Monday, January 28, 2013

Pulp Noir Monday: Heroes of Rura-Tonga (Review)

In an effort to be a little more consistent with how often I blog, and also to give my readers a better sense of what to expect, I'm going to try a new organizational element where each day of the week (except weekends, when I don't tend to blog much, if at all) is dedicated to a different subject.

Mondays are going to be reserved for subjects on Pulp-era games, comics, movies, etc. This isn't to say that I might not also blog about other things on a given day, such as recaps from the various RPGs I'm playing or reviews of a book I just read or show I just watched. This is really just an effort to help give me a little more incentive to get back to more regular blogging.

With that introduction, let's get on to today's post.

The pulp era is one that I've been fascinated with for almost as long as I've been a fan of role-playing games and other "geek" media like science-fiction and fantasy, comic books, etc. It probably started, if I had to guess, with "Raiders of the Lost Ark," which came out in 1981. I really loved that movie, as it combined elements of so many different things I was really interested in at the time, including ancient Egyptian history (spurred by the traveling exhibition of the Treasures of Tutankhamun, which created a small media frenzy in the late 1970s) and World War II (helped by a healthy diet of Saturday matinee movies like "The Dirty Dozen" as well as the not-so-subtle resemblance of Star Wars' Imperial Officers' uniforms to those of the Nazis). I loved "Raiders" as a kid, and as I got older, that era really started to appeal to me.

I think part of it is the aesthetics - I love art deco designs, and they started to come into more prominence during this time. It's during this time that you see the constructions of buildings like the Empire State Building and the Chrysler Building, as well as cool-looking stuff like steel locomotives, "brownie" cameras, those old-school radios, huge, fancy, sleek-looking cars... I love that stuff.

Part of it is the sense of discovery and the unknown - this is the era right before our modern age of computers and technology, before nuclear bombs and spacecraft and the Internet. The world was a much "bigger" place, and there were a lot more areas that were considered mysterious. There's a feeling to this era that there probably really were still some cultures that hadn't been "discovered" by modern people, going along doing things the way they'd been doing them for hundreds, or thousands, of years.

There are lots of other reasons that I love this era, and I will discuss them in future Pulp Noir Monday posts.

Nearly a year ago, I wrote a post of a television program back in the 1980s called "Tales of the Gold Monkey," which was an attempt to capitalize on the popularity of "Raiders of the the Lost Ark." It took place in the South Pacific in the late 1930s, and lasted for one season before being canceled due to low ratings.

Shortly after I made that post, I received an email from Peter Schweighofer, a prolific game designer and owner of Griffon Publishing Studio, who informed me that he, too, liked the show as a youngster and had, in fact, used it as inspiration to create a pulp-era RPG sourcebook called Heroes of Rura-Tonga: Pulp Adventures in the South Pacific. He was kind enough to send me a copy, and I sadly haven't gotten around to reviewing it until now.

What It Is:
Heroes of Rura-Tonga is a 106-page PDF sourcebook for creating pulp-era role-playing game adventures in the South Pacific, using the system of your choice. Peter uses his "Any-System Key" to present stats in the book, which present character skills and task difficulties in terms that easily translate into different game systems. You can read more about the Any-System Key on his site. 

In the 106 pages, you get a description of the fictional island of Rura-Tonga, including its history and inhabitants, how the island and its residents fit into the overall political landscape of the world at the time (right before the outbreak of World War II), detailed information on pulp-era seaplanes, the Japanese military forces in the area, templates for creating characters, and five fully-developed adventure scenarios that take place on the island. The PDF also includes maps and, in a nice touch, black-and-white photographs illustrating the various inhabitants, equipment, locales, etc. 

Cool Bits:
The book includes lots of information that will help to run a game in this type of setting without getting bogged down in too many historical details that would get in the way of just picking it up and running with it. There are brief, but helpful, discussions on subjects like Communications, Politics, the different political entities at work in the area (Japanese, British,German, American, etc.), discussion on the indigenous population of the island and how they fit into the political landscape, several different NPCS, some of whom are not what they seem, of course) and their motivations... it's just chock-full of ideas for running a game here. Within the short of space of just the first 17 pages or so, I was fully engaged in reading and wanted to learn more.

