Chapter Three

Rescue from Without

Life on the Edge

With Karl running Crooked Dice and working on 7TV: Apocalypse, and Peter lecturing full time and writing roleplaying material for Modiphius Entertainment and Chaosium Inc., 7TV: Pulp always seemed likely to remain a great idea rather than a viable project. Fortunately, like many cliffhangers, the situation was resolved by outside help.

In 2014, the Creative Writing team at Edge Hill University had discussed the possibility of starting up what became Edge Hill University Press (EHUP). A year later, two members of the team, novelist Dr Rodge Glass and poet Dr James Byrne, began EHUP with the financial support of the university. As Rodge explains:

“We were looking for ways to provide students with concrete opportunities to get involved in the publishing industry, to see first-hand how it works. And to gain experience which would later help them into jobs in that industry.”

The plan was simple. Each year, students would apply competitively for jobs as interns to work with staff and a partner publishers to produce a professional publication. The process would cycle through the teaching expertise of the Creative Writing staff, beginning with fiction, then continuing with poetry, script and games.

When the prospect of 7TV: Pulp arose, EHUP had enjoyed considerable success.

Head Land, a celebratory anthology of short stories written by the winners of the Edge Hill Prize for the Short Story, had been published by Freight Books in September 2016.

The Press’ second project, Atlantic Drift, a transatlantic anthology of poetry and poetics from Arc Publications, had followed in September 2017.

A third publication, Scenes from the Revolution: Making Political Theatre 1968-2018, was being planned in collaboration with Pluto Press.

Rather than considering a collection of critical essays on tabletop gaming as EHUP’s fourth project, Peter decided to pitch 7TV: Pulp to Rodge and James. As directors of the press, they would decide whether or not the project was viable. Rodge reflects:

“7TV: Pulp felt fitting in terms of what we’d done before. Each project so far had its own needs, which followed from the form it was working in. Naturally, a games project was going to work differently from a standard book, but that was exciting too.” 

7TV: Pulp would differ from previous EHUP publications in two distinct ways – and raised a couple of interesting questions. Firstly, and for the first time, student interns would be developing creative content in addition to fulfilling the roles available in previous projects, including liaison work, editorial tasks, proofreading, and events management activities. But would students have time, in their busy study schedules, to do what was required? Secondly, 7TV: Pulp was conceived as a two-year development rather than a one-year project. This meant that EHUP would be running two ventures simultaneously in 2017-18: Scenes from the Revolution and 7TV: Pulp. Would there be enough student interest to make both possible? Time would tell…

EHUP to the Rescue

In August 2017, Peter and Karl framed 7TV: Pulp as ‘A Collaboratively Produced Tabletop Narrative Wargame co-designed and co-written by Edge Hill University Creative Writing Students, Staff and Crooked Dice Personnel’. Karl’s support and enthusiasm were essential. Writing in support of the collaboration, Karl explained,

‘While I love the freedom Crooked Dice gives me, I do miss working with publishing teams. If there was an opportunity to help students into the industry (gaming or publishing) then I would love to help – particularly if we could bring 7TV Pulp into being.’

Working together, Karl and Peter won the support of Rodge and James, who welcomed the value of the experience to Edge Hill’s students. Rodge recalls:

“Here we had a fantastic partner in Karl Perrotton, who was keen to work closely with us. But we also had something that would meaningfully involve students in the development as well as execution of bringing a wargame into the world. How could we possibly say no?”

It was agreed that EHUP would provide time and resources to enable the development and production of 7TV: Pulp. Peter would receive a small allocation of time to develop the game with the student interns during the second year of the project and Karl would have the backing of EHUP during the production phase.

EHUP’s support for 7TV: Pulp was only the beginning of Edge Hill’s unstinting enthusiasm for the project which would, as time moved on, involve the university’s Corporate Communications department, the Student Opportunity Fund, Learning Services and ICT Resources.

7TV: Pulp is Go!

