews for both editions – are about as good as it gets, the others are all in the threes. So this is as good as it gets.

As usual, it’s the cutaway 3-D drawings and floor plans that elevate the DK guides. The print edition comes with a color pull-out map (may be missing in used copies). Beyond that, the DK guides tend to focus on brief narrative descriptions that do little more than tantalize – but which are an excellent starting point for further research into specific topics. The other great advantage that books like this offer is in the spacial relationships between locations – knowing how far X is from Y on foot can be extremely useful to the GM.

Pricing & Links:

2011 edition (Paperback, pictured) 34 used from $0.01; 15 New from $3.00.

2016 edition (Flexibound) 20 used from $7.47, 40 new from $7.49, Amazon price $15.33:


369. Rickshaw Beijing: City People and Politics in the 1920s – David Strand

In the 1920s, China was in turmoil, as revolution, war, and imperialism brought chaos, and China’s cities were at the center of the upheaval. This book examines how the residents of Beijing coped with the multitude of changes wrought by itinerant soldiers, politics, social change, poverty, capital, technology, and ideas, studying the experiences of ordinary citizens including rickshaw pullers, policemen, trade unionists, and Buddhist monks. 388 pages, published by University of California Press. One customer complained that the book was soporific with too much spent on the Rickshaw and not enough on the city, even while conceding that the author’s grasp on the subject matter is unmatched. Everyone else who reviewed the book gave it four stars or better, and several explicitly recommend ignoring the one-star review. We found the text quite readable, though it could have been edited a little more tightly.

It’s an aphorism in Australia that if you want to know what’s happening, and what people really think, you talk to a Taxi Driver. I suspect that citizens of New York or London or Berlin would say the same thing. The Rickshaw men were the “Cabbies” of 1920s China, working poor who rubbed shoulders with everyone else in society. If anyone was in a position to give a ground-roots view of the anarchy, it is them. It’s the ‘ordinary people’ stories that make this a compelling choice for this list. There are a surprising number of photographs and the majority are quite large, a value-adding bonus.

Amazon want $33.95 for new copies of the paperback, other vendors have 29 copies from only $11.94. There are 40 used copies from just $1.48. There are also hardcovers from just $2.75 and a Kindle edition for $18.47.

Books about Shanghai

The one overwhelming impression that we have from the 12 books recommended below is that Blair and Mike seriously undervalued the adventure potential of the place when they took the Adventurer’s Club campaign there. A couple of confrontations with some officials, some hints as to the national political scene, and a little drama at the dockside courtesy of one of a PC’s Rival – they barely glanced at the surface, never mind scratching it. A return visit to China’s Gateway is clearly in order.


370. Shanghai Girl Gets All Dressed Up – Beverley Jackson

It was in 1930s Shanghai that the look which would become ubiquitously identified as “Chinese” in western cinema for decades – high-collars, body-clinging, slit-to-the-thigh silk gowns, often brightly colored and decorated – first emerged. Known now by various names – cheongsam, qi pao, and Suzy Wong dresses, they paint a strong contrast with the utilitarian drabness many associate with the period immediately after the Chinese Revolution. Art Historian Jackson explores the city that gave birth to this iconic style, and explores the cultural and artistic movements that coalesced to create it, in this photograph-heavy volume. The text is described by one customer as insipid, but it’s not for the text that we recommend it. 160 pages, each 10×10 inches in size; new copies are few and $40, but used copies start at an affordable $4.77.


371. The Opium War: Drugs, Dreams, and the Making of Modern China – Julia Lovell

To understand Shanghai in particular, and Pulp-era China in general, you need to understand the Opium Wars. Arab traders had first brought Opium to China for medicinal purposes during the Middle Ages, but it took hold as a recreational drug; by the early 19th century, 90% of the Emperor’s Court and the majority of the army were addicted. Britain was also addicted, to Chinese-grown tea paid for with the profits from Opium sales; even today, there is an immediate association between Brits and a “Cuppa”. When China tried to ban the drug and bar those who continued to import it illegally, England went to war to keep open China’s ports, and emerged not only victorious but forcing concessions from the Chinese Throne; the resulting perception of the Imperial Government as vulnerable eventually brought about the end of Imperial Power in China, the first domino that ultimately produced modern China.

This is the first of two books we are recommending on the Opium Wars; it is described as “exceptionally well-written” by reviewers; presented in a narrative style with extensive footnotes, Lovell’s account draws on both Chinese and British sources and provides “pithy descriptions and accounts of characters on both sides”, making this exceptionally readable. It includes a final chapter based on interviews with young Chinese today which engages the lasting impact of the Opium Wars on Chinese perceptions of the West.

The author is a lecturer on modern Chinese History at the University of London, has written for the Guardian, The Times, the Economist, and the Times Literary Supplement, translated a number of Chinese books into English, and is considered an expert on the subject who spends a large part of each year in China with her family. This is as authoritative an account as you will find. At 512 pages (12 of them index), it is the lengthier of the two books, and is almost certainly the more readable of the two. There are limited new copies of the paperback and even fewer used copies, both well within our acceptable price range. There is a Kindle version of an edition by a different publisher to the one featured in Amazon’s preview. Hardcovers are also available, and used copies are currently even cheaper and more plentiful than the paperback.


372. The Opium Wars: The Addiction of One Empire and the Corruption of Another – W Travis Hanes, Frank Sanello

Despite the 12-page index, we aren’t certain of how useful Lovell’s book will be as a reference, so we are also recommending a more traditional and concise (352 page) history. In the interests of adding value to readers of these lists, the history we have chosen represents the wars from China’s perspective and not from the British. It is often said that the winners write the history books; at least in this case, it is untrue. But bear this bias in mind when engaging with this book. Kindle and paperback editions, starting at $4.19 used and $11.48 new.


373. Old Shanghai – Betty Peh-T’i Wei

The title of the series of which this book is a member, “Images of Asia”, is misleading. While this book contains photographs, it is not a photographic collection; it is text with accompaniment. This is a popular history of Shanghai from its beginnings as a market town to the modern day, with emphasis on its “golden age” in the late 19th and early 20th centuries (the Opium Wars puts a new spin on the term “golden age” in our view).

“Wei tells the story of gangsters, traders, and bankers, as well as the artists, political activists, missionaries, and armies of laborers who made Shanghai one of the world’s foremost business cities, and the flashpoint of political and social change in China”. Only 96 pages in length, but published by Oxford University Press, this is a very general history but must be considered authoritative. New copies are hard to justify given the length and price-tag of $15.93+, but used copies are not only more plentiful but start at just one cent.


374. Tales of Old Shanghai: The Glorious Past of China’s Greatest City – Graham Earnshaw

With copies of the preceding recommendation limited in number, we felt it prudent to include an alternative; in the interests of diversity and adding value to this list, we have chosen a book with a slightly different perspective. This book presents photographs, newspaper clippings, stamps, vintage advertisements, excerpts from travel guides, fliers, and first-hand anecdotes that collectively evoke a sense of the history and tone of the city in a scrapbook format.


375. The Rough Guide to Shanghai – Simon Lewis

We commented that good travel guides seemed to be hard to find for Beijing; that’s not the case for Shanghai, and it’s our sense that this book is a better choice than the Beijing-and-Shanghai guide that seemed the best for the capital. Promising “clear maps of every neighborhood and detailed coverage of city attractions, this fully updated guidebook will help you discover the best Shanghai has to offer. Detailed practical advice … All the major and offbeat sights are covered” and “includes all you need … for great day trips to tranquil canal towns such as Tongli and Suzhou.”

There are two editions available through Amazon: a 2014 version and a 2011 version. Simply because they will be cheaper and will exclude some of the more recent changes, we recommend people buy the older edition until prices get to $12 or so; after that, you will need to compare prices for the two and decide for yourself. The current prices are shown below.

2011 Edition (pictured), 208 pages: 12 New from $12.46, 28 used from $0.01.

2014 Edition 200 pages: Kindle $11.40; 40 New from $8.10, 21 used from $8.10.


376. The Gathering Place: Stories from the Armenian Social Club in Old Shanghai

There are always a few who will take a chance during times of trouble and relocate to another nation in hopes of a fresh start, leaving (if necessary) friends, family, and home. The immigrants whose stories appear in this collection of personal histories made their way to exotic Old Shanghai, where they joined the Armenian Social Club. “Their travels coincide with war, economic depression, revolution, banditry, and military occupation during the most turbulent period in modern history … the first half of the twentieth century.” While a number of those accounts will clearly relate to the two World Wars, a plentiful number do not.


377. Policing Shanghai 1927-1937 – Frederic Wakeman

“Pre-war Shanghai: casinos, brothels, Green Gang racketeers, narcotics syndicates, gun-runners, underground Communist assassins, Comitern secret agents. Frederic Wakeman’s masterful study of the most colorful and corrupt city in the world at the time provides a panoramic view of the confrontation and collaboration between the Nationalist secret police and the Shanghai underworld.” Could it sound more Pulp? But, on top of that, it is described as “a great reference book, although … filled with very detailed information, including statistics, that might not be of interest to the general reader” – but which would certainly be valuable to the Pulp GM. 478 pages and academically oriented with splashes of flavor, published by University Of California Press. Kindle ($33.56), Hardcover from $25.86 – but paperback copies start at just $14.99.