Throughout the book are little "side-notes" covering things like "What Could Go Wrong?" when owning and operating a seaplane (with a handy table of effects), period RADAR and how it worked, and ideas on how to work Amelia Earheart into the story, if you so choose. Those are just a few examples, but these are strung throughout the book and are super helpful and creative ideas to help a Game Master run a game in this setting. 

The section covering seaplanes from the era is pretty exhaustive and includes lots of photographs. There are also stats and information on aircraft carriers, cruisers, submarines, etc. 

One thing I found very interesting regards Vincent Astor, the son of John Jacob Astor (who died when the Titanic sank), and how connected he was to politicians of the day (including President Roosevelt) and how he was able to use his position and wealth to essentially carry out a "vacation cruise" in the area that was actually a covert mission to gather intelligence on the Japanese military. 

The five adventures included in the book truly portray the pulp era well, and include a lot of cool pulp staples, including crashed airplanes, zombies, ghost ships, mysterious diseases, animal-human hybrids, tribal medicine, ancient treasures and lost civilizations... this is great stuff, sure to spark your imagination.

Who Will Like It:
Obviously if you're a fan of the pulp era, then this book is right up your alley. Even if you're not actively involved in a campaign right now, there is plenty here that just makes good, fun, light reading for those interested in the subject matter. Fans of "Raiders of the Lost Ark," World War II history, and "Tales of the Gold Monkey," just as examples, would probably all enjoy this book. 

In terms of running a game with this book, I think the Savage Worlds system totally fits the bill. I think it could also work with the Forbidden Kingdom setting written for d20 Modern. Lastly, given the time period, I think a pulp-era Call of Cthulhu game (using your system of choice) would totally work here. The adventures in Heroes of Rura-Tonga include plenty of scenes and other-worldly creatures that would call for some Sanity Checks.


  • Format: 106-page PDF, including the covers
  • Where to Buy: DriveThru RPG
  • Price: $12
  • System: Any-System Key (system-neutral)
  • More Information: The official Heroes of Rura-Tonga Page on Griffon Publishing Studio's site

  • Hanging: Home office (laptop)
    Drinking: Firestone Walker Double Jack
    Listening:"Stella by Starlight" by Miles Davis 


    1. This is relevant to my interests!

    2. I thought you might like that! A review of your own "Weird Adventures" will also be included as part of my "Pulp Noir Monday" posts in the upcoming weeks. Love that book!

    3. Very cool. I too was a huge fan of "Gold Monkey" back in the day - and the whole pulp/noir thing in general. (I was probably the only one in my teen peer group who had Casablanca posters on his walls, owned a white felt hat, listened to the Andrews Sisters*, and thought Bogey was the bee's knees.) I've been hankering to run pulp/noir games since the early '80s, but just never found a system that got me in the groove. Over the last few years, I've toyed with doing something using Savage Worlds or TSR's Indiana Jones, inspired greatly by Mr. Schweighofer's Rura-tonga and Pulp Egypt free offerings. But I still didn't feel like anything I'd seen to date was the right system for the game.

      Just recently, though, I've rediscovered the joys of TSR's short-lived but worthy-of-note Buck Rogers: High Adventure Cliffhangers game. I used the system a few days ago to run a very successful first session in my take on the Planet Algol setting, and I really am in love with it. (It seemed to be a hit with my players, also.) After decades of preparation, a true pulp/noir mini-campaign may finally be in the stars for the near future. Needless to say, I'll be keeping a keen eye on your Pulp Monday posts...

      *BTW, RIP Patty Andrews, last of the Sisters, who - coincidentally - just passed away a few hours ago. They don't make entertainers like that anymore. :(

      1. So funny - I was getting ready to comment back and say "I'd love to hear more about your recent game using the Buck Rogers rules..." but you beat me to it! Just checked it out on your blog. :)

        It's funny - although I was a big collector of TSR games back in the day, I never ended up getting "Gang Busters," "Indiana Jones," or any of the "Buck Rogers" stuff, so I don't really know anything about those systems and what made them unique other than the setting.

        So sad about Patty Andrews... did you know that all three girls passed away "in order" (oldest to youngest)? I think of them every year during baseball season when I listen to "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" and of course every Christmas.


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