From the outset, 7TV: Pulp had several objectives. The primary purpose was, of course, to produce a highly entertaining, absorbing and fun skirmish game with an authentic pulp sensibility that could be developed by players in the same way as the core 7TV game and, later, 7TV: Apocalypse. This would include modifying the 7TV2 ruleset and building an appropriate game-world akin to Sidney Barron’s 7TV Productions; designing and writing profile cards, gadget cards, and cliffhanger cards; and playtesting the game. Since 7TV: Pulp was also planned to provide students with experiences that would help them into professional careers, it would include opportunities for:

  • improving interview techniques;
  • conducting research and adapting and pastiching texts for commercial purposes;
  • developing students’ professional practice in a commercial context;
  • building project coordination, management and teamworking skills;
  • design and editorial processes, writing for a brief, and playtesting;
  • contributing to design and layout choices;
  • exploring copyright and public domain materials;
  • liaising with Karl and Peter as project coordinators and lead designers;
  • demonstrating the game at key shows, including the UK Games Expo 2019;
  • client-facing work through liaison with Crooked Dice and with the general public during trade shows, building confidence and maturity.

Karl and Peter worked out an ambitious timescale:

October 2017

  • interview and appoint interns to form a 7TV: Pulp Development Group;
  • set up a 7TV: Pulp Development Group on Facebook for easy communication and secure a Dropbox account for file sharing purposes;
  • help the interns to learn to play 7TV and become familiar with the rules structure and conventions;
  • research a range of 1930s and 1940s cinema serials, identifying different genres and distilling out archetypes, events and cliffhangers. Ideas for Star Qualities and Special Effects would start to be compiled at this stage.

November – December 2017

  • define the six genres that would provide some of the game’s architecture;
  • commence work on statting profile cards, and developing gadget and cliffhanger cards;
  • continue to play 7TV to ensure familiarity with the ruleset.

January – March 2018

  • complete drafts of profile, gadget and cliffhanger cards;
  • design a fictional studio concept for 7TV: Pulp.

April 2018

  • playtest the alpha versions of the profile, gadget and cliffhanger cards;
  • revise and balance all cards;
  • playtest the revised cards.

May 2018

  • submit the first full draft of the alpha ruleset to Karl for revision and development.

June-September 2018

  • Karl and Peter would revise the alpha ruleset to form a beta set to be tested by the second wave of student interns.

October 2018

  • interview and appoint interns to continue work as the 7TV: Pulp Development Team;
  • help the new interns to learn to play 7TV and become familiar with the rules structure and conventions;
  • familiarise the new interns with the beta ruleset in preparation for playtesting.

November-December 2018

  • playtest the beta ruleset;
  • research public domain pulp images and texts;
  • begin working on material for a 7TV: Pulp Development Blog, complete with historical information about the fictional film studio introduced by the first group of interns;
  • liaise with Karl on commissioning new sculpts for 7TV: Pulp miniatures;
  • organise and book stand for the UK Games Expo;

January 2019

  • final revisions. Deliver all profile, cliffhanger and gadget cards to Karl for layout and design;
  • make final decisions regarding game components and the style of 7TV: Pulp.

February 2019

  • launch the 7TV: Pulp blog;
  • develop material for posting to the blog.

March-April 2019

  • continue to develop the 7TV: Pulp blog;
  • work up promotional material;
  • shoot a tutorial film to teach new players to play 7TV: Pulp to post on Youtube.

May 2019

  • launch game at the UK Games Expo on 31st May.

Of course, like all battle plans, as Helmuth von Moltke the Elder warns us, the proposed schedule didn’t survive contact with the enemy – in this case, time…

See ‘Assembling the Team’, Chapter Four of the 7TV: Pulp Design Blog.

With many thanks to Dr Rodge Glass.

Chapter Two

Out of the Past

From little acorns…

The Terranauts was, in hindsight, a proof of concept exercise. Its development proved that the 7TV ruleset was ideally suited to adapting and pastiching Burroughsian-styled worldbuilding and pulp plotting. It was only a small step to consider the wider implications of that suitability. If The Terranauts could lovingly capture the flavour of one of the twentieth century’s most influential pulp writers, then perhaps a new boxed set could embody the essence of a greater range of pulp fiction. Just as 7TV encapsulated the spirit of the British spy-fi film and tv of the 1960s and 1970s, so 7TV: Pulp could encompass the archetypes, narrative events, conventions and situations of American pulp. This would not only give players a different period in which to play, but also a very different ‘feel’ that would inform the Star Qualities and Special Effects of the character archetypes.

