Eclipse d20 – Playing With The Pulps Part IV: Vehicles

  • For Part I – the Basic Pulp Hero and Advanced Pulp Hero Templates – Click HERE.
  • For Part II – Advanced Pulp Powers Part I – Click HERE.
  • For Part III – Advanced Pulp Powers Part II, Pulp Drugs, and Pulp Archetypes – Click HERE.

Another major category of Pulp Heroes lacks special powers beyond the basics (although, to be fair, amazing reflexes, expert marksmanship, rapid healing, resistance to mind control, and being tough as nails can get you a long way all by themselves). Instead, they had vehicles.

That doesn’t sound all that impressive does it? Still, looking back… The 1908 New York to Paris race had fired imaginations and firmly established motor vehicles as catalysts for wild adventure. Combined with the start of the production of the Model T late that year, it led to calls for road construction and turned cars into a heroic fantasy that any young man or woman could aspire to.

By the time that the Model T ceased production in 1927, well into the pulp era (roughly 1920 to 1941), Ford had sold a little more than fourteen and a half million units. The United States went from one vehicle per ten thousand people in 1900 to one per five in 1930. (Today it’s close to one to one).

Adventure, the freedom and call of the open road, exploration, and the dream of leaving all your troubles behind had come to everyone. The automobile and sheer distance replaced the horse and the wild frontier in popular mythology. Bonnie and Clyde replaced Billy The Kid. Prohibition led to a crime wave – and gangsters, g-men, tommy guns, and fast cars became enduring symbols.

Motor Vehicles – and particularly fast, powerful, customized or unique vehicles – weren’t just equipment for heroes, to be parked and forgotten. They were heroic attributes in themselves, and sometimes almost characters. Tom Swift had motorcycles, and cars, and planes, and more, the Green Hornet had the “Black Beauty”, Biggles had his planes, and Batman had his Batmobile.

So… we’ll want our pulp heroes vehicles to be attributes of the heroes themselves, not quite full characters – but something that can readily be called on when they’re needed, restored if they are damaged or destroyed, and will quietly disappear from the story when they’re not needed.

Fortunately, the Witchcraft rules provide a mechanism for that. Just take…

  • Witchcraft/Path of Fire/The Birth of Flames. Corrupted for Increased Effect (Construct IX) and Specialized for Reduced Cost / Creates a vehicle (3 CP; a Pulp Hero can have two Vehicles for his or her Pulp Feat). Vehicles do not get their own actions; they must be operated by pilots, drivers, gunners, and other crewmen using their own skills and BAB, they can only be manifested or unmanifested off-screen in reasonably plausible locations, they always have type flaws (for example, most air vehicles cannot carry nearly as much weight as their strength indicates and only get half the usual number of hit points), and they suffer from any obvious vehicular limitations (such as not maneuvering well in dungeons). They do get a x3 multiplier for long-distance travel though, as they are utterly tireless.

In general that gives our vehicles 144 HP, a Move of 50′, AC 33, and allows them to cause up to 2d6+18 damage if they make a “physical attack”, They generally get a +6 on their saves (or may use their pilot/drivers saves), and can carry up to six tons as a light load. That’s neither very fast nor very versatile – but as Level IX Psychic Constructs they get to select some options. That will give us…

WWI Style Biplane (Large):

  • Class-A: Swim 30 (Floats), Spell Storing I (Bombs. Specialized and Corrupted for Increased Effect / Energy Balls only, dropped only, but self-charging for 3 Shots/Day, 7d6 base, Reflex Save DC 14), Fly 20 (Average).
  • Class-B: Fast Healing II, 2x Versatile (Increase Flight Speed to 80′, Double Overland Travel).
  • Class-C: Enveloping (Cockpit and Passenger Area), Elemental Aura (Guns: “Sonic” damage, uses a ranged touch attack with long range rather than a save), Versatile II
  • Flaw: Air vehicle. Limited carrying capacity, half hit points (72).
  • Note: Can only “attack” in melee if someone manages to bump into the propellers.

THE vehicle of choice for tiny expeditions to far corners of the world, a biplane can land almost anywhere, requiring only a bit of open (if reasonably flat) ground or water to get its floats into. If you want to reach towering timelost mesas full of monsters, distant deserts burying ancient occult cities, temples perched on the peaks of unclimbable mountains, or cliff-sided islands inhabited by lost civilizations, and you aren’t a mad scientist or a friend thereof, then a biplane is the vehicle of choice for you. It will invariably be damaged, or have to be left behind as you venture into someplace where it won’t fit, but with any luck the intrepid pilot will get it repaired in time to swoop in to save you somewhere along the way.

