JP On Gaming

Monday, August 22, 2011

Organized Play People: James Stepanek (Serial Pulp, 3.5, punching Hitler)

If you have ever played RPGs in the Denver area, the name of James Stepanek is known to you. James has been a pillar in the Denver-area con scene since before I showed up in the region. He wrote one of the nastiest Living Greyhawk adventure ever, URC5-05 Miner Mishap – which I can assure you was not minor at all. My first introduction to James was through his medusa archer backed by an invisible cleric with a rod of silent spell and the troll monk. Yes I did say nasty.

When I started this series, I thought of James as one of the people I would like to interview for this. His campaign, now called Serial Pulp has something of a cult following at local cons. Every echo I heard from it was positive with some very funny bits. Interesting characters, funny villains and best of all, interactives, and overall something that is unique.

On to the actual interview with James Stepanek of the Serial Pulp campaign.

JP: Welcome James, thanks for agreeing to do the interview!

JS: Sure thing

JP: Can you give us your RPG-Pedigree?

JS: I’m an old school gamer geek. I’ve been playing RPGs since about 1978, starting with AD&D (or a mishmash of AD&D and Basic D&D). I’ve tried quite a few systems over that time, including Traveller, Gamma World, DC Heroes, Marvel Superheroes, Villains and Vigilantes, Rifts, Heroes Unlimited, and others.

I’m an engineer by education, so I do tend to get into the mechanics of systems, and like to understand the math behind a lot of it. This means I tend to be critical of systems which don’t understand the math they are using, and what results from that. Poor probability mechanics are a peeve of mine. I like a table with good role play, and don’t end up too impressed with a bunch of people who just toss dice at each other.

It should be noted that people who focus on optimization do not exclude role playing, and I’ve seen many people who are top notch at both. I started with living campaigns back in around 1999 with Living Jungle. That was a really fun campaign which was focused on the role playing. If there was any competitiveness it was who could act the most like a moronic savage for laughs. I learned a lot from playing and running Living Jungle, and even wrote a module for RPGA for the campaign once upon a time (they even paid me!).

JP: What draws you to the pulp genre in question? What elements do you think lend themselves best to roleplaying?

JS: I can remember when the original d20 Pulp rules came out in Polyhedron and saying to myself “that would be a cool campaign setting”. Then at the next local con (can’t recall which one, it was around 2002) Doyce Testerman started the Living Pulp campaign. I eagerly signed on since I enjoy works from that genre. I’ve read plenty of books and followed movies from the era, and am a bit of a history buff.

Pulp is a grand adventure sort of thing. Everyone knows the Indiana Jones series, Flash Gordon, Tarzan, or the Shadow. There’s so many areas covered in the genre of Pulp that you have a huge amount of flexibility in adventure creation. We’ve had stories in the campaign venturing from were-Polar bears guarding fake ice bergs, to fighting Mayan Jaguar God Avatars in the Yucatan, to the Radium Beasts of Venus. There’s a wealth of ideas to explore, and the well-known history of the era also gives you a wonderful starting point to anchor everything on to.

I mean who doesn’t love delivering a knuckle sandwich to a Nazi goon?

JP: True… Those goons seem MADE to get punched in the face… Speaking of goons… Who would you say is the greatest/ best villain in Serial Pulp? Why should we want to beat him up?

JS: We have a few major villains who recur in the series. There’s Dr Malefaktus, a Nazi affiliated mad scientist who specializes in robots, St. John Smyth, a former PC who went bad and betrayed the PC organization to increase his own power, and Alan Peterson, an illegitimate son of British nobility seeking tear down the world order so he can set himself up to dominate the wreckage. All of these have appeared in multiple adventures, and story arcs. I’d probably guess that Malefaktus takes the cake for the biggest and baddest since he’s both stark raving mad, has extremely dangerous super scientific toys, and is a Nazi.

JP: What game system do you use? What are the changes to the game system?

JS: The system is a variant of 1st edition Spycraft d20, with some modifications from other systems such as Pathfinder present. The character classes are all customized to suit the genre.

JP: What particularly attracts you to Spycraft?

JS: I ended up using the Spycraft rules as a basis for the Serial Pulp campaign for a couple of reasons. The first was that the original rules used for Living Pulp (which, by the way, couldn’t be the name anymore as RPGA owns the term ‘Living’) were not open content and protected by the OGL. Hence we couldn’t hand out the rules to people, and finding that issue of Polyhedron wasn’t a trivial matter.

As the Pulp genre really lends itself to cinematic game mechanics, I felt that Spycraft was a perfect fit rules wise. Many of the mechanics lend themselves to how things work in movies more than in real life (out of ammo? Spend a hero point and you’re full- see you can have a 12 shot revolver). As the Spycraft rules are both OGL and cinematic in style, they fit well to the type of stories we like to tell.

