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Against the Unknown GM's reference

Simple Tests & Challenging the Heroes


The standard Difficulty for a test is 4. Unless you think a character should find 3) Use their blind spots
a task particularly easy or hard for whatever reason, go with 4. Especially typical of hardboiled detectives, a pulp hero is often caught out by his
weaknesses. The Firearms 4 gunslinger handily beats two rating-1 gunmen, but
Challenging Experts then fails the Difficulty 4 Observation test to notice the sedative in his drink.
Pulp heroes and hardboiled protagonists rarely fail at tasks that fall within their
expertise, and when they do, it's a big deal: they've met their nemesis, or are 4) The nemesis
presented with an 'impossible' task. An enemy who is a match for an investigator in ability, typically encountered
early on in the story when the investigators cannot act against him or don't know
This is why it is possible, even likely, for investigators in Against the Unknown he is the bad guy, then confronted at the end. The classic nemesis confrontation
to have a rating of 3 (or more) in some abilities and will automatically succeed pits one investigator who hates him the most against the nemesis – other
at normal tests using them. Allow point spends to make these auto-successes investigators must deal with various henchmen or rescue prisoners, etc.
quicker, stealthier, etc. – as you would for an investigative spend.
Superhuman monsters fulfil a similar function, and make good opposition for
To provide an appropriate level of challenge: climactic scenes. Classic pulp monsters have one way to kill them, like using
1) Ask the (near) impossible silver on a werewolf (it's possible there's more than one, but the heroes only find
The simplest approach: put them up against tasks so difficult that no one else out one way and then use it). Aside from that method, they are either terrifyingly
could pull them off. For an ordinary person, a Difficulty 9 leap across a chasm strong so that the heroes fear to face them (combat abilities of 6, 7 or more), or
is literally impossible. An investigator with Athletics 3 can do it. they are weak but simply come back from the dead unless dispatched by the
correct means. The point is that the heroes have to meet the monster, realise they
can't kill it, find out how to deal with it, then come back and apply that method.
Pulp stories are not concerned with that time the hero faced a problem that he
didn't really have much trouble dealing with. By the same token, if your players
put more than one point into an ability, that means they want you to provide
extraordinary challenges for those abilities.

2) Outnumber them
Pulp heroes take on insurmountable odds and win. Have enemy NPCs team up
to provide stiff opposition in a contest. Three thugs with 1 Scuffling fight with
an effective rating of 3 and do 1 level of extra damage if they win.
They can only do that once (because they expend their whole ability pools on it)
but that will usually be enough.

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Contests No matter what happens, Tate's skill means that Angstrom will have to try and
In a contest, each character acts in turn, usually aiming for a Difficulty of 4. hang in there for at least 4 rounds before Steve can come help him out.
The first to fail a roll of the contested ability loses.
If a contest reaches three rounds without a victor, the Difficulty goes up by 1
Creating the Opposition
in each subsequent round. Basic opponents or allies have a rating of 1 in any abilities you consider relevant
to their profession. Make up new abilities if you feel like it.
Different Difficulties For simplicity, assume that basic NPCs will only spend pool points to cooperate
Two opposing characters might have different Difficulty numbers. For example, or to do extra Damage if they win a fight.
injury or being handcuffed to a table in a fight pushes Difficulty up to 5 or 6,
while a character trying to escape from a pursuer in their home neighbourhood Examples: Mobster Firearms, Scuffling 1 // Research Scientist Observation,
has an easier time of it, aiming for 3 rather than 4. Science 1 // Resistance Fighter Firearms, Scuffling, Stealth, Weapons 1 //
Soldier Firearms, Observation, Scuffling 1 // Street Urchin Athletics, Cause
Contests between Experts Distraction, Stealth, Thievery 1
Extraordinarily competent characters and/or groups working together using the
coöperation rules may well have effective ability ratings above 3, meaning that The next level up are leaders. Build them the same way as basic NPCs, but give
they will automatically pass the tests in the opening rounds. them a rating of 2 in up to two abilities.