WWII Battle Tank (Huge):

  • Class-A: Celerity (Move 60′), Damage Reduction (Variant, 2/-), Resistance (Fire/5).
  • Class-B: Fast Healing II, Trample (Does primary attack damage by running over things), Spell Storing II (Main Gun, Specialized and Corrupted for Increased Effect / Energy Balls only, but self-charging for 6 Shots/Day, 13d6 base, Reflex Save DC 17)
  • Class-C: Enveloping (Crew Compartment), Energy Bolt (Machine Guns, Specialized/Sonic Only, but double length), Extreme Damage Reduction (+6/-, totaling 8/-).
  • Flaw: Incredibly heavy. Cannot cross ice, most bridges, and so on, has many blind spots, and is very noisy.

It’s big. It’s tough. It grinds along unstoppably. It goes “bang” really well. It has a big gun barrel sticking stiffly out in front of itself to serve as a phallic symbol AND it fights land wars in Asia. Rockets are close runners-up, but they’re too fragile to really compete for the title of “the most manly possible ride”. NOTHING says “OH NO YOU DON’T” to a group of cultists about to sacrifice the girl, or a mafia hit squad waiting in ambush, or some effeminate schemer who isn’t MANLY enough to deal with his opponents directly, like a tank coming in through their wall. Most of them come with a box of cigars inside so that the pilot can clench one in his or her teeth. If you must fight a giant monster, or swarm of soldiers… there are much worse tactics to use than riding into the fight in a tank.

WWII PT Boat (Huge):

  • Class-A: Swim x 3 (90′),
  • Class-B: Spell Storing II (Torpedoes or missiles, Specialized and Corrupted for Increased Effect / Energy Balls only, but self-charging for 6 Shots/Day, 13d6 base, Reflex Save DC 17), Fast Healing II, Crew Facilities (Baths, Galley, Etc).
  • Class-C: Enveloping (Crew Compartments), 2x Energy Bolt (Machine Guns, Specialized/Sonic Only, but double length),
  • Flaws: No ground movement, crew exposed when using machine guns.
  • Note: A PT Boat can run over smaller boats and swimmers in the water, inflicting it’s melee attack damage.

PT Boats (and more modern missile boats) serve the same role as spacecraft in other tales; they are lightly armed and fragile vessels, rushing between isolated pockets of civilization separated by a hostile environment, carrying their small crews into heroic confrontations with considerably larger and more powerful groups. Only going very fast, great courage, and posing dramatically on the deck as your agile craft flashes across the sparkling blue sea can save the day!

In somewhat more practical terms, PT boats acknowledge that standing up to modern weaponry requires either a floating fortress or not being there – and an agile small craft is a LOT cheaper to build than a battleship or aircraft carrier and yet can still carry a few heavy weapons. For gaming, they’re also conveniently small enough for a modest group of adventurers to fill all the major crew roles.

Flash Gordon Spacecraft (Huge):

  • Class-A: Elemental Subtype (Space), 2x Flight (40′ in atmosphere).
  • Class-B: Fast Healing II, Facilities (Baths, Galley, Etc), Spell Storing II (Specialized and Corrupted for Increased Effect / only for a spell or spells of up to L3 used to represent bizarre weapons, 18 self-charging levels worth per day).
  • Class-C: Enveloping (Crew Compartments), Dimension Slide (Stardrive Variant: Once out of atmosphere may travel between worlds and solar systems in plot-convenient time), Shields (Variant on Extreme Deflection, +4 to AC, +4 to Saves).
  • Flaw: Sealed Environment: Characters cannot use their own powers against external targets while inside. Prone to weird malfunctions and negative space wedgies.
  • Note: Exploration craft may come equipped with True Seeing (Variant: Long-Range Sensor Systems) instead of Shields. They may also make physical attacks by ramming things; but this is a very poor idea.

Once humanity ran short of isolated places to place mysterious adventures in on earth, there were only a few places left to turn to – the heavens and the depths. And what could plausibly lie hidden in the depths was somewhat limited compared to the endless reaches of the heavens. There lay infinite space for campy villains, primitive-yet-star-faring civilizations, and dastardly outlaws. Oddly enough, most of the heroes were just the same as ever, even if they had rayguns and ships instead of pistols and horses/trains/cars; perhaps it helped maintain an element of familiarity when an author got too lurid with his or her aliens.