Defining Pulp for 7TV: Pulp

A great deal of Anglophile popular culture is built on a foundation of wood pulp and silver nitrate, on the conventions established in the pulp magazines and film serials of the first half of the twentieth century. This highly combustible combination exploded in the 1930s and set a fire that has burned continually ever since. It has not burned consistently, however. It has guttered and flared and sent out sparks, setting smaller blazes throughout fiction, film and tv. Pulp conventions and tropes are now so much a part of our cultural landscape that elements of pulp can be found in many popular or cult productions from Doctor Who to Game of Thrones.

Hence, ‘pulp’ is a problematic term, often meaning different things to different people. Throughout the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, pulp’s original meaning and application has undergone a fair amount of slippage. This is partly a consequence of pulp’s significant influence on popular culture and partly because of an inclination to apply the term to describe anything that has wide or cult appeal. We can talk about pulp magazines and pulp paperbacks, neo-pulp, proto-pulp, steam pulp, diesel pulp, and so on. However, pulp was not originally defined by its narrative conventions, character types and story structures: pulp was a medium (notably wood pulp paper) and a sensibility. From the very beginning of the project, Karl and Peter wanted to go back to what was originally conceived as ‘pulp’: the American fiction magazines published from the mid-1890s to the 1950s and their cinematic analogues, the cinema serials of the 1930s and 1940s. Given 7TV’s focus on the visual media, the central emphasis of 7TV: Pulp would be on developing a pastiche of the cinema serials produced during the 1930s and 1940s by Republic, Universal and Columbia.

The pulp years gave popular culture many of its memorable heroes, notably Flash Gordon, Buck Rogers, Dick Tracy and The Phantom (all adapted into serials from newspaper strips), The Shadow, Doc Savage, The Spider, and Zorro. More importantly, pulp consolidated many of the genres with which we are now familiar. In the 1920s, there was a gradual move away from general fiction magazines like All-Story and Argosy to specialist pulps like Amazing Stories (1926; science fiction), Weird Tales (1922; horror and supernatural tales) and Air Stories (1927). The detective genre had its own publication in the US, Detective Story Magazine, from 1915. Collectively, these pulps established the storytelling conventions of much of the popular fiction, film and television produced over the last century. Indeed, it could be argued that the development of television provided pulp with a new medium of mass communication as its old form – the magazine – was dying back.

If pulp is reducible to a core of defining features (and perhaps it is not), it is arguably escapist, sensational, masculinist, and fairy-tale like in its juxtaposing of unequivocal good and irredeemable evil. More critically, it is often clichéd, repetitive and poorly-written, and reinforces many of the cultural prejudices and stereotypes of its time. Among its catalogue of forgotten writers, there are notable exceptions. Edgar Rice Burroughs, Raymond Chandler, Robert E. Howard and H. P. Lovecraft were more skilled than many of their contemporaries, and their work has lived on long after many pulp writers have been forgotten. Regardless of the successes and shortcomings of pulp, it is bound together by a tremendous energy, by a restless dynamism that crackles through its stories. In Edgar Rice Burroughs’ best work, this manifests in breakneck plotting and a wild inventiveness; in Chandler it is found in a magnificent use of language and characterization; in Howard, it lies in tone, muscular action and worldbuilding; and in Lovecraft, it is the dark energy of existential terror.

Why Pulp?

From the 1920s to the 1940s, the golden age of the cinema serials and pulp fiction provides a rich vein of wargaming and model-making possibilities: interplanetary travel in rocketships to strange, alien worlds and their peoples; lost cities in jungles and deserts; shadowy streets and hidden lairs; exotic locations in far-flung and dangerous countries. Populating these adventure sites are a memorable cast of heroes and villains: square-jawed protagonists, brave G-Men, beautiful assistants, hardboiled PIs, daredevil pilots, sinister spies, enemy agents, merciless mobsters, cunning masterminds, masked vigilantes, eldritch horrors, gangsters, molls, cops and killers. Their plot structures, punctuated by unlikely escapes from improbable cliffhangers and an abiding sense of thrilling adventure, lend themselves readily to unpredictable, entertaining tabletop skirmishing.