Using the Spycraft OGL rules as a basis, we could modify them to suit our needs, and still give it all out for free to players. Recently we’ve updated the rules some with ideas brought into from the Pathfinder system, since we liked the streamlining of the rules.

JP: What is your favorite RPG game of all times? Your favorite supplement/ adventure?

JS: That’s a tricky question really. The best times I had roleplaying was likely a campaign I ran with friends back in AD&D 2nd edition, but by no means would I claim to care much for the system. I always really liked the mechanics of the Mayfair DC Heroes game (system is known as MEGS- Mayfair Exponential Game System). It was very elegant in its simplicity, yet capable of describing all manner of actions over a huge range of power levels.

As for an individual adventure, hmm that’s really tricky. I’m looking at 30 years of stuff. Much of the good stuff was custom work by a top notch GM. Actually I’ll name a DC Heroes Module- Don’t Ask (yes, that was the name). It was a joke module written about a joke character (Ambush Bug). I never had the chance to play it, but it was damned funny reading.

JP: What are the high points of a home game you run? What elements do you particularly enjoy or look for in a campaign?

JS: Oddly enough, I’m not running a home game right now. I’m playing, which is a relatively odd situation, since I’ve mostly run my home game since D&D 3.0 came out in 2000. There have been periods of other DMs, but mostly it was me.

The game I am playing in is a Gestalt Pathfinder game which means power levels are really high (on both sides, the GM doesn’t pull punches). As to what I like, well I’m pretty flexible. As long as I like the game system, and the people at the table, I’m ok with whatever. Most of the games I’ve been in tend to be of the ‘Beer and Pretzels’ mold, so I suppose I could claim that is what I find most comfortable. I like combats, and I like roleplay, though I suppose as it’s mostly a beer and pretzels group I’ve been in we do more of the former than the latter.

JP: What would you say are elements that define your writing style? What elements would I expect to find in one of your adventures?

JS: I look to put interesting twists into adventures that I write. I like there to be something different that people will not expect, and should elicit a grin at least.

For example, the Living Jungle adventure I wrote back in the day was called Engine of Destruction. It was a quest to claim a dangerous ancient relic before the big bad guys of the setting got it first. In the end it turned out to be a Cuisinart which was good for making berry smoothies, but wasn’t much of a weapon. I like to find a way to balance in puzzle elements with roleplay, and then make sure there’s enough rough and tumble stuff to keep the combat junkies from getting bored.

On Pulp modules, I tend to spend a fair amount of time on historical research to put in my quirky angles. I like people to learn an interesting historical tidbit from my Pulp modules.

JP: What is the story of SP? How did it come about, why? Who started this? How did you become a campaign administrator?

JS: Living Pulp was the original campaign name, and as I mentioned above, it was started by Doyce Testerman back in 2002. His first module, Tear of Ra, was a great romp with a strong Indiana Jones feel, featuring mystic artifacts, mysterious bad guys in the background, and treacherous NPCs. The feel and scope were very cinematic, and he went to a good deal of trouble to research his setting (Estes Park Colorado) and era. Other authors got involved, and I was one of the early ones (I started with a collaborative effort with Doyce called Sixguns at Chapparal). Eventually Doyce got tired of running the campaign and moved on, so I took it over. I’ve got a good stable of authors and other helpers who have made keeping the campaign alive a pleasure.

JP: What is your official title in the campaign?

JS: Umm, bossman? Il Duce? Generalissimo? We have titles?

JP: What are you main duties as part of the campaign?

JS: I am pretty much where the buck stops. I cajole authors into writing. I organize playtests. I arrange game slots with the con coordinators, and provide judges for those slots. I approve rules suggestions. Pulp is really run by the people who play and write for it, but someone has to give the editorial direction, and that’s me.

Oh yeah, and I write a lot of adventures (and run them).

JP: What would you tell those out there about your campaign?

JS: It’s a d20 based campaign set in the 1930s (we’re in 1938 now, war is on the doorstep) based on the pulp novels, serials, comic books, and other fiction of the time. It is also based on more current retellings of that genre such as Indiana Jones, The Shadow, The Phantom, Rocketeer, etc. We’ve had players in the campaign in various cities (Phoenix, Las Vegas, Long Island-yeah, not a city), but most of the action is in the Denver area at the local gaming cons.

JP: Okay… I have to ask here. I am a history-phile and anything historical is close to my own heart. I love games and campaigns that are set in historical times. How do you handle the mix between “real” history and game history?