378. Gangsters of Shanghai – Gerry O’Sullivan

Unusually, we are recommending this piece of historical fiction, and that despite a great number of complaints about the quality of the plot and writing (many of which make it sound very “dime-store-thriller”), and for one very good reason that a great number of reviewers commented on: “This book is worth reading for its historical detail alone …. There’s an extremely well-drawn, accurate picture of just how surreal the International Settlement was. Wealthy Westerners line their balconies and watch vicious fighting just outside their borders as if it was sport” (City Weekend, Shanghai); “Superbly researched” (David Lowther, author and reviewer for Amazon UK); “…puts you there as if you actually lived through this part of history” (an amazon customer); “…impossible to determine the weave where historical reality ends and imagination takes over” (another amazon customer).” target=”_blank”>


379. The Shanghai Green Gang: Politics and Organized Crime 1919-1937 – Brian G Martin

From one book that – technically – doesn’t belong in this list to another. The Shanghai Green Gang were both the dominant figures in Shanghai Organized Crime in the 1920s and 30s and the most powerful secret society in China until the Japanese occupation. Like the Mafia and the Yakuza, there is a great deal more to the organization, and its leader, Du Yuesheng. than met the eye of the casual observer at the time. In this book, Martin “sifts through a variety of fragmentary and at times contradictory evidence – from diplomatic dispatches to memoirs to police reports – to produce the most comprehensive account of this chaotic period of Chinese history.” The author is or was a Senior Foreign Policy Analyst for the Australian Parliamentary Research Service and is a Research Associate at the Centre of Asian Studies, University of Hong Kong. 279 pages, published by the University Of California Press.

And so to the bad news, and the reason this book shouldn’t be included, having demonstrated clearly why it has been, anyway: Amazon have one new copy for $63. Other vendors have another 25 new copies from $39.15, and 22 used copies for $38.27 or more. Those are almost double our normal limits – but there really is no comparable source.


380. Shanghai at your door (Culture Shock Shanghai) – Rebecca Weiner

The product description is canned text about the Culture Shock series. According to the (only) customer review, “It … provides a great overview on Shanghai’s history, Shanghai’s people and doing business in Shanghai. While other books cover all of these subjects in much more detail, I find this book offers a great overview.

The major reason why we are recommending this particular local culture guidebook is that it dates from 2003, when China was only beginning to open up, and so it will (we expect) be less tainted by commercialization and tourism.

Paperback, 10 new copies from $18.76 and 20 used from one cent.


381. Cinema and Urban Culture in Shanghai, 1922-1943 – edited by Yingjin Zhang

Shanghai was also the center of the Chinese film industry until the Communist Revolution. “…Zhen Zhang discusses how the influence of teahouse culture gradually yielded to cinematic and narrative concerns in the early 1920’s. Kristine Harris’s analysis of a costume drama reveals the director’s cultural heritage and a rich psychological subtext created by new film techniques. Leo Ou-fan Lee examines the ways various urban institutions were utilized to promote a certain type of film culture in Shanghai.” – and that’s just in the first of three parts within this 392-page book, published by Stanford University Press in 1999.

Hardcover copies are out of reach at $60-70, and new copies of the paperback start at $24.65. But there are 26 used copies starting at $10.14.

Central Asia

Books about The Himalayas

There are no shortage of books about hiking the Himalayas, and no shortage of climber’s/hiker’s memoirs and accounts. Books about the mountain range itself tend to be far more obscure and hard to find – and period ones even more so. We have selected one (non-period) Trekker’s Guide and one such climber’s account, and supplemented these with the closest thing we could find to period guides. You will find related works in separate sub-sections on Tibet, Nepal, and Mongolia.


382. The Trekker’s Guide to the Himalaya and Karakorum – Hugh Swift

Thousands of trails interconnect through the Himalayas, some thoroughly commercialized and well-traveled by hikers and climbers, others all but unknown. This claims (and we have no reason to doubt him) to be the only guidebook to cover the entire Himalayan system including the hill regions of Pakistan (Chitral, the Gilgit River Valleys, and Baltistan); India (Kashmir, Ladakh, Himachal Pradesh, Garhwal, and Sikkim); all of Nepal; and parts of Bhutan. 351 pages, published by Sierra Book Clubs of San Francisco in 1982. There are 6 new copies for $62.61 but used copies are affordable from 14 cents and reasonably available.


383. Thin Air (2nd edition) – Greg Child

“In this spellbinding chronicle, Greg Child takes us step by nerve-shattering step through the world’s most remote regions – as he cracks the “death zone” above 26,000 feet, and attacks ‘by fair means’ the world’s most perilous pinnacles.” This appears to be a typical climber’s story, elevated above the rest by a more poetic turn of phrase. Library Journal state, “Although Thin Air would be improved by the addition of political maps, an index, and more rigorous copy editing, it is a worthwhile contribution to the literature of Himalayan climbs”. Kindle and Paperback.


384. Tales of the Himalayas: Letters from WWII Airmen who flew the Hump and from other Veterans of the CBI (Revised edition) – compiled and edited by Dr Carl Frey Constein

“This is a book of letters written to Carl Frey Constein, author of the WWII memoir Born to Fly the Hump. Most of the letters are from pilots and crew who also served in the China-Burma-India Theater of Operations. They tell of crashes and bailouts over the Himalayas and Burma, of mammoth thunderstorms and engine failures, of bombing runs out of China, of airdrops behind enemy lines.” With War coming to the China region in 1937, these stories are as close to pulp-contemporary as you can get.


385. Missing In The Himalayas: An MIA Team’s High-Risk Mission in Tibet – Dr Carl Frey Constein

Amazon uses a subtitle that doesn’t appear on the cover. On December 3, 1444, a C-46 returning after a mission broadcasts a mayday and vanishes. A Tibetan hunter stumbles across the site of the crashed aircraft at 14,000 feet some 60 years later, prompting a high-risk MIA mission to excavate the crash site. This book tells the story of that recovery mission.

Books about Nepal



386. People Within A Landscape: A Collection of Images of Nepal – Bert Willison and Shirley Bourke

Presents 200 color images of Nepal, mostly of people or buildings with very big mountains n the background, on 128 pages. No index. Hardcover; new copies are $56+ but used copies start at one cent. Amazon credits Sir Edmund Hillary with the design, but his name doesn’t appear on the front cover.


387. Insight Guide Nepal

Eight of the world’s ten tallest mountains are in Nepal. This travel book covers the entire country region-by-region, with detailed maps and travel tips. 374 pages. Written and refers to the region before the devastating earthquakes of April-May 2015. Kindle and Paperback, both new and used are affordable and similar in price.


388. Lonely Planet Nepal – Bradley Mayhew, Lindsay Brown, and Wanda Vivequin

“Practical, reliable information to get the traveler from peak to valley – comprehensive section on festival dates & highlights to help travel planning – 55 detailed maps”. Contains “extensive background on people and cultures, and essential pre-trip guidance”. Covers only the southern part of Nepal (no information on the Himalayan region, for example). Potentially better than the Insight Guide within its’ areas, but incomplete. Note that there is a more recent edition which post-dates the earthquakes referred to above; for that reason, we are not providing a link to it. 384 pages, 10 new copies from $14.49 (2 collectible from $6.63 – how does that work?) and 38 used copies from one cent.


389. A Trekking Guide to the Nepal Himalaya: Everest, Annapurna, Langtang, Ganesh, Manaslu & Tsum, Rolwaling, Dolpo, Kangchenjunga, Makalu, West Nepal – Sian Pritchard-Jones and Bob Gibbons

“…the Nepal Himalaya are a fairytale wonderland of picturesque villages, tremendous terraced hillsides, precipitous canyons, forest-filled valleys, pristine nature, quaint Buddhist monasteries and colorful Hindu temples. The hardy, vibrant people could not be more charming as hosts, guides, porters, yak herders and fellow travelers on the myriad of trails.

“This comprehensive, indispensable guide to the Nepal Himalaya covers the popular as well as the less well-known trekking trails of Nepal. Including: a) introductory section: country background, religion and festivals, practicalities, trek planning, staying healthy, altitude sickness, mountain safety, and the highlights of Kathmandu b) detailed descriptions of the more popular trekking routes: Everest, Annapurna, Langtang, Ganesh, Manaslu & Tsum, Rolwaling and Dolpo c) outline suggestions for routes where camping is still the only option: Kanchenjunga, Makalu and West Nepal (Simikot, Saipal and Limi Valley).”

More than the trekking guide the title suggests, this is a book about the inhabitants of the region and their culture.


390. Nepal Culture Smart – Tessa Feller

“If you only have time to read one book about Nepal-this should be the one! Written by a woman who lived in Nepal for two years … captures everything you need to know.” Another purchaser suggested in 2011 (3 years after publication) that while it is an adequate overview, it’s insufficiently in-depth for someone who wanted to reside in the country, with two specific problems identified: some generalizations applied globally to the country are regional or sub-culture specific, and many are more true of country residents than urban dwellers; and there are suggestions that this is not a completely accurate “warts and all” depiction, for example drug use within the city and larger towns is over-downplayed. At the same time, however, the same reviewer making this complaint added, “there were a lot of little helpful facts in this book, it’s extremely well organized, and is very easy to read.” 168 pages, Kindle and Paperback.

Books about Mongolia

For most of the 20th century, most of Mongolia was under Soviet domination, and the rest was under at least titular control, though there are some Mongolians living in China. Gorbachev began the withdrawing of Soviet troops from Mongolia, a process that took three years, and they were left to fend for themselves and shape their own destinies as best they could. All of which makes pulp-contemporary information hard to find. The following recommendations are all compromised, then – too old, or too modern. But all contain elements of the people and culture as they were, then; so use them as a starting point and get creative.