Pulp Fiction Mole Drill (Huge):

  • Class-A: 3x Tunneling (30′).
  • Class-B: Fast Healing II, Facilities (Baths, Galley, Etc), Earthsense (Can navigate while buried in the earth).
  • Class-C: Enveloping (Crew Compartments), Extreme Damage Reduction (Armored Hull, DR 6/-), True Seeing (Variant, environmental sensors and onboard lab).
  • Flaw: Mole Drills turn extremely gradually, do not allow the crew to exit until they emerge into an open location, and are sealed environments that do not allow the crew to use most abilities against external targets.
  • Note: A Mole Drill can combine it’s two physical attacks into a single one if something is stupid enough to stand in front of it’s drill – but it generally cannot physically attack otherwise.

Like a spaceship, a mole drill can conveniently deliver our heroes to some exotic locale (usually a sample of an ancient civilization or a primordial realm) and then inescapably strand them there. Unlike a spaceship, this comes with a chance for claustrophobic tunnels to connect to other pocket realms hidden deep within the Earth’s crust and near-complete blindness; until the Drill actually emerges into the inner world its contents are likely to be utterly unknown. Even better, it’s easier to add fuel or life support constraints when it’s impossible to know just how far that your vehicle will have to travel in the first place. It even offers you a chance to have geological upheaval or to have something horrendous crawl back up the tunnel! (Mole drills don’t normally leave tunnels, but why not?).

Sporty Spy Car (Large):

  • Class-A: Swim 30, Celerity x4 (90′ Base Move, Specialized for Double Movement / uses wheels, and is thus very restricted when it comes to offroad operation. Move 180′),
  • Class-B: Fast Healing II, Versatile (+2 Class-A Abilities), Spell Storing II (Specialized and Corrupted for Increased Effect / only a fixed set of self-charging spy car gadgets (Smoke Cloud x 3, Grease x3, Nitrous Oxide Burst (Personal Haste) x3, Flamethrower (Burning Hands x3), Light (Floodlights) x3, and Magic Missile (Minigun) x3).
  • Class-C: Enveloping (Passenger Compartment), True Seeing (Advanced Sensors), and Energy Bolt (Minimissile Launcher).
  • Flaw: The spy car is obviously terribly expensive and highly customized, and thus suspicious. It has only half the usual HP, and has a nasty tendency to get involved in car chases even if there is no rational reason for one to occur.
  • Note: Sporty Spy Cars can run into targets for their base physical attack damage, but take 1d6 damage when they do so.

In the beginning a fast car was enough to justify adventure all by itself; you could stumble across isolated criminal hideouts, have fast chases, outrun monsters, and encounter weird monsters in the deep wilderness. But as more and more people got cars of their own, just having a car – and, very little later, just owning a fast car – was no longer enough. Too many people were traveling, and finding that a couple of hundred miles didn’t really make THAT big a difference. Thus later pulp heroes needed special cars, with built-in gadgets – which ironically enough made them more fragile since you needed to damage the car when you wanted to take those gadgets away. So here we have one late-model pulp car, with enough built-in armament to bring out every SWAT team in a fifty mile radius if the police should ever catch on.

Zeppelin (Huge):

  • Class-A: 2x Flight (Corrupted/Lighter-than-Air; maneuverability is appalling, opponents get a +6 to hit. 60′ Maximum – although it can hover and spin slowly in place)
  • Class-B: Fast Healing II, Facilities (Baths, Galley, Etc), Extra Attack (a second gunner can fire a second lighting cannon blast).
  • Class-C: Enveloping (Gondola), Extra Buff (+30 HP: Zeppelins can actually take a lot of damage before going down), Energy Bolt (Lightning Cannon).
  • Flaw: Flammable, counts as two sizes larger whenever this would be disadvantageous for it, but not otherwise.
  • Zeppelins can inflict standard physical damage if something runs into their propellers, and COULD ram something – but it’s an incredibly impractical tactic. Pretty much everything but mountains is more maneuverable than a Zeppelin.

