Chapter Five

‘A Beginning is a Very Delicate Time: Adapting Pulp for 7TV

Getting Started

While the application and selection process for appointing the 7TV: Pulp Design Team was ongoing, Karl and Peter drew up an immediate to-do list.

Peter and Karl Go Shopping

To kickstart the project, the team needed a handful of key items. First of all, we wanted a good selection of 1930s and 1940s cinema serials to research for the game. Terrain and miniatures would also be useful for teaching the team the 7TV ruleset. Edge Hill University’s Student Opportunity Fund provided the resources for everything. The SOF gives financial support for students take part in activities that enhance their employability and skills. With the 7TV: Pulp project’s focus on employability, the SOF was the ideal means of enhancing the team’s experience. Peter’s SOF application was accepted, and he purchased a collection of cinema serials, wargames terrain from Battle Systems (who kindly provided additional kits to help the project) and a range of 7TV casts. Karl donated four 7TV box sets with additional rulebooks and counters.

Adapting Pulp

Working out how best to adapt pulp to 7TV was going to be a major consideration. Fortunately, Peter’s academic research into RPG adaptation provided some practical approaches. To avoid making the project feel like an academic exercise Peter kept them in the background where they silently informed the adaptation process.

A New Studio

Peter and Karl wanted to preserve 7TV and 7TV: Apocalypse’s metagamic qualities. This meant that the team would need to develop a new fictional film studio with a flamboyant producer to match 7TV’s Sidney Barron. It was here the seeds of Pinnacle Pacific Pictures and Spenser Packard were planted.

Getting Organised

Making sure the team could communicate and share files effectively was also an important consideration. To help keep everyone in touch with one another, Karl and Peter started a Facebook group for the team. This would prove essential when quick decisions were required, approval sought, or notifications sent out. Peter also set up a Dropbox account for sharing research and development documents. The team would actually meet in person every Wednesday afternoon during semester time with Karl making the long drive up to Ormskirk every couple of months.

Pulp: What’s Out, What’s In

From the beginning, Karl and Peter knew 7TV: Pulp could not include all of the various pulp genres. There needed to be some cohesion across the chosen genres and the casts developed for the new game and pulp’s diversity was problematic. Consequently, western and historical serials were dropped from inclusion. Air adventure stories were also rejected because their aerial action would not transfer well to the tabletop using he existing 7TV rule structure. That left adventure stories, including jungle adventures, science fiction, crime and gangster stories and tales best described as ‘weird menace’.

Hence, when the Design Team met informally for the first time on 15th November 2017, Karl and Peter already had some idea of 7TV: Pulp‘s scope. The meeting set the schedule for watching and making notes on the fifty-two cinema serials chosen as a representative sample of the one hundred and twenty-odd relevant serials made between 1930 and 1957. These ranged from Flash Gordon (1936) to Panther Girl of the Congo (1955), and included Ace Drummond (1936), Dick Tracy (1937), Drums of Fu Manchu (1940), Haunted Harbor (1944), King of the Rocket Men (1949) and Radar Men from the Moon (1952). Every member of the team was allocated four or five serials, which meant twenty to twenty-five hours of viewing each.

Young People Watching Old Stuff

It’s probably fair to say that the younger team members were not prepared for the content, style or pacing of the serials, even if the form was familiar from contemporary tv shows. David Fitzgerald remembers:

the cliffhangers at the end of the serials were always so bizarre! Whether it was being mauled by a lion or driving a car off a cliff, the amusement it created was more than I anticipated, especially when something completely different happens at the start of the next episode, even if we witnessed the heroes dying in the climax of the preceding episode! I wrote on the notes for The Crimson Ghost (1946) that, ‘They don’t die at the end of each episode!’ despite there being three car crashes, two people falling out of a window and a death ray! Remarkable they left with hardly a scratch!

Lucy Ellis-Davies recollects, without irony:

I had the pleasure of watching crime/detective serials. The ones that stand out for me are Dick Tracy, Dick Tracy Returns and Dick Tracy vs. Crime Inc. I basically became a Dick Tracy superfan. What I loved about these serials were the over the top fist fights, gun fights, explosions and, of course, the cliffhangers. Most of the cliffhangers involved trying to make the audience think that this was the end for Tracy and they often involved vehicles. Tracy drove everything: cars, boats, even planes – although by the way he drove them I thought he should have his license revoked. For all of them. He inevitably ended up crashing. Those cliffhangers made me laugh, as did the over- the-top acting. There was an evil twin with a white stripe of hair, someone called ‘The Spider’, and a villain who was a member of Tracy’s team all along! (Gasp). Along with the characters, I think what made me really get into watching these serials were the chapter titles. My favourites included: ‘The Runway of Death’, ‘Handcuffed to Death’ and ‘Tower of Death’. Suffice to say, a lot of them revolved around death. It’s that over the top, exaggerated style that I really enjoyed.

Not everyone was so enamoured. Conor Dwyer, who joined the team in the second cohort in October 2018, admits:

When I first sat down and watched The Spider and G-men serials, my first response was to cringe and check how long the serial was. When I saw six hours, I nearly fainted. I couldn’t believe how insane it all was and wondered whether it was a joke. ‘What have I signed up for?’ went through my head almost instantly.

Raphael Moore, appointed with Conor, felt similarly:

My first reaction upon watching the serials was, well, they weren’t too bad. I had seen a lot of poor quality 1930s fare, so a lot of the conventions weren’t shocking. Always a laugh to see those cast reveals at the start of a serial. It was the poor pacing that made it so painful, really. How did they stretch out what really should be one event over such a long time? Never thought I could be bored by media that involves bat men.

Faced with material that was unfamiliar and sometimes tedious, the Design Team rose to the challenge with commendable tenacity. Everyone was able to separate content – the raw stuff for adaptation and where most of the fun lay – from form: serial cinema that was often drawn-out and repetitive. However, at the team’s first formal meeting on 22nd November, it was clear the research phase was going to take longer than anticipated. Wednesday 13th December was the notional deadline, a tall order given the number of serials that needed viewing and analysing.

Distilling Pulp

To help the team distil out serial elements for adaptation, Peter provided a ‘Designer’s Notes’ form for each show. In addition to a serial’s title, the titles of its chapters and its genre, the form asked the team to identify a serial’s heroes, villains and extras, and note down any ideas for possible Star Qualities and Special Effects. The team were also asked to record any weapons, gadgets and vehicles appearing in a serial while noting the nature of the plot and the cliffhangers that concluded each chapter. Finally, the locations and sets were listed.

Viewing the serials and extracting their adaptable elements focused everyone’s attention on the task at hand, namely:

  1. identifying and naming 6 Genres and 144 Profile Cards;
  2. developing new Star Qualities and Special Effects for all Stars, Co-stars and Extras;
  3. designing gadgets;
  4. discussing new or alternate rules governing Countdowns (or Cliffhangers);
  5. authoring the 7TV: Pulp rulebooks.
  6. developing a fictional film studio and its serials;

It was only at the end of that first formal meeting the team realised the scale of the task at hand…

See ‘Genres and Sensibilities’, Chapter Six of the 7TV: Pulp Design Blog