391. Mongolia in the Twentieth Century – edited by Stephen Kotkin and Bruce Allen Elleman

You might hope that 20% of this book would be devoted to the two decades that are spanned by the Pulp Era; but you might be disappointed. The first 79 pages deal with pre-pulp, and that’s fine, because a lot of that material will remain valid. Pages 99-107 concern international diplomacy regarding Outer Mongolia. Pages 107-136 are Pulp-era specific. From page 137 to page 182, the post-war period under the Soviet Union is the focus; and from page 183 onward, the post-soviet (modern) era is the subject. At best, that’s about 10% of the book length; though this total improves if we give the book a half-score for the pre-pulp content, close to that 20% mark in fact. That said, this is the only substantial history book of Mongolia that doesn’t spend most or all of the pages talking about Genghis Khan or dealing exclusively with the modern era. Both of these factors need to be taken into account when you evaluate the value-for-money performance of the book.

New copies of the paperback from Amazon will cost you almost $53; they are slightly cheaper from third parties, starting at $38.22. Don’t even think about the still-more-expensive hardcover! There is a Kindle – for almost $47. But 15 used copies of the paperback start at just $11.99. There probably aren’t very many copies at that price, though.


392. Vanished Kingdoms: A woman explorer in Tibet, China and Mongolia 1921-1925 – Mabel H Cabot

“Vanished Kingdoms is the story of Frederick and Janet Wulsin’s exploration of central China during the 1920s. This is a fascinating book that is gorgeously illustrated with photographs captured by the Wulsins and is written by Janet Wulsin’s daughter.” – from a review by A Silverstone of Vine Voice. For a change, it’s the paperback that is completely unreasonable in price, and the hardcover that is affordable.


393. Travels in Mongolia 1902: A journey by C.W. Campbell, the British Consul in China – edited by Tim Coates

We know little about this book beyond the title and a single review which tells us that this describes the first encounter between a Mongolian and a Westerner. But the title is really all we need; while the Soviets had taken over in the years between the journey described and the Pulp period, and ruled for 15 years, much would have remained unchanged.


394. Lonely Planet Mongolia – Michael Kohn

This travel book has two things to recommend it: first, it is the most highly rated with a significant number of reviews; and second, it is the cheapest, mostly because there is a newer (more expensive) edition. Since we are uncertain how much of the content will translate back to the pulp era, and there are plenty of copies, we recommend that you stick with this edition. New copies are not affordable, but used copies are cheap.


395. Mongolia Culture Smart – Alan Sanders

“Mongolia is landlocked between its neighbors China and Russia in the heart of Asia. For centuries after the disintegration of Genghis Khan’s empire it was ruled by one or the other, but in 1990 the Mongols embraced democracy. Now, after two centuries of Manchu stagnation and seventy years of Soviet communism, they are rebuilding their national heritage. Rarely in the news but making progress toward a market economy, this resource-rich but infrastructure-poor country is a land of pioneers, and its greatest asset is the Mongol people, who are friendly, cooperative, ambitious, and well educated.” From which description, we would guess that perhaps a third of this book is certain to apply in the pulp era, and more is quite likely. “Friendly”, and “cooperative”, we can readily believe. “Ambitious”, is a bit more of a stretch, but perhaps it is so; their most famous son was certainly so. “Well-educated” seems improbably back then.

The author is considered the leading British authority on Mongolia, and is a former lecturer in the subject at London’s School of Oriental and African Studies. The book is 168 pages in length. It is not a travel guide, it is a guide to the people and culture of the nation, something that some purchasers seem to overlook somehow.


396. In Secret Mongolia – Henning Haslund

True stories of the exploration of a remote and exotic region of the world in the 1920s and 30s – also available in a bright red cover, but it’s the same book. It was out of print for fifty years. “Haslund’s camel caravan takes him across the Gobi Desert where he meets with renegade generals and warlords, god-kings and shamans. Haslund is captured, held for ransom, thrown into prison, battles black magic and portrays in vivid detail the birth of a new nation. Meet the reincarnated gods: the ‘Mad Baron’ Ungern-Sternberg and Dambin Jansang, the dreaded Tushi Gun Lama of the Black Gobi, trek across the Gobi Desert, and go back in time to Shamanic Mongolia.”


397. Men and Gods in Mongolia – Henning Hasslund

First published in 1935, this book covers similar territory to the previous one, and is by the same author. In this book, Haslund “takes us to the lost city of Karakota in the Gobi desert and meets the Bodgo Gegen, a god-king Mongolia similar to the Dalai Lama of Tibet; Dambin Jansang, the dreaded warlord of the Black Gobi. Most incredibly, he writes about the Hi-mori, an “airhorse” that flies through the sky and carries with it the sacred stone of Chintamani. And there is plenty of just plain adventure: camel caravans; initiation into Shamanic societies; reincarnated warlords; and the violent birth of modern Mongolia.” New copies of the hardcover are out of the question at $85+, but used copies are the most affordable format at the moment at $9.88. In between are the paperbacks, costing about $17.70.

Books about Tibet



398. Secrets of Tibet: An Unknown Land of Mythos and Mystery – Jason Williams

This is a Call Of Cthulhu sourcebook for the 1920s. “The land is populated with malevolent gods and monsters, and deep secrets lie sleeping in ancient tombs and vaults among Tibet s soaring mountains and deep valleys.” Copies are getting extremely scarce and since originally compiling this list, have shrunk noticeably; the 15 remaining copies – about half new and half used – are around the $23-$24 mark.


399. In Secret Tibet – Theodore Illion

A reprinting of a 1930s travel book. The Author was a German who traveled in disguise through Tibet when it was off-limits to outsiders – fortunately he spoke fluent Tibetan. Includes illustrations of Tibetan monks levitating stones by acoustics. There are some very vicious negative reviews, but for us, that last sentence tells you exactly what to expect. 100 pages, Kindle and Paperback. The Kindle is the most expensive version.


400. Darkness Over Tibet – Theodore Illion

A sequel to the previous book, republished as part of the same series. Illion continues through Tibet and is given directions to an underground city. He is, if Illion’s original publisher is to be believed, the only Westerner to ever enter it and escape alive. This just reeks of being pulp-ready. Kindle and Paperback.


401. Himmler’s Crusade – Christopher Hale

An account of an SS expedition into Tibet in 1938, led by two people – one so rabidly committed to the Nazi cause that he later conducted racial experiments using the skulls of prisoners at Auschwitz, and the other using the Nazis for his own ends. The goal of the mission was to locate the remnants of the Aryan people, the lost Master Race.

Books about Japan

Japan has changed so much since the Second World War that it is very hard to find relevant reference materials. The war itself wrought vast changes, the industrial retooling that followed changed it still further, the global economic success and dominance in electronics and miniaturization that resulted changed it again, the Japanese Management Techniques that swept the world through the late 70s, 80s, and 90s transformed it once more. For all that segments of the West have become fascinated by elements of Japanese culture that didn’t even exist in the Pulp Era, it remains difficult to pin the place down in simple terms. That makes things difficult for the Pulp GM. These references should help.


402. Japan’s Siberian Intervention, 1918-1922: ‘A great Disobedience Against The People’ – Paul E Dusncomb

Japan’s role in World War II was all about grabbing resources, just as their success in miniaturization had its roots in achieving the maximum while consuming minimal resources. Their first attempt at acquiring the resources they desired, even as World War I was ending, should have warned the world of what was to come, but it didn’t. The history of this conflict is central to understanding Japan over the subsequent 23 years and beyond. Not to mention that the pulp era fully encompasses this time frame.


403. Constructing East Asia: Technology, Ideology, and Empire in Japan’s Wartime Era, 1931-1945 – Aaron Moore

This book challenges accepted interpretations of Japanese wartime and pre-war ideology towards technology, which may well have been the most lasting victim of Western wartime propaganda. This is quite academic to judge from the dense language employed in the product description. If your pulp Japan is to be making strides toward giant fighting robots and Godzilla-repelling technologies, you may want to pay close attention to the content. If not, it will still force you to confront the preconceptions that the history we were all taught has fostered. 328 pages, and doesn’t quite sneak completely under our price cap.


404. Japan 1868-1945: From Isolation to Occupation – Takao Matsumura and John Benson

There’s obviously a gap on the detailed histories selected above. This 292-page book will fill that gap, and supplement the preceding book which is about the interpretation of events during the 1930s and early 40s than about events.


405. A Concise History Of Japan – Brett L Walker

Another direction that the Pulp GM may wish to take involves preserving a more feudal approach to parts of the country despite the modernity of the era. That is the approach that Blair and Mike chose in the Adventurer’s Club campaign, in which Japan was a pulp-modern culture with small pockets of feudal and pseudo-feudal power structures, an odd blending of ancient and new that nevertheless resonated quite strongly with the known society, sociology, and wartime behavior of Japan.

Fully implementing this approach requires a still broader understanding of the history of the nation, and that is where this history comes into the picture. 359 pages, but with much more history to cover, many events will be discussed in less detail than the histories of narrower scope previously listed.