JS: I guess there is some juggling involved there. We pick out real, or imagined historical tidbits, run with them as a story, and then generally ignore any potential effect they would have on the broader timeline. Generally we try to keep a low enough profile in the adventures that the repercussions of our acts would not have a large effect on the greater world scene. This is generally accomplished by setting things in remote locations which would otherwise be too flashy.

JP: What is the part of Serial Pulp that is reserved to history? If I know a lot or very little about it, how difficult is to get into it? How do you ensure this balance?

JS: We try to pretty much stick to the real timeline that occurred. There is in game history familiar to the people who have played from the start, but you won’t be lost in the world without it if you come in late.

JP: Earlier we spoke of villains… How historical are those villains if any? I would really want to introduce ol’Adolf to my five brothers…

JS: Traditionally we’ve used fictional villains. They are associated with Pulp type villains, so are generally over the top and a real model wouldn’t really fit the bill. However a new module coming out will actually feature a real person as an adversary for the first time. People who know WW II should recognize the name.

JP: One of the possible themes with events in the 30s is racism and stereotypes. The rise of fascism, and segregation in the US, how do you approach these sensitive themes, if at all? While it’s easy to “punch Hitler in the face”, what about some other figures who approved of the movement – such as Gerald Ford? Say I wanted to play a Jew in an adventure set in Germany? Or a black man in South Africa?

JS: I try to tell it like it was. I don’t pull punches, and I don’t try to modernize with Hollywood sensibilities. Discrimination will occur in a game (to PCs, not players of course), because it did occur in the world. I don’t intend to whitewash ugly pieces of history. As for people who approved of the Nazis, I think you mean Joseph Kennedy, Ford wasn’t really known for that he was just a law student at the time (though an isolationist). He did join the navy after Pearl Harbor. Joseph Kennedy was a big time appeaser and was against Lend Lease (while he was ambassador to the UK).

JP: DOHP! I mean Henry Ford! But continue… good catch. Sorry Gerald, didn’t mean to implicate you in anything…

JS: As for playing a PC in the wrong situation, well I admit I’m not really going to accommodate something the world wouldn’t accommodate. I make allowances certainly to cater to character concepts but will not stretch things too far. For example, in one interactive, the PCs have to save a Chinese village during the Japanese invasion. One character was a crazy Japanese explosives nut. They were shunned by the villagers because by this time the extent of Japanese atrocities was well known in China. I can’t have people ignoring something like that. The adventure description was explicit about it addressing the Japanese invasion, so the player could have made a different character to play. They didn’t like how it turned out since they didn’t want to fight their countrymen, and didn’t much like being shunned. While I prefer all players to have fun in an adventure, I can’t excuse them from choices they have made.

If you wanted to play a black in South Africa, you wouldn’t be treated well at home. Heck, it’s the 1930s, you’re likely not going to be treated all too well anywhere (except as part of the PC network, which is a bit more modern in sensibilities of course). Mind you, unless you wanted to play a faceman type character, it would be worked around without real deleterious game effect and such interactions would be minor and mostly for flavor of the setting.

Of course I’d like to be clear, I’m obviously not trying to promote discrimination here, I want to merely make sure we don’t forget history as it was. Painting a rosy picture does everyone a disservice.

JP: Why is Serial Pulp the best campaign there is?

JS: The people involved are why the campaign is great (yeah, I know that sounds cheesy). I can give an example. A while back myself, and another judge are running a module in the same room at a con. I can hear what he’s doing and he can hear me. We are running the exact same adventure, but both of them go off the rails in completely different directions. Both of us GMs just take it in stride and manage to keep up with the imaginations of the players as they take the story in new directions on their own. We have many moments when play comes to a brutal halt because we’re laughing so hard. Not because someone told an off topic joke, but because someone role played their character so well, and it was so damned funny.

JP: Why do you think a complete newcomer to organize play join SP?

JS: If the genre suits them, I suspect they will enjoy the experience. I’ve rarely had someone walk away from a Pulp table looking like they didn’t enjoy it.

JP: Why should an old grumpy player – yes… think of me as that grumpy old troll – what is the biggest strength of SP?

JS: It’s flexible in that you can pretty much play what you want, and act it out as much as you want. It’s also easy enough to pick up as it is d20 based, and few enough don’t know that system by now. The campaign tries very hard to accentuate that everything is about having fun. I don’t mean we want to break our own rules, but if you need to tell the story better, and encourage cinematic actions by the players, go to town. This is a bit hard on GMs, since you have to be able to ad lib at times, but we’ve been lucky to have good ones, and it’s always worked out.

JP: In an average week, roughly how much time do you devote to campaign-related duties?

JS: It depends on when it is and if I’m writing. Pulp runs almost exclusively at cons these days (though I’m always willing to run a game day if people are interested). Around the cons it can get fairly busy as I tend to always be writing something.