How could we resist?

For Karl and Peter, adapting serial film and pulp fiction was an opportunity to go back to the ancestors and precursors of the series pastiched in the core 7TV game. With its larger-than-life personalities, pulp hinted at exciting possibilities for character profiles that would be fun and challenging to play; its varied locations and story-types offered considerable potential for different types of game, and for wargames tables that could deliver weird, gritty, exotic or claustrophobic model-making opportunities; and its narrative structures invited prospects for new rules that would evoke the nature of pulp plotting.

It was a great idea, but Karl was busy developing 7TV: Apocalypse and Peter was a full-time academic with other commitments. The project was on a knife-edge. Without outside help, it was doomed…

See ‘Rescue from Without’, Chapter Three of the 7TV: Pulp Design Blog.

Some inspiration to fill the hours until next week’s thrilling instalment…

The Vintage Library – What is Pulp Fiction?

The Pulp Magazines Project – So What is Pulp?

‘Serial Films’ on the AMC Filmsite

Screening the Past: Flash Gordon and the 1930s and 40s Science Fiction Serial

Chapter One

A Momentous Meeting

It all began with Burroughs…

7TV: Pulp started out as a conversation about Edgar Rice Burroughs at the UK Games Expo in June 2017. Given Burroughs’ significance to pulp writing and popular fiction, film and tv in general, the development of 7TV: Pulp seems inevitable in hindsight.

Karl Perrotton, owner of Crooked Dice Games Design Studio, and Peter Wright, an academic and games writer from Edge Hill University in northwest England, met on Crooked Dice’s Expo stand and almost immediately found they had a mutual interest in 7TV, Burroughs and all things pulp.

Crooked Dice attending the UK Games Expo

Karl had planned a 7TV pulp supplement as far back as 2012 with a proposal for 7c Adventures: Two-fisted Wargaming in the Thrilling World of Pulp and had revisited the idea in May 2016 with a Pulp Programme Guide. Peter had been a long-term fan of pulp writers including Robert E. Howard, H. P. Lovecraft, Burroughs and their contemporaries. He had written academically on Burroughs and been part of the writing team for Modiphius’ John Carter of Mars roleplaying game as well as contributing to Cubicle 7s Cthulhu Britannica.

Their conversation ran through Burroughs’ Tarzan novels, the Martian books, the Amicus adaptations of the 1970s, especially Kevin Connor’s The Land that Time Forgot (1975) and At the Earth’s Core (1976), and Stanton’s more recent John Carter movie (2012). Between customers and enquiries, Karl and Peter decided to try out a Burroughs pastiche for 7TV: a programme guide for what later became known as The Terranauts.

The Terranauts: An Idea that Went Somewhere Else

After the expo, Karl sent Peter his work on 7c Adventures and the Pulp Programme Guide and Peter began work on the supplement. By the end of July, a basic outline of the 7TV series had taken shape. It was framed as fictional 7TV producer Sidney Barron’s first foray into retro-pulp telefantasy in the 1970s.

The premise was straightforward: a group of adventures boarded a mechanical mole that drilled into the hollow earth. There they made allies and fought new enemies, battling degenerate Atlanteans, the sinister agents and shocktroopers of the Thule Society and ghastly ophidians. Their exploits would be complicated further by deadly Creepers, Cultists, Spawn and other, terrestrial horrors. Four seasons of six episodes were planned to form a loose campaign that encouraged players to develop both skirmishes and settings. 72 profiles were sketched-out, with an additional 72 card Exploration deck intended to bring a different challenge to games of 7TV.

So…What Happened?

The Terranauts fell victim to its own success. Karl and Peter enjoyed themselves so much conceiving the programme guide, the archetypes and the situations, they began to think that a pulp edition of 7TV might be a better idea – but why?

See “Out of the Past”, Chapter Two of the 7TV: Pulp Design Blog.