406. Tumultuous Decade: Empire, Society, and Diplomacy in 1930s Japan – Masato Kimura and Tosh Minohara

“Featuring an interdisciplinary and international group of scholars, Tumultuous Decade examines Japanese domestic and foreign affairs between 1931 and 1941. It looks at Japan in the context of changing approaches to global governance, the rise of the League of Nations, and attempts to understand the Japanese worldview as it stood in the 1930s, a crucial period for Japan and the wider world. The editors argue that, like many other emerging powers at the time, Japan experienced a national identity crisis during this period and that this crisis is what ultimately precipitated Japan’s role in the Second World War as well as the global order that took shape in its aftermath”. We don’t fully agree with their thesis, feeling that the identity crisis followed the war and the unconditional surrender that was forced on the nation, but that doesn’t mean that this book is bereft of value. Anything that describes the culture of the period is a useful reference to have. 328 pages. Kindle, Hardcover, and Paperback, but most copies and formats are too expensive to consider.


407. The Ultimate Japan Travel Guide By A Traveler For A Traveler

We have eschewed most of the travel guides as dealing with a Japan that is too far removed from the one of the Pulp Era to be relevant. This is one that snuck past that restriction by providing chapters on several of the major cities. 80 pages, which is very short for a travel guide. Kindle and Paperback.


408. Japan’s World Heritage Sites: Unique Culture, Unique Nature – John Dougill

This photographic collection was discovered at the last minute. If it dealt with the urban landscape in the pulp era in addition to the material it does contain, we would have elevated it in the list, as we like to be consistent in format; but it doesn’t, so it is in the specialty travel subsection for Japan. What it does contain are photographs of the temples, gardens, castles, and natural wonders that are now designated UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Each site is described in detail and in photograph. 192 pages, each 9 by 12 inches. At almost an inch thick expect higher P&H than normal. Kindle $16, new hardcover copies from $19.40, used from $10.40, and there is one out-of-reach collectible copy


409. Gurps Japan (3rd edition) – Lee Gold

Game supplement focusing on Feudal Japan. Useful for Samurai, Ninja, Japanese Castles, etc.

Books about Tokyo



410. The World’s Greatest Cities: The History of Tokyo

“Chronicles the history of Tokyo over the last several centuries, including accounts of what the city was like across the years, with a bibliography for further reading. At 44 pages, this is a slim volume, but the prices reflect that. Kindle and paperback, limited copies.


411. Tales Of Old Tokyo: The Remarkable Story of one of the world’s most fascinating cities – John Darwin van Fleet

“A breathtaking romp through … Tokyo’s history from the mid 19th to the mid-20th century, using lots of images, writings and clippings to bring back to life those far-off days.” 232 pages, Kindle and Paperback.


412. DK Eyewitness Travel Guide: Tokyo

This 2013 book is the only Tokyo travel guide with more than 3 1/2 stars from a significant number of reviews at Amazon. Not even the newer edition escapes this malaise (so we aren’t linking to it). The usual (for a DK travel guide) cutaways and floor-plans. Criticized by some for not including enough tourist activities, just places to go and things to see – which is a plus for our purposes. Because this is officially an out-of-date edition, used copies are at rock-bottom prices, and if they run out, there are reasonably-priced new copies.


413. Tokyo Now and Then: An Explorer’s Guide – edited by Paul Waley

When a 15-year resident of Tokyo describes this as his favorite historical guide to the city, you listen. 502 pages, and even though some of it will be out-of-date, the descriptive passages would remain current; more importantly, many of them would also be applicable in the Pulp era. Hardcover only, and new copies are prohibitively expensive; but there are 25 used copies from $2.49.


414. Tokyo: City Of Stories – Paul Waley

These are the stories behind the buildings, as recounted by the same author as the previous volume. Paperback only, both new and used are reasonably priced. 288 pages.


415. Tokyo: 29 Walks in The World’s Most Exciting City – John H Martin and Phylis G Martin

“On foot and by train or subway, it takes you through the most fascinating parts of the modern megalopolis, while making the shogun’s city – the Edo of samurai and geishas, merchants and artisans – and the outlines of old Tokyo come alive.” 19 walking tours in Tokyo; 10 day trips including Yokohama, Kamakura, and Mt Fuji; over 100 photos; 50 full-color maps, plus a “large pull-out map” (probably missing from used copies). 288 pages, paperback and Kindle, affordable in both new and used conditions, plentiful copies.

Other Significant Places in Asia

Books About Singapore

Singapore is one of the success stories of Asia. Founded in 1819 as a trading post for the East India Company, it was ceded to Britain in 1826. Captured and occupied by Japan in 1942, it was repossessed after the Japanese surrender. It gained independence by Federating with other former British territories to form Malaysia, but was expelled two years later because of ideological differences. A period of instability followed, eventually giving way to prosperity and stability.


416. Singapore: A Pictorial History – Gretchen Liu

One of the heftiest photographic collections we’ve ever seen, this 400-page volume contains more than 1200 images. The page size of 10.3 x 12 inches is enough that these are of a reasonable size – an average of three a page and the equivalent of a fourth for text would still make the average size larger than 5×6 inches each at a minimum, and potentially much larger. Nearly an inch-and-a-half thick, and weighing in at more than 5 pounds, additional P&H would seem a foregone conclusion. The collection includes the earliest known sketch (1823) and photograph (1843) of Singapore, topographic studies, formal portraits, and street scenes, some sourced from private family albums. The images are in four sections arranged chronologically. No matter how much you would expect to pay for such a collection, you are almost certainly overestimating; prices for new copies are only $25.57 and used copies start at a mere $2.90 – and are in good supply.


417. DK Eyewitness Guide to Malaysia and Singapore

Travel guides to Singapore all have roughly the same rating, and insufficient populations for those ratings to be deemed significant recommendations. With that in mind, we have opted for one that is usually heavy with additional content of use to the pulp GM. Paperback only, and both used and new are roughly the same price. 356 pages.


418. The Fatal Fortress: The Guns and Fortifications of Singapore 1819-1953 – Bill Clements

Between 1923 and 1938, the Singapore naval base had been upgraded with some of the largest coastal guns ever installed. The siting and design of these has since been blamed for the humiliating defeat of the British forces, but flaws in the island’s defenses were inherent in the city’s founding. This book instead argues that it was a failure of Command that ultimately caused the fall of Singapore. The text is accompanied by a number of photographs, drawings, and plans. 232 pages. The price is a little high by the lists’ standards at $23.37, but that’s not surprising – this book won’t actually be released until November 1st. Note that the price will almost certainly go up from that date; Amazon usually include a pre-order discount.


419. Culture Shock Singapore – Marion Bravo-Bhasin

This is the first of two cultural reference books to Singapore that we are listing, and it is the one that looks like being the most useful – given how much Singapore is likely to have changed in the intervening years. But it’s the more expensive of the two. 400 pages in length, however, while the alternative is a much briefer 168 pages. Kindle and Paperback..


420. Singapore Culture Smart – Angela Milligan

The Culture Smart series has been vying with Culture Shock for most useful cultural guide throughout these lists, and in this case, the latter won out. We are including this book because it’s a lot cheaper (just one, cent used), for the budget conscious.


421. Growing up in British Malaya and Singapore: A Time Of Fireflies and Wild Guavas – Maurice Baker

The final book in the Singapore section is the autobiography of Baker’s life in Singapore from the 1920s until the 1940s. This covers most of the Pulp Era like a blanket.

Books About Hong Kong



422. A Modern History Of Hong Kong – Steve Tsang

In 1841, Hong Kong was a little-known fishing community on the outer periphery of China. Then the British occupied it, and over the next 156 years transformed it into one of the world’s trading powerhouses. And then, as required under the terms of the treaty under which the Chinese ceded control, the British gave it back to China.

At the time, there was endless speculation on how the culture shock of a progressive western society encountering the Communist regime of the People’s Republic from a position of subordination would affect the city. Some felt that the Chinese would clamp down, hard, and that it would be an object lesson in repression; others (including Mike) thought that they would leave the city largely alone and milk the cash-cow for as long as the ride lasted. While that forecast was closer to the mark, no-one expected Hong Kong to swallow the Dragon; but whether it was the spur of competition, the enlightenment as to what China could be, or simply taking the success of Hong Kong as a template for the 21st Century, it was the handover in 1997 that seemed to trigger the beginning of the wave of transformation within China.

This is the story of Hong Kong from 1841 to the 21st century, as Hong Kong experienced a tumultuous transfigurative experience to rival that of anywhere else in Asia. It draws on documents and memories from both British and Chinese sources in addition to the obvious local knowledge, and is considered by many to be the definitive history – until the next great wave of change. 352 pages, Hardcover $70 near enough, Kindle $7.68, Paperback $34 new from Amazon or $14.24+ from third party vendors, $9.48 used.


423. An Extraordinary Youth: Growing up in British Hong Kong – Yvonne Blackmore de Jong

Most modern culture guides would be useless to at least some degree, but Hong Kong is better-served in that respect, in terms of the Pulp Era specifically, than many other places within Asia. These are the memoirs of a woman who was a young girl living in Hong Kong in the 1930s, interned by the Japanese when the “Pearl of the Orient” was occupied in the early 1940s, of her post-war return, and of her travels to Australia and Britain. Invaluable for capturing a glimpse of Hong Kong in that brief period we are calling the Pulp Era. Technically, with only 11 copies – 5 used and 6 new – and the used copies priced at $59 (the new are only $6), this should have been relegated, but it is too on-point to leave out – while the affordable copies last.