The huge ship sliding slowly into place overhead and hovering without visible means of support save for a muted humming sound is a staple of modern sci-fi movies, displaying their aliens vast power and mastery of mysterious forces for all to see. It evokes images that go all the way back to gods standing on the clouds and hurling thunderbolts. It’s no coincidence that many pulp stories equipped their flying machines with “electric rays”.

It’s also an export from early stories about lighter-than-air flying machines. Who could imagine that a wisp of hydrogen or helium – substances that relatively few readers of fantastic fiction at the time would ever have encountered or even heard of – could loft immense vehicles into the sky and hold them there? From there it was a short jump to Edgar Rice Burroughs “Eighth Ray”, Jules Verne’s “Cavorite”, Space 1889’s “Liftwood”, DC’s Nth Metal, and many other substances that offer the freedom of the skies.

Zepplins come in many variations; you want to pull out “Extra Buff” to upgrade the Facilities to include laboratories and workshops? Perhaps fill the Class-B slot with some missiles? Now you have the ever-popular mobile base to let you explore lost worlds.

The Damned Ship (Huge):

  • Class-A: 2x Swim (60′), Damage Reduction 5/Magic.
  • Class-B: Fast Healing II, Facilities (Baths, Galley, Etc), Poison Touch (1/round the ships master may attempt to poison one living creature aboard, inflicting 1 Con/1d2 Con damage (Fort Save DC 20, 1 minute). This is often employed to keep the peace between incompatible groups.
  • Class-C: Enveloping (Crew Compartments), Noncorporeal (Specialized and Corrupted for Increased Effect (can also access the Shadow and Astral Planes) / Once activated the crew must visit another plane and accomplish some sort of quest there before returning, this takes some time), and Dimension Slide.
  • Flaw: The Damned Ship is only designed to travel between the worlds. Once it arrives in a particular dimension and sales into port, any travel beyond moving a bit along the coast will send it off into another dimension again.
  • Note: The only way that the Damned Ship can attack is by swinging it’s booms across the deck. Anyone struck will take normal slam damage.

The Damned Ship veers sharply into the Fantastic Fiction category – but works such as The Ship Of Ishtar (Abraham Merritt) and many other fantasies are firmly part of the pulp era. The style goes right back to the Adventures of Sinbad – but instead of the adventures being placed in distant and unknown lands (in short supply in the nineteen hundreds) they are displaced into other dimensions and various mystic realms, whereupon the ships (usually unwilling or accidental) passengers must accomplish a series of quests to return home.

Now, if you want a modern version of The Damned Ship, just change a few details and call it a TARDIS.

Motorcycle (Medium):

  • Class-A: Celerity x4 (90′ Base Move, Specialized for Double Movement / uses wheels, and is thus very restricted when it comes to offroad operation. Move 180′), Flight (Specialized; provides +30 to Jump checks and allows ignoring the maximum distance rule if in use, but does not allow flight).
  • Class-B: Fast Healing II, Versatile (gets +2 Class-A abilities for the five given above), Sentient (Specialized for Double Effect / only gets Jump +38 and the Run Feat).
  • Class-C: Impossible Maneuver (Dimension Slide; the cycle may use this to jump a chasm, slide under a truck, jump between two cars on a moving train, and so on), Gun Mount (May project a 4d6 ray of force once per round as a free action), Squeeze (Motorcycles can be ridden down corridors, through doorways, and through a wide variety of other places where the game rules, as written, say that they should not fit).
  • Flaw: Unprotected. Motorcycles offer their riders a +2 Cover Bonus to AC, but nothing more – and crashes can easily lead to serious injury. They also have very, very, limited passenger and storage space.
  • Note: Motorcycles can do normal physical attack damage by running into or over people.

The motorcycle is a popular pulp vehicle because it’s fast, it’s dangerous, it’s capable of a wide variety of stunts (even if many fictional ones are only semi-plausible), it offers no cover for it’s rider (allowing him or her to be more heroic), and because it’s a splendid substitute for a horse when you’re transplanting “western”-styled tales into modern or sci-fi settings.

This particular motorcycle is actually semi-realistic. It’s maximum jump distance is a fair match for the current worlds record and it’s “Impossible Maneuvers” may be unrealistic, but they’re seen in action movies with considerable frequency. The fact that it can do such things routinely is the incredible part, but that’s fairly normal for the pulps.