For example, this con while I’m not writing an adventure, I am writing the interactive as well as editing another module. Honestly I can’t really say a number figure in hours. Between cons I do very little Pulp work. Near cons I put in a fair number of hours. It’s too variable for a simple answer.

JP: Interactives… Another of my sweet spot… What do you do in Serial Pulp interactives? What is the difference between an interactive and regular adventure? Any sneak peek?

JS: Interactives are an opportunity to play out your character in a more epic and chaotic setting. Generally it’s a big event in the world/campaign that occurs and a large group of PCs have to team up to deal with the threat. We’re on our fifth one of the campaign this Tacticon. It looks to be pretty big, and starts to get deeper into the issues of the Holocaust as it will drop the PCs into the middle of Kristallnacht. Of course there will be a twist, since while just fighting Nazis is cool, it can be a touch predictable. Let’s just say, they won’t expect who they will end up fighting.

JP: A difficult one: I give you a magic wand and you can only use it to make your campaign better… What do you do?

JS: If I could have everyone who ever said “I have a great idea for a Pulp module” actually write up the idea, it would be great.

JP: Play, GM or write? Which do you enjoy best?

JS: Hard to say really. I like them all. I admit that I do miss playing at the cons, since I used to like the interaction caused by the random selection of people. There’s also some interesting people and characters I’d like to share a table with. However I have a good playtest crew, so when I get to play in those it’s all good. I enjoy GMing since one rule I have learned at Pulp tables is that no adventure is really written till a few tables have played it and all the crazy possibilities are explored (ones the author never thought of). I also enjoy the writing to see how I can make a story out of a nifty twist.

JP: Who are the other people involved in SP?

JS: David Geissinger is kind of my second in command, as he carries a lot of my judging slack and does a lot of writing. Anthony Chiesi did an amazing amount of work on the current rules revision, and Calvin Curtis, put in much of the slog work for the initial transition to Spycraft rules. We wouldn’t have a rules document to hand out without those two people. Michelle Norton maintains the web site, and has started writing modules. We’ve got a good stable of authors in Dave Geissinger (mentioned), Joe Carlson, (Mad) Matt Parker, and Andy Dammit Matthews. Authors from the past include Doyce Testerman, Rey Hererra, David Stroh, and Chris Simpson. There’s also the players and GMs, but I can’t list everyone.

JP: Yes, a solid stable of people! Dave was my fellow CoU triad in the last days of Living Greyhawk, a solid contributor. Most of the others I recognize as well. Looks like you’ve got a good team there… You did mention writing a lot throughout this interview. What do you consider a good plot for Serial Pulp? Are there pitfalls and things you do not want to see?

JS: The one thing I dislike most in a module is a railroad. While I understand a four hour time constraint does tempt authors to do that, I prefer the players to have the freedom to take the story where they want to. Better to just prod them in the correct direction from time to time rather than trying to follow your script as an author. It’s also very important to cater to as many play styles as possible. Some people have twinked up facemen (or cat burglars, or whatnot) instead of twinked up gunbunnies. They should get their time in the sun as well.

JP: I have heard a lot of good things about Serial Pulp and tend to send my “excess players” at cons to you, and getting great comments back. Have you ever thought of getting the Serial Pulp content published? With the many methods of self-publishing today or through an established RPG publisher, is that something you have considered?

JS: Not really. I’m happy to just let the people have the content to enjoy the game themselves. Anything of that sort would require a fair amount more polish as I do admit our rules document still has some rough edges. Also, I like to be able to adjust the rules as we go along to incorporate new RPG ideas. The inclusion of Pathfinder rules is a good example of this.

JP: Do you have any links or websites where people might learn more about the campaign?

JS: We have a web site at, while most of the organization, rules, and stuff is to be found on the yahoo group SPAdventures.

JP: Was your campaign ever linked to the RPGA?

JS: Nope, the campaign started up right around the time that RPGA stopped accepting new Living Campaign suggestions. After watching Living Jungle get killed off by the RPGA for little enough reason, I had no desire for there to be any association.

JP: Any plans to move the game to Pathfinder?

JS: We already use some of the Pathfinder rules. The skill system was lifted almost straight out of Pathfinder, and the rest is D20 (we might also go to the CMB/CMD system soon, since I’m now familiar enough with it to like it). An experienced Pathfinder player wouldn’t have any issues sitting down at a table and playing without studying the rules. A five minute intro from the GM would have you up to speed.

JP: Thanks for your time James, I really appreciate this interview and will try to get in on some Serial Pulp if I can. That said, I leave the final word to you.

JS: Thanks for the opportunity to give the campaign a bit more exposure, and it’s been a pleasure chatting.

1 comment:

  1. WotC does not own the term 'Living'. Case in point...

    Living Divine