424. Cities Without Ground: A Hong Kong Guidebook – Adam Frampton, Jonathon D. Solomon, and Clara Wong

Hong Kong is essentially built in three concentric semicircular rings, each smaller and higher up the mountain than the last. As you ascend, you are rising in social class and economic status. It can be said, as Frampton does, that this is a city without a ‘ground level’. The unique physical geography on which Hong Kong is built has profound effects on the culture and perceptions of the city; “Density obliterates figure-ground in the city, and in turn re-defines public-private spatial relationships. Perception of distance and time is distorted through compact networks of pedestrian infrastructure, public transport and natural topography in the urban landscape.” This book explores this unique physical and social topography by “mapping three-dimensional circulation networks that join shopping malls, train stations and public transport interchanges, public parks and private lobbies as a series of spatial models and drawings. These networks, though built piecemeal, owned by different public and private stakeholders, and adjacent to different programs and uses, form a continuous space of variegated environments that serves as a fundamental public resource for the city.”

While fascinating in its own right, none of this justifies the inclusion of this book in this list; it is far too modern in topic. To do so, it is necessary to point out that none of this was deliberately designed and engineered to function in this way; it was assembled piecemeal, and its earliest roots lie in the fundamental structure of the city itself as it was even in the Pulp Era. As such, this book offers a unique perspective and insight even on that time period. 128 pages, paperback, new and used available for $8.50+ or $17.70 from Amazon direct.


425. Hong Kong: A Cultural History – Michael Ingham

Although a first-glance perception of Hong Kong might be one of gleaming modernity, it has retained deep cultural roots throughout its history. This book strips back that surface (metaphorically speaking) to reveal the hidden culture, history, and myth that underly the modern community. Each region of Hong Kong is examined separately, examining its lifestyle, history, and notable tourist attractions. At its best with a separate map of the city, or you will find yourself perpetually turning back to the one at the front of the book. There are few photographs provided. 256 pages, hardcover (expensive except for a few used copies) and paperback (affordable, even cheap for a used copy).


426. Hong Kong’s Colonial Legacy: A Hong Kong Chinese’s View of the British Heritage

What did the British leave behind as their legacy when Hong Kong was returned to the Chinese at midnight on 30 June 1997? This book offers a Chinese resident’s answer to the question, aimed at the lay person – and, in the process, provides an insight into life during the period of British administration, which encompasses the Pulp Era. 218 pages, paperback.


427. Hong Kong Culture Smart: The Essential Guide to Customs and Culture – Clare Vickers

There are not many reviews of this book, and one is scathing: “provides the basics but if you really follow it you will be ridiculed by both cultures. The writing lends itself to easy skimming because it is not great. Picked up 1-2 tips but laughed at many of the rest.” The problem with this comment is that the author fails to establish his qualifications for making such a statement; his review title suggests looking elsewhere “like others have said” – except that there are no such suggestions, and Google lists no equivalent book.

We are forced to conclude that one of two conditions exists: either the review has to be dismissed from all consideration as malicious, or the GM has to compromise and build his representation of Hong Kong culture and etiquette on a model that is not an accurate representation of the reality. Since this is a guide to modern-day Hong Kong, there would need to be generous liberties taken with the content anyway, so either way, we end with the proposition of ignoring the complaint.

Further fueling that perspective are the qualifications of the author – “Clare Vickers is an English writer who lived in Hong Kong for eighteen years, from 1979 to 1997. Her husband was a member of the Hong Kong Government, and collaborated with her on the history and government chapters of this book as well as other historical books and articles on Hong Kong. She has a degree in modern languages, and has written several dictionaries and textbooks for Hong Kong schools, had a column in the educational section of the South China Morning Post, and is the author of Escape, a Story of Wartime Hong Kong, written for Hong Kong teenagers. She last worked in the territory in 2004.” Those qualifications make the complaint sound very hollow and foundation-less.

We originally weren’t going to include any modern culture guide, even if we found one, but checked this one because the low rating seemed unusual for this series, which has earned a number of other recommendations on our list. Upon noting the publication date, and the dates of residence – 1997 was, of course, the year of the handover back to China – we felt that this might just hold insights to the colonial period culture, and worth listing. 168 pages, reprinted in 2006, pocket sized. Kindle for $7 but new copies from just 49 cents and used for one, so the convenience definitely comes with a premium.


428. Hong Kong Policeman: Law, Life and Death on the streets of Hong Kong: An English Police Inspector tells it as it Was – Chris Emmett

“In 1970 Hong Kong was the fastest expanding city in the world, a city that lived on three levels: the expatriates, nearly always British who lived in almost complete isolation; the vast mass of Chinese residents struggling to get by and improve their lot; and, finally, the criminal and corrupt underside which not only fought among itself, but also affected the lives of everyone else in the Crown Colony through fear and corruption.” Opposing the underworld was the Hong Kong police force, and this is a report of the experiences of a young Mersey-side policeman, Chris Emmett. Although set in the 1970s, the city’s nature – as described in that introductory paragraph – hasn’t fundamentally changed since the Pulp Era, making this as valid then as it was at the time it was written. 262 pages, Kindle and Paperback. New copies are currently cheaper than used.


429. Asian Godfathers: Money and Power in Hong Kong and Southeast Asia – Joe Studwell

Studwell is also the author of recommendation #351 on our list, “How Asia Works”. In this book, he recounts the personal histories of the fifty families in Southeast Asia and Hong Kong who dominate the lives of five hundred million people. Along the way, he reveals the broader historic, economic, and political influences that have shaped the region over the last 150 years. 368 pages, Kindle and Paperback.

Books About Taiwan



430. Accidental State: Chiange Kai-shek, the United States, and the Making of Taiwan – Hsiao-ting Lin

Some view the creation of “Two Chinas” as the inevitable outcome of the Chinese Civil War (it is not a position that China has ever accepted). Although the state itself did not exist until the Revolution – refer to our China section – the fact that General Kai-shek would choose this as the place to flee to marks it out as having been somewhat different to mainland China even before that seminal event. Understanding Taiwan in the Pulp Era is therefore an attempt to identify and characterize the points of distinction, and the origins of the Nation are the key. (It’s ironic that the “Two Chinas” are probably more alike now than at any point since then – Mike). Those origins are the subject of this book, which we shouldn’t recommend for price reasons but can’t resist for relevance. 352 pages, published by Harvard University Press. Kindle: $31.84 Hardcover: $39.95 from Amazon, $28.15 new, $26.94 used. First published in March this year and copies are starting to run out, so we would not be surprised to see a paperback edition sometime soon.


431. Formosan Odyssey: Taiwan, Past and Present – John Grant Ross

“Until the early twentieth century, Taiwan was one of the wildest places in Asia. Its coastline was known as a mariners’ graveyard, the mountainous interior was the domain of headhunting tribes, while the lowlands were a frontier area where banditry, feuding, and revolts were a way of life. Formosan Odyssey captures the rich sweep of history through the eyes of Westerners who visited and lived on the island”. These stories appear to cover the Pulp Era, and the years both before and after. Kindle and Paperback, and technically there aren’t quite enough copies available – but once again we will make an exception on the grounds of obvious relevance.


432. Insight Guide to Taiwan

There are a lot of travel guides to Taiwan, and they all seem to have similar ratings – without a great enough review population for an informed perception of those ratings. The few who have significant review counts also seem to decline markedly in rating. The Insight guides, aside from being one of those that we always keep an eye on, are exceptions to those statements. Furthermore, there are more copies available at cheaper prices than most of the other travel guides we saw listed by Amazon.

The defining trait of the Insight Guides series – and each series definitely tries to establish its own ‘niche’ within the travel-guide publishing space – is that they tend to contain more cultural and regional information than the others, which may be more detailed in key tourism locations (Lonely Planet) or have a greater emphasis on photographs (national geographic) or maps (DK) or factual details that others lack (Rough Guides). 260 pages, Kindle and Paperback, new from $12.22, used from $2.30.


433. Insight Guide to Taipei City

The previous listing deals with the country as a whole, this recommendation (from the same line) focuses on the capital, Taipei. Kindle and Paperback, new from $8.92, used from $10.01.


434. Taiwan A to Z: The essential Cultural Guide – Amy C Liu

Taiwan preserves traditional cultural elements while accommodating the modern. Many of its practices and traditions will be strange to outsiders. In terms of rating by customers, this book is head-and-shoulders above the other offerings. Written by a Taiwanese local who understands both Western and Traditional cultures, enabling a prioritization of the things that people need to know and that are likely to intrigue and interest readers. The produce description lists four examples: Why it’s a bad idea to give a clock as a gift; why so many (modern) Taiwanese have PhDs; how Taiwanese parents choose children’s names; and why a new mother shouldn’t take a bath for a month after giving birth. Of those, two out of the four would probably translate directly to the pulp era, and one could translate indirectly. That’s a pretty healthy strike rate given that this is a content-relevance test that the description wasn’t designed to satisfy!


Books about India



435. India Then and Now – Rudrangshu Mukherjee

India’s past juxtaposed with India now, as with all of the “Then and Now” series. The “about the author” appears to describe a completely different person. It’s possible that the name on the cover is a pen-name. This is the “third impression edition”, i.e. the third printing of this particular book. 274 pages, and each larger than one foot by one foot make this a very hefty book – expect additional P&H (it weighs 6 pounds). Amazon lists the hardcover at $43.04 but third party vendors will provide it new for $21 or used for $5.44.


436. India (4th Edition) – Stanley Wolpert

A general introduction to India. An older edition would have suited our needs better, as this edition has been “updated”. Described as a Comprehensive, Short, and Readable overview by some, and as ‘awkwardly written’ by others. Amazon aren’t offering a preview by which we could judge for ourselves, but editorial reviews support the first and contradict the complaint. 264 pages, new for $15.98 (Amazon $32.88), used from $6.30.


