Roleplayer #16, October 1989

And In This Episode . . .

Writing GURPS Cliffhangers

by Brian J. Underhill

My first copy of the GURPS Basic Set was a boxed second edition, and it was a picture on the back that prompted me to make the purchase. One of the hexagonal scenes shows an Indiana Jones type character – ancient idol in one hand, pistol in the other – confronting a ferocious black jungle cat. Although being able to roleplay in any era appealed to me, it was the thought of designing my own pulp-era campaign that spurred me on. Several campaign sessions later, GURPS Cliffhangers was born.

In all fairness, however, my pulp-era campaign for a few local gamers was really only the seed of the finished worldbook. Thanks to hours of playtesting, re-writing, critiquing and revising (not only by myself but by dozens of very talented people), the final version of this project is ready for release.

Step by Step

The first step in designing Cliffhangers was to take all my campaign information (weapons, vehicles, character types and notes scrawled in my illegible hand) and put it into the proper format. After this tedious but necessary bit of work, I started on the "atmosphere" – this was the fun part. I am fortunate enough to live near a bookstore that handles the old pulp stories in both original (magazine) format and in reprints. I spent days reading (and re-reading) pulp stories in every genre I could find.

Next came historical accuracy. When I proposed a pulp genre worldbook, I had no idea of the amount of historical research that would be required. In my own campaign, I simply looked up the information as I needed it; but in designing a worldbook, I had to provide the answers to questions that I hadn't even been asked yet! Finding information on the Depression was easy. Digging out the interesting details about colonization, espionage, equipment costs, crime, medicine and so forth, proved to be very time-consuming.

Finally, we needed an adventure to capture the feel of the pulps and show GMs how to handle a pulp-era campaign. The form of that adventure, and the whole style of gaming described in Cliffhangers, was set by the final name selected for the product!

Up until the middle of the second draft, the product had been tentatively called GURPS Pulp. I wasn't terribly happy with the name, and apparently neither was anybody else who looked at the manuscript. Mike Ford suggested the title Cliffhangers, with the idea of leaving the PCs in a cliffhanger situation which was to be resolved at a later time. The idea was perfect – it would capture the feel of Saturday morning serials, pulp magazines and weekly matinees, and round out the entire worldbook.


The biggest challenge in designing this worldbook was the abundance of fiction (pulps, TV, radio, modern novels) and the variety therein. My original slant was toward the archaeological/expedition type adventures. Other readers expressed greatly varying opinions on what ought to be added. The most influential sources (editor Mike Hurst, various playtesters, SJ himself) wanted more focus on (are you ready for this list): Imperialism/Colonialism, Comic Books/Supers, Gritty Street Crime, Soliloquys/Deathtraps, Science Fiction, Foreign Villains, Horror and International Espionage. And you thought writing was easy.

What's Ahead

The "cliffhanger" concept of the worldbook inspired the forthcoming series of adventure supplements, The Black Diamond. Each book in the series will end in a cliffhanger . . . to be resolved in the following installment! The prologue to the adventure is in the Cliffhangers worldbook. The campaign continues in Black Diamond Chapter One: Amazon Adventure (tentatively scheduled for January).

Another Cliffhangers adventure, James Hurst's Chaos in Kansas, should hit the stores about the same time this Roleplayer does. And I've just finished playtesting a Weird Menace piece (how does a trip to Tibet sound?). While there are other pulp-era adventures available for other game systems, it looks as though SJ Games will be able to provide ample scenarios, adventures, campaigns and continuing serials for as long as you desire them.

And I hope that many of you will try your hands at writing a Cliffhangers adventure – if not for publication, then just for the fun of it!

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