Monday, September 16, 2013

Pulp Noir Monday: D20 Past

Continuing in my posts of pulp-era themed games, books, comics, movies, and TV shows, today's post covers a somewhat under-the-radar supplement for WotC's D20 Modern game, called D20 Past. For more pulp era posts, check out my Pulp Noir tag.

So, firstly, for those Old School types who strictly only stick to games that stopped publishing back in 1988, I'll just point out that almost all of my Pulp Noir inspiration posts are actually not even game-related. I've covered comics and TV shows, and the only two game-related releases that I have covered so far are really mostly setting material - the game mechanics are negligible.

I look at D20 Past the same way - I've actually never even played D20 Modern and didn't acquire the core rulebook until about two years after I picked up this release. But, I figured I could mine this book for ideas for future games and also for a D20 Call of Cthulhu game I was playing in at the time, and it came in really handy for that.

What Is It?
D20 Past is a supplement for the D20 Modern role-playing game that was published by WotC shortly after 3rd Edition D&D was released. This particular supplement was written by James Wyatt (not my favorite game designer) and Gwendolyn F. M. Kestrel in March 2005. Most notably for Pulp Noir fans, it includes material from the "Pulp Heroes" material from Polyhedron #149 by David Noonan, and "V for Victory", by Chris Pramas, which was originally published in Polyhedron #156.

The entire book covers the time period from about 1450 to 1950, divided into three main sections: The Age of Adventure (pirates and muskateers), Shadow Stalkers (characters hunt "creatures of shadow" throughout the 1870s, whether as gunslingers in the Wild West or detectives in Victorian London, for example), and most relevant for us, Pulp Heroes (private eyes, bold explorers, mad scientists, and fascist generals in the 1920s and 1930s).

Each section covers things like character archetypes, an overview of the types of campaign styles, friends and foes, including new monsters, prestige and advanced classes, and some sample adventures.

Before all of this comes an overview of historical campaigns and various ways to run them (strictly historical or semi-historical including adding varying levels of fictional elements, thoughts on starting occupations for characters, technology levels at various points in history, and new skills, feats, and equipment.

So again, people who hate D20-type games might be thinking that this is too rules-heavy, but I disagree. Sure, the starting occupations include a few rules tidbits (recommended skills, bonus feats, etc.), but that's easily ignored for what's really important - ideas on typical character backgrounds and how they fit into historical settings. There are tons of great ideas in here, including "Cloistered" (characters who grow up in a Himalayan fortress, hidden Vatican chapel, or other places isolated from society), which is actually a background idea I ended up stealing and using for my player character in a Call of Cthulhu game that started with the D20 system but has since switched over to Savage Worlds.

To let you in on how rules-light this book is, we don't see any rules or tables or anything until page 9, and on that page and the next few pages, the tables are actually just the various movement rates of different vehicles such as trains, ships, horses, etc. so you can compare speeds.

Cool Bits
From a pulp noir standpoint, there are tons of really fun and cool things in here that can help with a game that takes place during this era.

We get pictures of various period planes and zeppelins, descriptions of fire arms, sailing ships, aircraft, and ground vehicles, and some cool pictures of various characters that you could use as PC or NPC portraits.

In the Pulp Heroes section specifically, one of the things I really loved was the description of "pulp science." The section explains how Pulp Heroes scientists are eggheads who publish academic papers, but rather are tough adventurous inventors who test their own unproven inventions themselves to work out the kinks. Science in this type of setting is both promising and threatening, as secret societies and fascist nations also have scientists working on making giant attack robots, death rays, and super bombs.

We then get a staple of OSR games which should make a lot of you happy - the Random Table! In this case, it's really clever and fits right in the setting - It's two tables that work in conjunction to make a naming convention for "pulp science." Table I tells you how many Catalysts, Functions, and Prefixes the name has, and in what order, and Table II presents a column of Prefixes, two Catalyst columns, and two Function columns. Rolling on the tables, you might get a name as simple as "Zortillium Emitter" or as complex as "Atomic Hyper-Reactor Sphere."

Just looking at the tables makes me want to start creating a mad scientist guy to have my players face in a crazy lab full of half-finished and dangerous experiments, each with a pulpy-sounding name. I'm reminded of some of the crazy scientist types from the old Silver Age comics I used to read, and also one episode in particular of the old Max Fleischer Superman cartoons from the 1940s.

The Pulp Heroes section also covers everyone's favorite pulp-era villains, the Nazis, and various types of Nazi foes (athletes, "mentalists," pilots, scientists, soldiers, spies, and SS Officers). There's also information on playing a Flying Ace, Gangster, or Scientist.

Lastly, we get two adventures with plenty of background and information that you could easily run them using any system of your choice. There are a couple of maps, including a relatively detailed one for a large ship on which part of one adventure takes place.

Who Will Like It?
Obviously this is a cool book for fans of pulp-era gaming, and again I must stress, this book is really more about the setting and giving ideas than it is about the game mechanics. Don't let the D20 name scare you away from an otherwise good resource.

On the "down side," only part of this book deals with pulp noir. There are two other settings, as mentioned above, that may or may not be of use to you in your games if you only want to strictly focus on the pulp stuff. That said, you should most likely be able to find this book for relatively cheap so it should still be a good QPR (Quality-Price Ratio) even if you only look at the pulp chapters.

  • Format: 96-page full-color softcover book
  • Where to Buy: Used copies start at $6.49 on
  • Price: Original cover price was $19.95
  • System: D20 Modern (relatively rules-light presentation)
  • More Information: The official WotC D20 Past product page

Hanging: Home office (laptop)
Listening: "Rock the Casbah" by the Clash
Drinking: Stone Smoked Porter


  1. Replies
    1. That's a very detailed review, and actually despite what you might initially think based on my post above, I agree with most of the points you made regarding using d20 Past as a game supplement for an actual d20 Modern game.

      I think it under-whelmed in terms of what was presented and how much of it was presented. I, too, was hoping for a book along the lines of the d20 Future book, mainly because my standard D&D Fantasy game takes a lot of queues from real-world history and I've always longed to play that world as a low-magic, almost "historical" type of campaign. I was hoping to grab some cool ideas from d20 Past to help me do that. In that way, the book completely failed.

      I thought their definition of "past" was far too limiting (I actually really was expecting to see Medieval and/or Renaissance stuff, along with even perhaps Roman or Greek stuff) but without magic.

      In terms of the additional skills, feats, and equipment that you mention, yeah, I think if I were actually playing a straight-up d20 Modern game, that would've ticked me off. But especially nowadays I'm looking for fewer rules and more ideas, so you'll notice that I don't even deal with mechanics in my little mini-review above. It's more about the ideas you can steal for your pulp-era games.

      So, yeah, as an actually useful at-the-table game supplement, I'd probably give this thing maybe a 3 or 4 out of 10. I've come to expect that kind of thing from James Wyatt, personally.

      As a resource of some cool, fun ideas for a sort of "wild" pulp-era game with weird science, crazy mental powers, hidden dinosaur islands, and super Nazis... there's some good stuff in here worth stealing.

      Would I pay $19.95 for it? Absolutely no way. Would I pay $4-$6 for it? I think it's probably worth it at that price just as a source of ideas.

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