437. The Chaos Of Empire: The British Raj and the Conquest of India – Jon Wilson

A book that doesn’t quite live up to pricing standards for this list but that was too relevant to ignore. Until independence was granted to India in 1947, it was ruled by the British Raj – a selected class within Indian society who were elevated to rule by proxy and rubber-stamp whatever the British Government’s representatives decided. It was a system designed to protect British power and not the welfare of those it administered, and it was absolutely in effect during the Pulp Period. Hardcover, new $20.95 (Amazon $25, which is slightly cheaper) and used $21.33. Even combining both, there are only 28 copies left. Remarkably, Amazon list the publication date as 11 days from when this text is being written, and describes it as their #1 New Release in India History. The product details back up the publication date, however, virtually ensuring a reprinting that will bring prices down – this looks like being a best-seller. 584 pages.


438. The History Of India in 50 Events – Stephan Weaver

The title says it all, really – 50 events critical to the formation of Modern India. Don’t expect page numbers; this is history in bite-sized sequential pieces, good for a quick overview of history and little more than a starting point to anything further. 84 pages, Kindle (3.19), and Paperback (New $8.80, Amazon $12.99, Used $10.89).


439. Climbing the Mango Trees: A Memoir of a Childhood in India – Madhur Jaffrey

The author is an food writer and actress who was born in 1933 as one of six children to a prosperous businessman and with a vast extended family – often 40 people at dinner – under the benign but strict thumb of her grandmother. This is her memoir of that childhood, including 30 recipes that she has recovered from those memories and times. Expect a foody-orientation to this slice of period history, then, but the era is definitely pulp. 324 pages, in Hardcover and paperback; new of either from $4-4.50, used copies of either one cent.


440. Essential India Travel Guide: Travel Tips and Practical Information – Shalu Sharma

The most highly-rated of the India travel guides other than those explicitly targeting ways women can protect themselves while visiting the country. “Covers everything you need from places to visit to dealing with beggars and how to protect yourself”. “India is a great country for holiday but it can be rough at times. Sadly, many incidences and crimes do happen and many of them are directed at foreign travelers. Many foreigners end up being ripped off their hard earned money. Most people in India working in the tourism industry do not realize that even in the West, one has to work hard for their money and do not have surplus to squander around.” The product description actually lists all 37 chapters, and many of them would be just as relevant in the pulp era as they are now. 176 pages, Kindle ($4.11) and Paperback (Amazon $10.80, New 3rd Party $7.44, used $0.71).


441. India: The Land of Mystery, Mysticism, Mythology, Miracles, Multiculturalism, and Mightiness – John K

Part travel guide, part review of Indian religious beliefs and mysticism, the compound produces a strangely pulp flavor. See if you agree: the first four chapters are entitled “Mysterious Spots in India”, “Mysticism in India”, “Religious Myths in India”, and “Miracle Healing and Powerful Manifestation of Supernatural in India” (sic). Then again, there is the conundrum of what to make of an author who uses an initial for his surname and who’s bio makes him sound like a self-help guru. Judging from both that description and the chapter titles, he also seems to have problems with plurals and the word “the”. Even with these faults, this is too pulp-like to ignore. 84 pages, Kindle ($4.11) and Paperback (Amazon $9.99, 3rd parties new $7.31, used $6.40 – making Amazon the better choice by about $1).


442. India Culture Smart: The Essential Guide to Customs & Culture – Becky Stephen

India has been changing rapidly since 2003, when it entered an economic boom – which was followed more recently by the GFC of 2007-08. The 2010 version of the guide emphasizes that it has been completely revised to highlight “the many subtle and not-so-subtle changes that are taking place in Indian society, describes and explains those areas of life where traditional attitudes and practices continue to prevail, and offers original insights, practical tips, and vital human information to guide you through the pitfalls and delights of this complex, vibrant, and increasingly important country.” The review most customers rely on is critical: “I had hoped for a book with a lot of cultural insights. Instead most of the book is written in ‘Wikipedia style’. It mainly consists of facts.” A more positive interpretation follows – “The chapters are broken up into bite sized chunks which makes this easy to read and dip in and out of. It also had various photos throughout, although rather frustratingly these aren’t labeled so you know what you are looking at! This offers plenty of advice to dodge the most obvious social faux pas and should help you get the most out of your time in the country and in your relationships with its citizens.”

The 2016 edition is positively ebullient about the country in comparison; it reads like it was written by the Indian Tourist Board, or whatever the equivalent is called. It gushes so much that we felt in the presence of a used car salesman – it was trying too hard.

Both are 168 pages in length. The 2010 edition is free as an Amazon audio book with their Audible trial offer, and the paperback is $0.49 new, $0.01 used, or $9.95 through Amazon. The 2016 edition is available in Kindle ($7.49) and Paperback (Amazon $7.94, New $5.67, and Used $6.86). Based on the product descriptions, we would recommend the older edition over the newer, and not just because they are cheaper.

2010 edition (pictured):

2016 edition:

Books about Delhi



443. DK Eyewitness Travel Guide: Delhi, Agra, and Jaipur

As usual, maps, floor-plans, and 3-D cutaway diagrams are prominent features of the DK guides. This covers everything from the Taj Mahal to the local wildlife, temples, bazaars, museums, and other attractions. 312 pages, paperback and flexibound; the latter are cheaper at the moment (especially buying direct from Amazon), but look carefully when you go to purchase as all the prices are close.

Books about Bombay/Mumbai

The city known as “Bombay” and often referred to as the gateway to India was renamed Mumbai in 1995, a consequence of power shifting between ethnic groups and a rise in nationalism that occurred throughout India at the time; many places were renamed to shed unwanted ‘legacies’ of British rule.


444. By-Ways of Bombay – S M Edwardes

Originally published in 1912 and now free of copyright, this book is floating around in two forms – kindle/scanned (which excludes the photographs and cuts the length to 44 pages) or printed paperback which comes in a variety of page counts: 44 pages (1 copy, generic cover), 88 pages (23 copies, proper cover), 104 pages (14 copies, generic cover), 118 pages (1 new at $89, 2 used at $2000, generic cover), and 156 pages (1 new at 22.99, and one used at $2,101.99, generic cover). According to a customer review, the 96-page version (!) includes photographs; we therefore suspect that all printed versions except the 44-page one may have photographs. Although Amazon offers to let you “look inside” a number of these, this simply previews the (picture-less) Kindle version, so it’s no help. (One reason for the proliferation of copies is that Project Gutenberg scanned it once its copyright expired, removing the images as is that project’s usual practice; many of these copies are simply rehashing this digital version).

But it’s not for the images that we recommend this book; they are just a bonus if you get them. This is the anecdote recollections of a Government Official in Bombay and wrote about the people that he encountered. Edwards died in 1927 on January 1; 19 of the stories within this book were originally published in the “Times Of India”, the 20th was added in the second edition and was first published in the “Bombay Gazette”. These local encounters may date from 1912 to 1927, but they should be readily transferable to any point in the Pulp Era to give the GM a shot of instant color for his campaign.

We are linking to the Dodo Press 88-page version because it’s the only one with enough copies available at a reasonable price. The Kindle version is free, new copies of this paperback are $4.05 and used copies are $7.32.


Books about Africa (excluding Egypt)



445. Africa – Photographs By Art Wolfe, with text by Michelle A Gilders

A photographic collection that covers five ecosystems and represents 20 trips to Africa over a twenty-year period. Gilders provides five essays. This shouldn’t be in the list but is so comprehensive that we couldn’t refuse it. 240 pages, 11.3 inches x 14.9 inches – this is a big book. Increased P&H will certainly apply. Ignore the collectible and new versions of this hardcover, they are out of reach. There are used copies starting at $21.92, and Amazon has the cheapest of them right now.


446. Serengeti: Natural Order On The African Plain – Mitsuaki Iwago

A second photo-book, this one focusing on the Serengeti Plain. Higher page count (327), smaller page size (10.2 inches x 8.1 inches), and – despite that higher page count, a thinner book (0.9 inches vs 1.1 inches).

That tells us that this is printed on lower quality paper than the Wolfe collection. Total weight is about half of the previous book, further supporting this impression.

There are only 21 copies of this book, all are used, and the cheapest is one cent.


447. Africa: A Biography Of The Continent – John Reader

At 816 pages, this is probably more African history than any GM needs, pulp or otherwise. This is the complete story from the dawn of man to the modern day. But the prices for such a comprehensive book are unbelievable, and we could not refuse it. Fortunately, it is well-indexed and with a comprehensive bibliography. The Kindle edition is $12.92. The book is new from Amazon for $13.88. There are 61 new copies from other vendors for $4.98, and 111 used copies from $3.


448. A History Of Modern Africa: 1800 To The Present (2nd Edition) – Richard J Reid

This is a more focused history, dealing with the continent from the time Europeans started getting involved. Unlike most such histories that are written in English, this book places a greater focus on the story from an African point of view, especially during the colonial period, and includes in-depth coverage of non-Anglophone Africa. This history is current to 2011.

It is 408 pages in length, so there is room for a great deal more detail than the comprehensive history offered previously allows but we’re dealing with an entire continent here; a little under two pages a year average seems barely adequate for such a vast topic. Amazon list it for $18.99 (+P&H) used and $41.83 new; third-party vendors offer it for $22.97 new. Amazon have the low price for a used copy. It is also available in “e-textbook” format. Clearly, we are recommending used copies.