If both sides have ability ratings of 3 or more (assuming the normal Difficulty Examples: Diamond Sal, underboss Firearms, Scuffling 2 // Professor Purley,
of 4 for both), you can skip the first three rounds and proceed immediately to head of department Observation, Science 2 // “The Wolf”, famed guerrilla
the climbing Difficulty Numbers. Firearms 1, Scuffling 1, Stealth 2, Weapons 2 // Sgt. Boulder Firearms 2,
Observation 1, Scuffling 2 // The Artful Evader Athletics 2, Cause Distraction 1,
Lowest Ability Rating Start from Difficulty Stealth 1, Thievery 2
3 5
4 6 Nemeses are the big bads. Give them a rating of 2 in anything believable based
5 7 on their background and a rating of 3 or 4 in up to two key abilities. Give them
6 8 sufficient layers of henchmen, traps, gadgets or secret passages to prevent
… etc. investigators from easily ganging up on them.

There are times you won't want to skip the opening rounds, though, when Superhumans and monsters may have abilities of up to 7, although build in
investigators are attempting different simultaneous actions. This recreates a weaknesses (like vampires' allergy to sunlight) to compensate for this.
classic pulp scene where the hero is locked in contention with his nemesis, each
matching the other move for move, trying to win before something bad happens. Examples:
Baron von Hentzau Athletics 2, Fencing 4, Firearms 3, High Society 2, Hunting
Example: Prize fighter, treasure hunter and all-round more-or-less good guy 2, Military Science 2, Scuffling 2
Sailor Steve (Scuffling 4) is going toe-to-toe against disgraced boxing champ Escaped Experiment Athletics 5, Scuffling 6, Survival 2, Terrify Peasants 2
Havana Tate (Scuffling 3) in a Singapore warehouse. Not far away, Steve's
weedy scientist pal Doctor Angstrom (Chemistry 3 but Scuffling 0) has been Extra Simple Version: Don't write down any abilities; just add the NPC's
cornered by Tate's henchman (Scuffling 1). modifier when you feel it's fitting. Modifiers: basic +1, leader + 2, nemesis +3

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Creating Adventures c) The inheritor of the house will die by the next full moon if the haunting isn't
Much has been written on this subject. However, if you don't have a published dealt with.
scenario to run and don't want to just wing it, here's a formula to throw together a
one- or two-session pulp adventure at short notice. Using a formula does lead to Act 1 ends when the investigators get into a confrontation because of the threat.
formulaic results, so don't use it exclusively. Nevertheless… In an action adventure, this will be a physical fight. In a weird fiction adventure,
which usually has more cerebral heroes, the investigators will have to flee
Get a blank piece of paper and draw a cross on it to divide the page into quarters. something or be beaten up and told to stop poking their noses where they don't
Number them 1, 2, 3 and 4. These are your four acts. You don't have to write belong.
them all out in order – for example, if you know you want the investigators to
Act 2
deal with a haunting, write the ghost in Act 4 and then go back to fill in the rest.
Write “we'll never succeed unless we can ______”. The blank is the first step:
Three examples are used in the following guide: a) a hardboiled investigation for whatever you think up that gets the investigators close to their goal. Replace
one or two private eyes; b) a WW2 espionage/commando adventure; c) a 'succeed' with the specific goal if you like.
haunted-house weird tale.
E.g. a) We'll never find out who killed Garrison unless we find the photographs
Act 1 he took last night.
This is the start of the story. b) We'll never steal the Nazi superweapon plans unless we gain access to the
If you have an inciting incident in mind, write it down here. If not, skip it and underground bunker.
ask the players how they got involved when you start the adventure. “Why are c) We'll never find out how to lay the ghost to rest without consulting the occult
you investigating Ted Garrison's murder?”, etc. books at the creepy library.

