A while back now, I talked about the kinds of campaign that could be played in the Bookhounds game universe: Technicolor, Arabesque and Sordid, each of which could be played in a Pulp or Purist style. However, of all the settings, the best suited for a Pulp style of play has got to be Technicolor, with its emphasis on the garish and the glorious. This time out I want to talk about a particular aspect of Pulp, the costumed hero, and what role, if any, it might play in a Bookhounds setting.
The era of the Pulp magazines, particularly the 1920s and 1930s, introduced a different kind of protagonist to the reading public. In the Victorian era, heroes were bold, resolute, usually Christian, and always fought on the side of the angels. The Pulp era turns all this on its head. A Pulp hero can be an out-and-out villain, like the Eel, or the Spider, self-interested and vengeful. A Pulp protagonist doesn't have to have a name; many of the secret agents that infest the genre go by numbers, like Secret Agent X, or adopt a pseudonym, like Raffles, to disguise their true identity and protect their reputation. Sometimes, as with the Continental Op, there's really no need to hide the protagonist's identity at all, but he still doesn't have a name. There's often a hint of mystery and mysticism, particularly with the Yellow Peril masterminds, and frequently the hero has direct dealings with the occult and the minions of Hell, as with Jules de Grandin or Carnacki.
As far as backgrounds are concerned, there's a heavy emphasis on revenge, often for the death of a family member. Gone are the days when people got into the hero business because it was the right thing to do. Now it takes someone killing your father to get you involved. Coincidentally, this frees up the hero to do a lot of killing on his own account, without boring existential angst. Once upon a time, even Batman used to machine-gun his enemies to death, and seldom did an episode of Dick Tracey end without at least one or two people getting murdered before Tracey steps in and guns the villain down.
Many of the villains and heroes of Pulp are technologically skilled, or born in the new age of technology. Biggles couldn't be considered a science hero, but he wouldn't be a hero at all if he hadn't happened to be around when people were inventing aeroplanes. Meanwhile villains like Doctor Death manage to mix an intriguing blend of horror and technology, using science to create zombies as well as death rays.
What does all of this suggest for Bookhounds?
Well, there are several possibilities. The first has to do with the players themselves, particularly if one or more of them happen to be close to the edge, in terms of Sanity. Often insanity is seen as an affliction meant only to hinder the character's progress, but it could also serve as an interesting motivator. Imagine a character who, after a sudden shock, decides that the only way to put a stop to the nightmares that plague her every night is to get out there in a costume, and fight occult crime. That's pretty much the origin story for Wesley Dodds, aka the Sandman, but there's no reason your players can't steal an idea or two. Imagine a bookstore where the proprietor, sinking deeper and deeper into delusions, uses the store's cellar as a lab for forensic analysis, and mixing the sleep gas that he, as the Red Shadow, uses to help him fight the forces of evil.
This is probably best used for a character who's already on the way out. While the idea of a character acting as a costumed hero has a lot of potential, I can't help but think it clashes slightly with the Bookhounds downbeat economic horror ethos. But as a brief, bright spark of manic life just before the candle gutters out, the character as costumed vigilante could be very interesting.
Perhaps a better use for a Pulp character in a Bookhounds campaign is as mentor figure, or villain. It's often the case that a player wants to increase his character's knowledge in a particular discipline, perhaps Occult, or Magic, but lacks the resources. Alternatively the character might have the Occult at his disposal, but lacks information in Physics or Chemistry, or some other vital ability. A Carnacki type could be a useful instructor, or source of those extra points needed to put together a plan to stop the villain in her tracks once and for all.
As a villain, there's all kinds of possibilities. Many of the cults already familiar to the players are essentially pulp villain vehicles already, like the Hsieh-Tzu Fan or the Cult of the Black Pharaoh. It may need very little tweaking to turn these organizations, or their leaders, into true Pulp Technicolor villains. Or perhaps that mentor, so useful in former days, suffered a psychotic break, and is now the very villain the characters now have to defeat. Except here's an antagonist who really does know all the characters' weaknesses, and how to exploit them, since he's known them all for years. Who better placed to defeat you than the man who taught you everything you know?
Another possibility is as an NPC who needs the characters, but is unwilling to reveal his true identity to them, for whatever reason. This NPC might see the characters in the same way Fox Mulder does the Lone Gunmen. While this does have potential, it risks moving the focus from the characters to the mysterious, powerful NPC, which isn't ideal. The best thing in its favor is that it gives the characters a clear motivator to get involved: their NPC asks them to do something for him. Perhaps the best use of this kind of story is to have the powerful NPC overwhelmed by mysterious forces halfway through the adventure, and either killed or seemingly killed. That way the Lone Gunmen get promoted from sidekick to main character status. It could be a very interesting way to start a campaign: the employees of the shop discover that their bookseller employer was really the Red Shadow all along, and now he's vanished. What to do?
With all that in mind, to close out I'm going to outline the Red Shadow, the notorious vigilante who's been turning London on its ear for the last few years.
Red Shadow, aka Marcus / Melinda Dash
Abilities: Auction 4, Athletics 10, Disguise 8, Driving 10, Electrical Repair 4, Explosives 6, Fleeing 10
Specialties: Biology, Chemistry, Evidence Collection, Forensics, Occult
Combat: Health 7, Scuffling 12, Weapons 5.
Martial Art: If used in the campaign, Red Shadow is an expert in Baritsu (see Zoom Martial Arts)
Signature Weapon/Device: The Silencer, a short-range dart pistol operated by compressed air. Capable of delivering one shot before it has to be reloaded. Damage -2, but projectile is usually tipped with sleeping potion, Athletics Diff 7 or fall unconscious. Red Shadow rarely uses other potions, but does know how to make deadly projectiles capable of delivering +3 Damage, based on an obscure venom obtained from a South American plant, grown in the Shadow's own greenhouse.
Special Gimmick: Truth Serum. The Red Shadow concocts this from a recipe of his own creation, based on secrets uncovered from a medieval herbal manuscript. In game terms, acts as 3 point pool Intimidation, one target, as the target hallucinates strange and terrible mirages. While, strictly speaking, this doesn't guarantee that the target will tell the truth, it's a pretty good persuader.
Transport: The Red Shadow owns a finely tuned bright red sports car, capable of 100 miles per hour.
Appearance: When acting as the Red Shadow, wears sharply tailored formal attire, and a red leather Commedia dell'arte mask. Whether male or female, the Red Shadow is an adept cross-dresser.
Notes: The Red Shadow lost his two best friends on the same terrible day. The three of them had ventured, on a lark, to an old, abandoned house in the West End, rumored to be the most haunted spot in London. There they encountered a group of individuals, self-proclaimed occultists and wizards, who were carrying out a ritual in the cellars of that shunned place. One of them was immediately sacrificed, while the other two were imprisoned while the ritual was conducted. The Red Shadow and his friend managed to escape, but the wizards chased them down, and the Shadow's companion sacrificed his life so the Shadow could get away. Ever since that fateful night, Dash has used the nom de guerre Red Shadow to hide his identity, as he tracks down and kills the cultists who murdered his friends. The conspiracy, Dash has discovered, has roots sunk deep in London's best and brightest citizens; so far Dash has uncovered and dealt with two of his enemies, but the rest seem to be protected by none other than British Military Intelligence. Though cautious, Dash will not give up his chance at revenge, no matter who stands in Dash's way.