Friday, 19 November 2010

Rules for Pulp Sci-Fi

Dan Dare

Back in the '50s and early 60s, small boys such as myself read the Eagle. Its lead comic strip was Dan Dare, pilot of the future, set in the late 1990s. Dan Dare was chief pilot for Space Fleet and lived in a wonderful high tech England with monoball cars and, my favourite, the atomic hand grenade. Even London Transport had monorails.

The Mekon - sworn enemy of Dan Dare

OK, enough of nostalgia. I have been think about designing a set of 50s sci-fi rules for Dan Dare, or Buck Rogers, Flash Gordon, Fireball XLF or whatever.

The trick to designing a game is to decide the subject matter, and to stick to it, removing or simplifying all else. A wargame cannot be all things to all men. For example, Hammers Slammers is a platoon level modern battle cavalry combat game set in colonial warfare. All else is subsumed. You want detailed infantry combat, semi-rpg in a tank, operational warfare, high intensity armoured warfare, guerrilla warfare... - then look elsewhere.

The more you try to lever into a game, the more unplayable, and unrealistic, it becomes. Detail kills realism as well as playability. The first step, therefore, in designing a game is tot to dive into detail but to take a step back and ask - what is it about?

OK so what is a pulp sci-fi game about?

Here are a few ideas: heroes & villains, femme fatales and heroines, sidekicks, monsters and aliens, unnamed people in red shirts who dies easily, wacky technology and transport, psi-powers, alien worlds, and traditional plots.

Unimportant: plots that make sense, weapon details (all rayguns have much the same effect, range etc), and realistic military combat.

What I would like to know is – How would YOU amend my list? What would you look for in a 50s Sci-Fi game. What are the key features that MUST be included? What can be dumped for ease of play?



  1. Sounds great, all I can think of is how great the space ship stuff could be.

    Interesting that evil henchmen could have much the same rules as redshirts.

    You could even have an expansion with giant monsters and robots like Godzilla and King Kong.

    and an adventure team expansion where you have groups with vehicles like the TV puppet shows.

    Sounds fun

    Santa Cruz Warhammer

  2. Assumption: At least on one side, the force will be very hero-centric. I haven't read Dan Dare, so approaching from the standpoint of things like the old serials.


    -A reason why the main heroes/villains don't just get raygunned down early on. Perhaps until the final showdown main characters are immune to death and can only be captured, which must be done at close range.

    -If incorporating Flash Gordon/Barsoom etc. type of action, a reason to engage in swordplay/fisticuffs instead of just shootouts.

    -Capturing and prisoners should play a significant part in scenarios. Rescue X, Capture Y. People in Peril is a must. Obtain/steal/destroy the mcguffin is a close second.

    -Turncoats are pretty traditional. Maybe an option to have someone in the enemy force on your side that you can take over at some point. The tyrant's daughter, the disgruntled executioner, the ambitious and traitorous officer, the brainwashed thrall, etc.

    -Probably included with the monsters and aliens, but just to be sure: robots!


    -Bothering with wide-open spaces. Most of the important action often happened on small sets - inside palaces or onboard a ship, temple, cave complex, etc.

    In short I think such a game should focus on the climax of a story arc, or at least the critical points that lead up to the climax. Lead up scenarios should generate cliffhangers that generate the plot for the following scenarios leading to episode 6 or whatever where hero and knave have their showdown.

  3. John, would you be interested in seeing the nearly completed Dick Garrison SF pulp game. Happy to email a copy of the draft for you to peruse...

  4. Giant robots, Villains with mottos like: With my secret X-ray weapont I WILL RULE THE WORLD!!! WAHAHAHAHAHA! (lightning, thunder, etc...)...

    A narrative gameplay, with tons of enemies to be gunned down...

    Did I mention robots?

  5. I'd go further than Sonoftaurus, I'd say-

    Rule 1; the baddies always lose...unless you're playing a campaign, in which case the games master can engineer a cliff-hanger on all meeting until the ultimate one...That's how it WAS!!!

  6. To me, from a gaming view, all pulp action is the same. Does it matter if it is Jake Strong, defending his girl from the tribesmen on Tongo Island with his .45, or Dan Dare blasting down aliens to save his girl? Nope, all the mooks go down with one shot. For Sci-Fi the action is bigger and broader (get back to the rocket before Emperor's Mang's Atomic Death bomb explodes, as opposed to escaping the soon-to-erupt volcano), but the play is the same.

    There are several Pulp (and pulp sci-fi) rules on the market. But one could make do with the original Kill Team rules from white Dwarf (dumbed down a bit in the 40K 4th edition rules). The heroes almost always win, there is a basic narrative that could be expanded on, lots of bad guys mooks to be cut down, and an evil baddie to defeat. The original even had a simple experience system you could use to give the side kick some growth!

    You might also want to check out the Lead Adventure forum. It has a very active pulp fan base. They talk and play just about everything, but seem most happy doing some sort of sci-fi pulp, from Victorian Science Fiction up to and through post-apocalyptic (think Fallout). A very civil, fun site, and one of 2 favorite places to visit for miniature gaming inspiration, the other being here!

  7. Dear Sons
    Thank you, very helpful suggestions,

  8. Dear Steve
    I would love to see a copy.

  9. Dear Host,
    Thanks I will have a look at the link,

  10. Dear Maverick,
    Yes, but villains always return.

  11. Dear Igi
    Robots, yes definitely.
    "Warning, Will Robinson."

  12. Mud men.

    Brian Blessed with wings.

    Lost tribes.

    Girls in their underwear tied to things (either to be set fire to or eaten, but the subcontext is clear).

    Taking off in circles (so the wires don't snag).

  13. Hi John great ideas and you've had loads of fantastic replies.

    I would suggest a small skirmish action - no bigger than 3 foot x 3 foot gaming and terrain board and about five or max. 10 miniatures a side.

    After all there was only DD and Digby in most stories.

    I would further suggest that Fantastic Worlds by rattrap Production would be worth investing in.

    They even have some Red Shirt type rules!

    Try this link;

    Also check out this set of links - there's loads to be looking at;

    "The Very British Conquest of Space" would be a good starting point.


  14. Dear Zzz
    All good stuff. I particularly like the girls tied up in their flimsies but my wife and daughters say I am a sad old man.

  15. Thanks Tony
    I have a copy of Fantastic Worlds but have never read it, sigh. Must dig it out.