Extra Pulp, Please
Life’s full of hard knocks, kid. The sooner you get used to it, the sooner you’ll stop feeling blue. Or, as Raymond Chandler put it, “I was the page from yesterday’s calendar crumpled at the bottom of the wastebasket.”
The first thing you need to know about Todd Sanders’ Pulp Detective is that, like all Todd Sanders games, it has an aesthetic of its own, and it’s nigh-on perfect in the right light and from the right angle. Scratch the box while extricating it from the shrink, and it’ll seep an even mix of blood, rye, and chance. That’s right, chance. Liquid chance. Deep like amber but it makes sticky everything it touches. Pretty like a dame who’s known nothing but trouble, but liable to bring that trouble tagging along wherever she goes. Serious as a priest offering confession, but—
Oh fine, I’ll start the review.
As you may have deduced, much of the appeal of Pulp Detective resides in its evocation of a dirtier time. “It seemed like a nice neighborhood to have bad habits in,” as Raymond Chandler wrote. Everyone’s wearing either button-down suits or unbuttoned dresses, but you can smell the gun oil on them, and their fingertips are stained by cordite and too many cigarettes. All things pretty, all things rotten.
In a way that’s a metaphor for Pulp Detective, too. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.
You’re an investigator. Maybe a cop turned vigilante, or a playboy adventurer, or a dame in a qualifying red dress. And while the modern reflex begs that we ask where all four of our heroines came up with that identical shade of scarlet, so too are all four male heroes disposed toward heavy drab overcoats and facial features so sharp that they could open an envelope. There’s nothing quite as peculiarly equal as everybody being equally objectified. This is Babylon: 1925, after all.
And just as you’re an investigator, so too there is something for you to investigate. The case itself is secondary; the important part is that you’re bent on solving it, and that there will be many interrogations and drawn pistols and eye-watering whiffs of whiskey breath along the way.
For the most part, the process carries the straightforward brutality of a mob yarn. You draw three cards, choose one, position it within your expanding web of clues and encounters, roll dice to hopefully match its required symbols, and lay claim to your resultant reward or punishment. Either appropriately or maddeningly or both, the process is rigged right from the start. Choosing your next card, for instance, is done by looking at the cards’ reverse side, which offers snippets but no details. A cliffhanger provides different potential rewards from a lead, which in turn differs from an informant. Except that sometimes an informant (or cliffhanger or lead) won’t provide what you’re looking for at all. Before the dice can even clatter against wood, your fate is already being drawn from the deck.
Put another way, Pulp Detective leads you by the throat with all the inevitability of a crime boss meeting his just end, or a tragic hero bleeding to death in the arms of someone who holds unaccountable feelings. There are actions you can take, little mitigations such as matching the icons on adjoining cards to provide a precious reroll, or picking up one-off items for additional dice or other bonuses, or the occasional flash of shrewd insight that sees you intentionally losing a roll in a particular way to minimize the fallout. The most important of these is the twist, where a failed roll provides a token that can be used to placate an icon sometime in the future. In this way, multiple failures often safeguard success later on, like a long line of mistakes finally teaching your investigator a life lesson at a crucial juncture. Naturally, those twist tokens — and that life lesson — are immediately discarded upon use.
Like everything else in Pulp Detective, though, these mitigating agents are generally the result of chance, effective the way doggy paddling is an effective means of escaping a whirlpool. Sometimes you’ll find all of a case’s clues in a tidy row, other times you’ll be shot, beaten, robbed of your possessions, and presented with no alternative whatsoever.
If anything, this is the type of game that practically begs for impromptu house rules — a.k.a. “cheats.” A free reroll per card. Choosing your leads, cliffhangers, and informants face-up. Using both the base game and expansion item charts at the same time. Having your sidekick show up more than once. The temptation of these so-called house rules is lessened in the two-person game, but only slightly. So it goes when your game is, as older folks call it, “Ghost Stories hard.” At least Ghost Stories had the decency to let you feel like you were in control.
On the other hand, decency and control aren’t exactly hallmarks of the hardboiled genre. Failing because you stumbled over a series of bad tips is appropriate and, thanks to the game’s short length, as forgivable as a dame who’ll light your cigarette for a change. That said, there’s only so much fated failure a man (or dame) can stomach. It all comes down to your tolerance for linearity and how solidly your jaw can weather a punch. Or ten.
And to its credit, there’s more to Pulp Detective than first meets the eye. All those mitigating agents I mentioned above tend to sum into something survivable, though only every third attempt or so. Between accumulated twist tokens and carefully deployed items, it’s usually possible to solve the case — or at least see how the case might have been solved if you’d done something differently or an important roll hadn’t failed utterly. The game never fully surrenders the wheel, even when it’s driving with the surety of a Keystone Kop, but despite its loop-de-loops and freshly perforated overcoat it manages, occasionally, to deposit you at your destination, exhausted and exsanguinated but somehow standing.
Or, if florid prose makes it sound too unreal, as hard as this bastard may be, there are ways to succeed.
Since I opened with a Raymond Chandler line, I might as well conclude with one. “From thirty feet away she looked like a lot of class. From ten feet away, she looked like something made up to be seen from thirty feet away.”
There’s a dedication to setting that both elevates and mars Pulp Detective. It’s fickle and flighty, cruel and uncaring, and liable to brain you with the butt end of a pistol, stash you in the trunk of a car, and hurl you into the bay with only the lipstick on your collar for comfort. Then again, that’s the authenticity it’s striving for. Within the same sour breath, it both invokes and succumbs to an entire corrupt city of hardboiled grime, deals you a bad hand and forces you to make do, and double-crosses you at the most inopportune moments. Hey, when a thing’s charm is identical to the reasons to stay away, there’s no viable advice on the matter anyway.
(If what I’m doing at Space-Biff! is valuable to you in some way, please consider dropping by my Patreon campaign or Ko-fi. When I was tossing into the bay with only the lipstick on my collar for comfort, it was contributions from readers like you that funded my rescue. I’ll recount the tale some other time).
A complementary copy was provided.