The Object goes here. This is the thing that everyone wants, like the Maltese Act 2 begins when the investigators find out what the thing is that they need to
Falcon or Mackenna's gold. Use this to figure out what the supporting cast of do. If it hasn't already come up, the confrontation at the end of Act 1 is a good
NPCs will be doing at any given time. time to do this with a confession from a prisoner or the last words of a dying
person. Write this under Act 2 as the trigger.
E.g. a) An envelope of incriminating photographs.
E.g. a) “Garrison told me... he had something real hot... he showed me an
b) (Plans for) a new superweapon.
envelope... he said the pictures would make him a rich man... he said--”
c) A haunted house.
b) “You'll never get into the secret underground facility, Amerikaner pig dogs!”
c) “The Key of Solomon contains many banishing magics... perhaps you’ll find what you
Also in Act 1 write down the characters. Every character or group of characters
need there.”
needs to be introduced in Act 1. The investigators don't need to meet them yet,
but their existence and involvement needs to be established before you can move If the players establish another first step in the process of playing through Act 1,
on. cross your thing out and go with theirs.
The threat goes here too – get the investigators in trouble and make sure they Act 2 can be short: if the thing they need to do is “consult the occult section at
know it. Threats with a time limit are best. the library”, then that's all they need to do. Creeping into the underground
E.g. a) Garrison's killer will get away with it. And the investigators' client won't bunker via the ventilation shaft, or by disguising themselves as guards, though, is
pay them. more involved.
b) The Nazi superweapon will be launched and London will be destroyed.

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Once they've made the first step – read the occult tome, got inside the bunker – c) The banishing ritual for the lake spirit is in the Key of Solomon (Occult
it's time for Act 3. contest versus the Lake Wraith’s Spooky Powers).

Act 3 The final confrontation gets someone – hopefully the investigators – what they
This act contains another confrontation, more serious than the first. want.
In an action adventure, this can be more dangerous enemies – if need be, the E.g. a) The client's wife tries to shoot the investigators. The client tries to stop
same enemies from Act 1 but with reinforcements. In a weird tale this will be a the investigators from hurting his wife. The investigators try to arrest the wife
new supernatural threat: either a more terrifying power you now reveal that the and not get shot.
monster has, or a new, even worse monster. b) The heroes try to get into the launch control room and stop the Nazis from
launching their new weapon.
E.g. c) The investigators, the ghost and the evil lake spirit contend for control of the
a) Heavily armed goons show up also looking for the photographs. haunted house.
b) The heroes must fight their way out of the bunker against a crack storm
trooper unit.
c) The investigators corner the ghost but before they can lay it to rest, they are
attacked by a shrieking wraithlike entity dripping with filthy water. Images
Make a list of images – coherent or fantastical as strikes your fancy.
Also write down a twist here – the first step was correct, but some information E.g. creaking floorboards, library, distant traffic, heavy rain, blind statue,
was missing. boiling lake.

E.g. Scribble them near the middle where the four acts meet, so that they're there
a) The photographs show the investigators' client paying off a judge! Was hiring when you need them during the session.
them just a ruse of some kind?
b) Unbeknownst to the prisoner earlier, the weapon has been completed and is Locations
ready to launch from a site ten miles away. Write down one evocative location for each act. If the investigators don't go to
c) The ghost drives people away to protect them from possession by the evil them, never mind, go with the flow. Rejoin the dots as you go along. The Object
spirit that rises from the lake every full moon. is the central, unmovable fact of the adventure.

Act 4
Two things go here: the final confrontation and, optionally, the revelation.
If you include it, the revelation goes first and explains any dangling threads from
the twist.
E. g. a) The client's wife found out Garrison was going to blackmail him. She And from there… play to find out what happens.
shot Garrison and took the photos.

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a) The Case of the Envelope of Incriminating Photographs

Act 1 Act 2
Object: An envelope of incriminating photographs. We'll never find out who killed Garrison unless we find the photographs he took last night.
Threat: Garrison's killer will get away with it. And the investigators' client won't
pay them. Trigger: “Garrison told me... he had something real hot... he showed me an envelope... he
said the pictures would make him a rich man...”
Characters: Garrison, a dead lawyer
Client – Jim Tucker, Garrison’s partner. Doesn’t know about the photos.
Helen Tucker (Jim’s wife – he mentions he has to get home to see her)
The Mob – Garrison was prosecuting Sammy “Bones” Luciano in a civil
suit.