Jetpack (Medium):

  • Class-A: 4x Flight (Specialized and Corrupted for Increased Effect (160, no wings) / jetpacks are very difficult to control and only allow fairly limited flight durations), Knockdown (ramming a target with a jetpack is quite effective at knocking things back).
  • Class-B: Fast Healing II, Versatile (+2 Class-A Abilities, for the five given above), Great Attribute (Dexterity, Specialized and Corrupted for Triple Effect/only to allow the user to pull off remarkable flight maneuvers – given sufficient skill).
  • Class-C: Compressible (a Jetpack can be folded up and packed into a briefcase), Elemental Blast (A jetpacks thrusters can be used to emit a 60′ cone of fire, although this does only 4d6 damage), and Shrinking (A jetpack is actually rather small and light, although this has no other effect on it’s characteristics).
  • Flaw: Jetpacks offer no protection to the pilot, have no internal passenger or cargo space, tend to blow up if they hit zero hit points or ram into something at high speeds. They also take double damage from fire, have a very limited cargo capacity, and only have half the usual number of hit points.
  • Note: Jetpacks can inflict triple the normal attack damage with full-speed diving ram attacks, but this also inflicts damage to them and their pilot.

Jetpacks (and rocket boots and so on) really aren’t all that popular any longer. The heady notion of personal freedom of the skies has run into decades of experience with humans not being very aerodynamic, the hazards of crashing while being virtually unprotected AND having a tank full of extremely volatile fuel on your back, running out of fuel, and the accumulation of practical thoughts like “Do I really want a jetpack firing streams of fire two inches from my buttocks?”.

Fortunately, in the pulps, pants are pretty much indestructible, which at least takes care of THAT problem, so our heroes can soar gloriously through the skies as much as they please.

Mad Scientist Spider Transport (Huge):

  • Class-A: Celerity (Ground Speed 60′), Fly (Specialized and Corrupted/only to allow the spider walker to stick to walls and climb easily), Swim (30).
  • Class-B: Fast Healing II, Spell Storing II (Specialized and Corrupted for Increased Effect / only for a spell or spells of up to L3 used to represent bizarre weapons, 18 self-charging levels worth per day. If nothing else seems appropriate… 9 Web Bombs), Heavy Deflection (Force Shield, +4 Deflection bonus to AC).
  • Class-C: Enveloping (Crew Compartment), Advanced Facilities (Living quarters and sufficient tools, shops, and libraries to provide a +2 Tool Bonus on any reasonable skill), and Energy Bolt (sonic cannon).
  • Note: Spider Transports can attack physically if their pilot makes the rolls to make them try to step on things. Of course, on a miss, the creature attacked gets a free chance to try to climb aboard.
  • Flaw: Spider Transports are notorious for weird malfunctions when damaged, are incredibly conspicuous, and have all kinds of exposed parts, cables, and hatches for enemies to climb on or into.

A traveling laboratory and home-away-from-home for the discriminating mad scientist, Spider Transports are off-road vehicles supreme, capable of crossing water, climbing sheer cliffs, and still providing comfortable quarters and facilities for traveling explorers. Of course they tend to freak people out, but then you can’t have everything.

Abominable Spawn Of The Eldritch Night (Huge):

  • Class-A: Elemental Subtype (Immune to Acid, double damage versus Lightning), Fly, Swim.
  • Class-B: Fast Healing II, Energy Touch (Acid), Extra Attack (Writhing Tentacles).
  • Class-C: Enveloping (Absorbs the summoner when it’s called into reality), Natural Invisibility (the mortal mind cannot accept the existence of the Spawn, and so cannot perceive it unaided), and either Dimension Slide or Noncorporeal.
  • Note: Unlike most vehicles, an Abominable Spawn can make melee slam attacks normally if the pilot chooses to spend his or her time that way.
  • Flaw: Besides being huge, clumsy, and prone to provoking violent reactions (small earthquakes, violent storms, etc) from the world itself, piloting an Abominable Spawn will gradually drive any mortal quite insane.

These shambling horrors somewhat resemble H.G. Wells Martian Tripods, and somewhat resemble octopuses, and somewhat resemble trees, and could resemble any number of other things if the human mind was capable of accepting their forms without breaking down. Melding your mind with one to “pilot” it is NOT a good idea for most heroes, but it’s a fine method for an insane cultist to fight a party of pulp heroes.

The immobile variant usually has more facilities and life support and works as an eldritch base.

And yes, you can make even more powerful vehicles – all you have to do is specialize things for increased effect rather than reduced cost – but that tends to wander over into “battle fleet” territory.

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