449. Beyond Empire And Nation: The Decolonization Of African And Asian Societies 1930s-1970s

This was almost relegated to the honorable mentions; it’s too expensive, and there are not enough copies (neither of which was the case when it was first considered. This 304-page history focuses specifically on the rise of independent nations within Africa as the Colonial powers relinquished their hold, sometimes with great reluctance. But more than just the events, this book looks at the consequences for each on the people, the society, and the economies, and that was what convinced Mike to convince the rest of us that it should stay.

Amazon list new copies at $32, and used copies at $21.41. Third party vendors offer 11 new copies for $22.75; Amazon has the low price on used copies, of which there are also only 11.


450. Travels In West Africa – Mary H Kingsley

There are lots of reprints of this out-of-copyright book but in most cases they are too expensive or too few in numbers. In 1893, Kingsley found herself at loose ends for the coming five or six months and decided to spend them exploring Africa. This 458-page book is her report of the expedition. Much of what she found would remain relevant until, piece-by-piece, the path of her journey intersects a newly-created nation (or one in a state of unrest). There are 28 new at $24.99 (but Amazon is cheaper at $28.99 once P&H is taken into account), and there are 18 used copies at $2.72.


451. Lonely Planet West Africa – Anthony Ham, Jean-Bernard Carillet, Paul Clammer, Emilie Filou, Tom Masters, Anja Mutic, Caroline Sieg, Kate Thomas, And Vanessa Wruble

Rather than trying to list travel guides for each individual state, we wanted to address the problem geographically. It turns out that Lonely Planet had the same idea, and that copies were both acceptable and numerous. The ‘West Africa’ book is 520 pages. Kindle $19.25, Paperback from Amazon $25.32, third parties list 56 new from $13.20 and 29 used from $5.44.


452. Lonely Planet Southern Africa – Alan Murphy, Kate Armstrong, Lucy Corne, Mary Fitzpatrick, Michael Grosberg, Anthony Ham, Trent Holden, Kate Morgan, And Richard Waters

It’s important to note that this is Southern Africa and not South Africa – the latter being the name of one particular nation within this broader region. 760 pages. Amazon want $25.73 for a new copy (and have only 20 left) or $17.98 for the Kindle edition. Third parties offer 72 new starting at $15.47 and 33 used from $7.48.


453. Lonely Planet East Africa – Anthony Ham, Stuart Butler, Mary Fitzpatrick, And Trent Holden

For some reason, there aren’t as many reviews of the East Africa book. 664 pages. Amazon have new copies for $23.32 and a Kindle edition for $19.17. Third parties offer 65 new at $15.24 or more and 23 used at $17.23 up. So, for now at least, new copies are cheaper than used.


454. Lonely Planet North Africa – Damien Simonis, David Willett And Ann Jousiffe

The North Africa part of the coverage dates back to 1995 and is almost certainly out-of-date with respect to the modern world, unlike most of the earlier listings. That affects the price of this 800-page volume: there are 7 new at $36.86 and climbing, and 27 used at one cent.


455. Lonely Planet Central Africa – Alex Newton

Completing the quintet is this 564-page volume from 1994. There are 6 new copies at $10.39 or more and 26 used copies at one cent plus.


456. Wicklum’s Law and other tips on How To Survive In Africa – Michael Wicklum

“Invaluable information” and “anecdotal commentary” that documents seven trips across a combined total of 14 countries. We’re worried that some of the content will refer to SUVs and mobile phones, but most of it should be applicable either as a casual encounter for the PCs or as genuinely useful advice / instruction to them. Be warned that this book also lists in Amazon’s humor section. Kindle for $4, Paperback from $11.64 new or $2.01 used; Amazon have one copy at $19.99.

Books About The Sahara



457. The Sahara Desert – Molly Aloain

The Sahara desert reaches into 12 countries and occupies a greater land area than the entire United States. This book is about the Geological makeup of the desert. A 32-page book aimed at children, and a little expensive on that basis – Paperback $9.95 from Amazon, 30 new at $5.10 from third parties, who also have 14 used at $3.98. There is also a library binding available; Amazon want $27.60 for theirs, there are 13 new at $6.80 and 8 used at $3.98.


458. Sahara: The Extraordinary History of the World’s Largest Desert – Marq de Villiers and Sheila Hirtle

“In the parched and seemingly lifeless heart of the Sahara desert, earthworms find enough moisture to survive. Four major mountain ranges interrupt the flow of dunes and gravel plains, and at certain times waterfalls cascade from their peaks. Even the sand amazes: massive dunes can appear almost overnight, and be gone just as quickly.” The Sahara is full of unexpected twists, as this book, which focuses on the desert and its people, reveals. 320 pages Paperback, Amazon $14, third parties have 22 copies new at $9.83 and 39 used at one cent. There is also a collectible copy at $15.

Books About “Darkest Africa” not listed elsewhere



459. Secrets of Kenya: The Mythos Roams Wild – David Conyers

“Africa strikes fear in the hearts of civilized Westerners for its savage tribes, fierce animals, impenetrable jungles, vast deserts, lost civilizations, slave traders, contagious diseases–and the unknown.” The ‘Dark Continent’ is a mystery, the least understood, most dangerous, least explored of all the six habitable continents. Diseases, beasts, and savages pose effective barriers to exploration. And that means that if you get past them, strange things may wait to be discovered – dangerous things, things man was not meant to know…

Books About Morocco



460. Morocco – Photographs by Barry Brukoff with text by Paul Bowles

Second only to Egypt, during the Pulp Era, Morocco was perhaps the most exotic and mysterious “known” location in Africa. It is, perhaps, no coincidence that the two are both bordered by the Mediterranean Sea to the north, and of course, the Iberian Peninsula is only 7.7 nautical miles (14.3 km) away at the narrowest point in the Strait Of Gibraltar. Just far enough to entice the imagination, just strange enough to be mysterious, just close enough to tease with that mystery.

No American writer is more closely associated with Morocco than Paul Bowles who traveled there in the 1930s and remained for many years. In 1991, Barry Brukoff went to Morocco to meet Bowles and persuaded him to provide text to accompany his photographs of the country. This collection is the result. 128 pages, new at $137.75 but there are 24 used copies that start at $17.48.


461. Morocco – Annette Solyst

A second photographic collection simply because this one is so affordable. 96 pages, 8 new copies out of reach at $43.80 but 45 used starting at just one cent.


462. DK Eyewitness Travel Guide to Morocco

This travel guide has 26 reviews and an average rating from them of 4.9 on the 2012 edition. The 2015 edition doesn’t fare quite as well – 16 reviews at an average of 4.6. Combining both, there has been only one negative review, who was complaining about readability and tiny type more than anything else. Everyone else loves it, emphasizing comprehensiveness and accuracy and value-adding to their trips. Well, we don’t expect to be visiting Morocco anytime soon, but our PCs might do so anytime. The older edition is slightly larger (408 pages plays 396), and is cheaper, so that would be our first choice, but the newer one is close enough in price that this ratio could flip after a single sale, so make sure to check both before committing.

2012 edition:

2015 edition (pictured):


463. Culture Shock Morocco: A Survival Guide to customs and Etiquette – Orin Hargraves

The author served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Morocco in the 1980s and is an accomplished writer. Customer reviews indicate that the content has not dated at all. 296 pages, Kindle ($4.82), Paperbacks 6 New from $19.97 and 23 used from $2.38.


464. Morocco That Was – Walter Harris

“Until 1912 Morocco never suffered foreign domination, and its mountainous interior was as closed to foreigners as Tibet. Walter Harris (1866-1933), though, was the exception. He first visited in 1887 and lived in the country for more than thirty-five years, and as the Times correspondent had observed every aspect of its life. He was an intimate of at least three of the ruling Sultans (as well as King Edward VII) and a man capable even of befriending his kidnapper. It was said that only three Christians had ever visited the walled city of Chechaouen: one was poisoned, one came for an hour disguised as a rabbi, and the other was Harris.” The content predates the Pulp Era – but it might be fun to extend the era of the Sultanate into that period, or perhaps have a warlord install himself in that position. Either would be Very Pulp, and worth considering. If you choose to go that route, this book could be indispensable. Kindle ($6.08), Paperback (Amazon $24.48, 21 New $9.03, 13 used $9.05).


465. Secrets Of Morocco – William Jones

Call of Cthulhu 1920s sourcebook. “Learn of the ancient traditions of Morocco, of its war torn cities, and its rebels. Venture through the land as it was in the 1920s and 1930s. This Call of Cthulhu roleplaying sourcebook contains the historical information and the Lovecraftian Mythos details to adventure in one of the world’s most exotic lands.”


Books about The Middle East



466. Middle East Patterns: Places, People, and Politics (6th Edition) Colbert C Held and John Thomas Cummings

“…the most comprehensive and authoritative geographical study of the region. Colbert C. Held and John Thomas Cummings introduce the Middle East from a topical perspective and then provide in-depth country-by-country coverage.” Comparative information on resources, human, and social development; analysis of ethnographic, economic, and political patterns; sections on health issues, business environments, and the historic US presence in the region. 728 pages, new $41.08 (from Amazon) or from $14.22 (third parties), used from $7.95, also available in eTextbook format and Amazon also have a ‘rent’ option.