Confrontation: Mobster thugs have been watching Jim Tucker and know Location: Garrison’s cabin out by the lake
he’s hired the investigators. They tell the investigators not to take the
case.

Location: PI’s office, crummy pool hall Images: a witness shot just before you arrive,

Act 3 torrential rain, headlights in the trees, Act 4


boat moored by a jetty, room lit by a single desk lamp,

smoke-filled pool hall, curved marble staircase, fat thug,

bottle-green suit

Revelation: Helen Tucker found out Garrison was going to blackmail her husband. She
Confrontation: Heavily armed goons show up also looking for the photographs. shot Garrison and took the photos.

Twist: The photographs show the Jim Tucker paying off a judge! Was hiring Confrontation: Helen Tucker tries to shoot the investigators. Jim tries to stop the
them just a ruse of some kind? investigators from hurting his wife. The investigators try to arrest Helen and not get shot.

Location: Car chase on the twisting dirt road back to town Location: Jim Tucker’s big fancy house

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b) Operation Glass Weasel

Act 1 Act 2
Object: (Plans for) a new superweapon. We'll never steal the Nazi superweapon plans unless we gain access to the
Threat: The Nazi superweapon will be launched and London will be underground bunker
destroyed.
Trigger: “You'll never get into the secret underground facility, Amerikaner pig
Characters: dogs!”.”
“The Wolf”, too-cool resistance fighter who meets the heroes and points
them towards the German base where plans probably are.
German soldiers, basic
Doctor Guildenstern – genius scientist, leader
Colonel Fleischer – unit commander, nemesis (previous foe of one or Location: disused coal mine leading to secret bunker
more heroes?)

Confrontation: a patrol of 5-10 ordinary soldiers

Location: parachute landing site in occupied France


Images: moonlit forest, concrete tunnel, cargo lift,
Act 3 military camp, bubbling chemicals, Nazi staff car Act 4
ticker-tape machine readout, huge dam,

missile silo (and giant missile), Wagner on gramophone,

miserable French farmers, searchlights, alarm klaxon

Confrontation: The heroes must fight their way out of the bunker against Confrontation: The heroes try to get into the launch control room and stop the
a crack storm trooper unit. Nazis from launching their new weapon.

Twist: Unbeknownst to the prisoner earlier, the weapon has been Location: launch pad on a mountain plateau
completed and is ready to launch from a site ten miles away.

Location: secret bunker tunnels/ventilation shafts

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c) The Lake House Haunting

Act 1 Act 2
Object: A haunted house.
Threat: The inheritor of the house will die by the next full moon if the We'll never find out how to lay the ghost to rest without consulting the occult books
haunting isn't dealt with. at the creepy library.

Characters:
Stephen Govan – investigator’s friend, inherited the Lake House
Ghost of Mary Latimer – haunting the place, Spooky Powers 6
Trigger: Initial exorcism fails – usual laying to rest procedures won’t work on this ghost!
The Lake Wraith – not seen yet. Tales of murder and horror about the
Consult local wise woman: “The Key of Solomon contains many banishing magics...
lake in local legend. Spooky Powers 7, possesses house owner and makes perhaps you’ll find what you need there.”
them commit suicide.

Confrontation:
The ghost – drives the investigators out, throwing objects at them,
terrifying them etc.

Location: The Lake House, a stately and decrepit pile next to a big dark Location: the creepy library (ask the players where…)
lake
Images: guttering candles, silent library, cobwebs,
Act 3 slanting eaves, rattling teacup, muddy water, Act 4
soft green glow, sounds of weeping far away,

rustling leaves as the wind picks up

Confrontation: The investigators corner the ghost but before they can lay it to Revelation: The banishing ritual for the lake spirit is in the Key of Solomon
rest, they are attacked by a shrieking wraithlike entity dripping with filthy water. (Occult contest versus the Lake Wraith’s Spooky Powers).

Twist: The ghost of Mary drives people away to protect them from possession by Confrontation: The investigators, the ghost and the evil lake spirit contend for
the evil spirit that rises from the lake every full moon. control of the haunted house.

Location: The Lake House Location: Down by the lakeside

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