467. The Complete Idiot’s Guide To The Crusades – Paul L Williams PhD

While some European History books might touch on this subject, as might some of the “Nazis & The Occult” books, this is one of the few books on the Middle East that seems useful in a Pulp Context, however indirectly. Plots dealing with the consequences of the past are the obvious point of relevance (Indiana Jones & The Last Crusade), but some of the fortifications erected in consequence can make great locations for a pulp adventure, treasures that might have been lost or abandoned can make great starting points for adventures, and parts of the Middle East are international crossroads of renown in the Pulp “now” just as much as they were then.


468. Faith and Sword: A short history of Christian-Muslim Conflict – Alan G Jamieson

The product description raised a few hackles amongst us very quickly by implying that the most extreme elements of the modern-day Middle East are representative of Muslims as a whole. That sort of generalization is both lazy and gives fuel to anti-Islamic extremism that is just as pernicious, vile, and evil as the terrorism that it claims to want to defend against. This is a sore spot for us, even though we are neither Muslim nor Islamic ourselves, and are just as scathing of excessive political correctness, and this rubbed us the wrong way immediately. Deciding to put the best possible face on it, dismissing it as a misguided attempt to make this book appealing to a specific target market or a naive attempt to justify the point that the reviewer was making, we moved on to the rest of the paragraph, which discusses the actual content of the book: “Alan G. Jamieson explores here the long and bloody history of the Christian-Muslim conflict, revealing in his concise yet comprehensive study how deeply this ancient divide is interwoven with crucial events in world history.”

There is no doubt that these are divisive issues, not least because because of the baggage that arises as a result of the long history of the conflict, and the polarized views that are fueled by acts of extremism and over-generalization. Hate crimes are condemned when a member of our society commits them; why are the same standards not applied to differentiate between those of Islamic faith and extremists?

This led us to the serious question of whether or not inclusion of this book was pandering to the extremist counter-reaction, or risked doing so. Ultimately, the customer comments convinced us that the book itself was neutral and unbiased, neither pro-Christian or pro-Muslim, and our own values mandate that an informed debate is more successful than an uninformed one. So it makes the list because, undeniably, these events occurred and were instrumental in shaping the Middle East that we see today.

All that said, why should you consider buying it? Even though it is short at 256 pages, it appears to be inclusive and comprehensive without oversimplifying or accepting any bias one way or the other. That makes it an excellent reference resource on the subject.


469. Ploughing Sand: British Rule in Palestine 1917-1948 – Naomi Shepherd

“After the First World War the British in Palestine were handed an ambiguous” – some would say ‘impossible’ – “brief: to encourage the formation of a “national home” for the Jews and to protect the “civil and religious rights” of the local Arabs. Colonial officials … attempted to legislate for the benefit of Arabs and Jews alike, but saw many of their laws on immigration and land evaded by both, often in collusion. Trying at first to settle political” (and social and religious) conflict by persuasion and conciliation, in the end they turned disastrously to force. This study is the first to reconstruct in detail the workings of the troubled Mandate administration, and the influence of its chief personalities.” The title is based on a quote on the situation by a leading official who expressed his frustration that all their constructive efforts in Palestine had been like “ploughing sand”. 304 pages, 27 used copies from $3.


470. Lonely Planet Middle East – Anthony Ham, Sofia Barbarani, Jessica Lee, Virginia Maxwell, Daniel Robinson, Anthony Sattin, Andy Symington, and Jenny Walker

As with Africa, the only travel guide that has adopted a broad, regional approach is Lonely Planet; the others focus on specific countries or even specific cities. Lonely planet have those, too, but they also provide these broad overviews, which are excellent for the GM who only needs a general introduction.

Books About Arabia



471. The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Understanding Saudi Arabia – Colin Wells

There aren’t many affordable general introductions to Saudi Arabia, so this book caught our eye. If we were relying on the product description alone, we would have passed on including it, but there are a number of substantial reader review that sold us – “the ultimate primer on this subject” is the tag-line of the first, and “make this your first stop on learning about Saudi Arabia” headlines the second. “The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Understanding Saudi Arabia is in four parts. Historical background, the Gulf War and its aftermath, Saudi society, and the terrorism issue. It includes an FAQ, a timeline, a bibliography, a glossary, and an index. Definitions, notes, and cross references abound. The book also benefits from lively prose and juicy humor. And the author shares his opinions and predictions liberally.” – excerpted from the first review mentioned.

This book fills the brief perfectly, and nothing else we found did so within our budget (or even two-three times our budgetary limits). 336 pages, 10 new from $18.80, 1 collectible from $14.90, and 47 used from one cent.


472. From Cairo to Baghdad: British Travelers in Arabia – James Canton

British travelers to Arabia were, until the 1880s, mostly wealthy dilettantes who could fund their travel privately, or diplomats and envoys. When the British seized power in Egypt, it opened the door for ordinary people to visit the region. “Missionaries, soldiers and spies as well as tourists and explorers started to visit the area, creating an ever bigger supply of writers, and market for their books.” – but as British power faded after World War II, so did both the demand for and providers of these traveler’s tales. In this book, James Canton studies “over one hundred primary sources, from forgotten gems to the classics of T E Lawrence, Thesiger and Philby.” in order to understand the Middle East Travel-Writing phenomenon and how it relates to Imperial Britain. More importantly, there are numerous excerpts from the source material, providing the reader/GM with ample flavor encounters for the region.

New Hardcover copies are out of reach at $52.66 ($110 from Amazon), but there are 16 used copies at $6.29. On top of that, Amazon have the Paperback at $24 – but third parties have 29 new copies at $11.58 and 12 used at $12.56.


473. Lonely Planet Arab Gulf States: Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia & the United Arab Emirates – Gordon Robison

As with the travel guides to Africa, the only one that takes a regional approach is Lonely Planet. There is a newer edition of the guide but changes happen so quickly and substantially in the Middle East that the space devoted to recent developments is wasted for our purposes, so the older one is fine – so long as cheap copies last. This edition dates back to 1993 and is 300 pages in length. There are 8 new copies starting at $15.68 and 33 used copies costing at least one cent.


474. Living and Working in Saudi Arabia: A Survival Handbook – Robert Hughes

Customer comments make clear that this 2004 guide is nowhere near adequate for actually going to work in the Gulf region for an extended period, but as a quick introduction suitable for keeping brief visitors with a modicum of common sense out of trouble for a few days, this does the job, and does it far better than any of the other culture guides which contain information that has been branded not only incorrect but potentially dangerous, incomplete, or out of date long before they actually saw print. So this 420-page effort gets our tick of approval. There are 6 new from $17.28 and 28 used starting at one cent.


475. Gurps Arabian Nights – Phil Masters (Steve Jackson Games)

While this setting predates the pulp era, it is easily transferable and full of pulp-era possibilities.

Books about Persia/Iran



476. Exploring Iran: The Photography of Erich F Schmidt 1930-1940 – Ayse Gursan-Salzmann

In 1931, the Penn Museum sponsored an archaeological expedition to Iran for the first time. Erich F Schmidt excavated the “Bronze Age site of Tipe Hissar near the town of Dmghan and the monumental buildings of the pre-Islamic Sasanian Palace.” In the course of the dig, Schmidt “documented the project with nearly 2,600 … photos” of “desert and mountain tribes, the sites, government administrators, and a full panoply of the people he encountered.” In this book, the author has selected “64 memorable and instructive prints from the Museum’s archives” and “assembled dozens more from the Schmidt Collection, Chicago’s Oriental Institute, and from family members for an accompanying CD-ROM.” A second supplemental package was assembled in 2007. Both these archives of additional material may be downloaded in PDF form by going to; the links to each archive are near the bottom of the page. Opening an archive page and scrolling to the bottom will take you to the PDFs, which contain the additional photographs.

This hardcover book is 112 pages and published by the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archeology and Anthropology. Amazon list it for $29.95 (adding that it is ‘temporarily out of stock’) but third party vendors have 19 new at $17.52 and 14 used at $19.97.


477. Iran Culture Smart: The essential guide to Customs and Culture – Stuart Williams

This is the best-rated travel guide with a substantial review total. “Travelers have long been seduced by the echoes of the extraordinary ancient history contained in the word “Persia.” But Iran is also a modern society that is experiencing great change. Although it is still feeling the effects of the Islamic Revolution of 1979, social restrictions have loosened considerably in recent years. Strict Islamic rules coexist with an increasingly dynamic society driven by an overwhelmingly young population. Animosity toward the West at a political level sits side-by-side with a wholehearted welcome for foreigners as individuals.” One customer claims to have put it down as worthless after reading only a few pages, with no indication of any first-hand experience before or after, but many others report that its content exactly matched their experiences when visiting Iran. Which is good enough for us.

During the Pulp period, there had, as yet, been no US intervention and a Shah still reigned; but if you replace “American” (or similar terms) with “British” or “Catholic”, you won’t be too far off the mark, as the major cause of official friction with Iran at the time was the Crusades, and the evidence is that their reaction was exactly the same: welcoming of individuals, hostile toward the government and institutions. Kindle and Paperback, new copies are currently cheaper and more plentiful than used.


478. The Valleys of the Assassins and other Persian Travels – Freya Stark

First published in 1934, “The Valleys of the Assassins” established Stark as “one of her generation’s most intrepid explorers”. The book “chronicles her travels into Luristan, the mountainous terrain nestled between Iraq and present-day Iran, often with only a single guide and on a shoestring budget” – and, of course, she wrote about what she found and who she met. 320 pages of real-life pulp-era encounters and scenes for the GM to plunder.

Hardcover: $45 used, $59.95 collectible, no other new copies. Paperback: $13.59 new from Amazon, 57 new through others starting at $8.40, and 45 used copies for $2.97.

Books about Turkey