Twinkle, twinkle, little… planet?


Dateline: February 7, 1930. The economy, since the stock market crashed four months ago, just seems to keep getting worse and worse despite the fact that President Hoover promises everything will get better soon…


This is what the headlines report as the PCs are reading in their office in their base city for this Pulp Era Cliffhangers scenario. This scenario can be either an introductory to a campaign or run as a one-shot adventure. It is meant for 3-5 beginning PCs, but can be used with more experienced PCs, as long as the GM adjusts the strength of the adversaries to provide a good challenge for veteran PCs.


The adventure starts, like so many of this genre, with a phone call. It is Jacob Harley an astronomer of some slight fame and he is an old friend, roommate, or mentor of one of the PCs. He is talking excitedly about a new discovery when what is obviously an intruder interrupts him in his observatory/lab. Harley shouts: “Who are you? Get out!” He manages a rushed plea to the PC. “Come quick they’re after my discovery!” Then there is a scream of pain and Harley manages to mutter: “Noooo it’s mine…mine…” Before the line goes dead.


As all good adventurers must, the PCs race to the mountain top observatory. On the way up the narrow mountain road, they encounter a large black sedan heading down the mountain. The narrow road leaves precious little room to evade, so the roll to avoid a head on crash is Driving –3. Failing this roll means the PC’s car hits the guardrail and the driver has to make another Driving –3 roll to keep from smashing through the railing. If this roll fails, everyone in the car must make a DEX roll (–2 if sitting in the middle) to leap from the car before it’s fiery demise. An Acrobatics, Jumping –3, or a DEX –5 roll will manage a safe landing, failing the above rolls results in 1D3+1 damage. If a PC fails to exit the car, they take 5D6 from the crash and fall, plus 1D–1 per round from the fire.


If the Driver successfully avoids the crash in the first place, the narrow road doesn’t have room to turn around, but there is room for a bootlegger reverse if the PCs decide they want to follow the getaway car. Requiring a Driving roll –1.However, if the driver succeeds in his bootlegger, the moment of triumph is short lived. The fleeing car has thrown caltrops made of nails onto the road and there is no hope of avoiding them. The flat tires halt the pursuit and allows the black sedan to escape.


Rushing to the observatory, they find lab ransacked and Harley dead with a feathered dart in his neck. Anthropology –3 will recognize the dart as Mayan in origin. Harley’s file cabinet are scattered and an IQ roll realizes that the L & M folders are gone. If anyone asks the telescope is currently pointed toward Mars. The PC that knows Harley knows that Harley was considered a brilliant crackpot believing that the pre-Columbian natives possessed an advanced technology and that they are the key to understanding all the great secrets of the world.


Testing the dart proves that it was poisoned with Curare, a very potent South American toxin and not something to be found anywhere locally.


A trip to the local library or university will discover that Harley had been conducting an intense study on the Mayan culture. The librarian clearly remembers Harley as she had to ask him to leave after a quarrel with another scientist named Clyde Tombaugh. The librarian refers the PCs to the university if they ask about Tombaugh. At the university, the Dean of Astronomy Thomas Jessup is well aware of the Harley/Tombaugh rivalry as both were trying to locate planet X beyond the orbit of Neptune! Jessup felt that Tombaugh was the more likely to succeed as he was using the proven mathematical equations of Percival Lowell, while Harley believed some mystical rubbish about Mayan advanced technology. PCs can ask the dean to see Tombaugh and he readily agrees.   


Tombaugh is shocked to hear about Harley’s death and says he knows nothing about it. If asked he again completely rejects Harley’s Mayan “research,” says that he is quite busy and asks the PCs politely to leave.


After leaving the university, PCs will have to make a vision roll to notice a car following them and an IQ –3 is certain that it is the same car that nearly/did run them off the road. If the PCs flee the car pursues. If any Drive roll fails by 3 or more, or if one of the PCs have Unluckiness, the sedan gets close enough for a blowgun attack on the driver with a flat skill of 8 to keep things moving in true Cliffhanger tradition. The attacker is wearing a mask and an Anthropology roll or IQ –3 recognizes as Mayan. The PC driving is the primary target, but anyone in the car will do. Anyone hit must roll HT –6 or become paralyzed and falling unconscious. PC must make a second unmodified HT roll to keep breathing. Failing this roll causes the PC to start suffocating. Each First aid –2 roll keeps the PC alive for 30 minutes until the PC either makes his unmodified health roll or dies. Any critical failures on HT or First aid result in death as well.


The PC driver can try to force the attacker’s car off the road if he survives the initial attack. Roll a Quick Contest of Skills where a critical success by the PC or beating the roll by 6 results in a very spectacular crash for one of the two cars. Any other result is a tense maneuver and requires another roll next round. The attacker has Drive skill 12. If the PCs win, and they rush over to the other car, they find the masked attacker dead, removing the mask reveals that it is Dean Jessup’s secretary! Searching the body finds a phone number scribbled on an office memo pad. Tracing the number requires a police or phone company contact. Administration or Fast talk –2 will yield the address that goes to the number.


If attacker wins the Quick Contest, just as he forces PCs off road, he himself will have to swerve to avoid a truck and also crashes. He races into a nearby theater yelling “Fire!” and escapes during the resulting confusion. However, a search of the car will find a torn piece of a tweed coat and the above phone number.


The number turns out to be Tombaugh’s lab! PCs race to lab and arrive in time to see a group of thugs lead by another man in a Mayan mask entering the building (Base number of thugs is equal to the number of PCs, however, the GM will have to adjust this for PCs experience). This is the big climatic scene, so the GM has to pull out all the stops to make this scene memorable. The PCs are hamstrung in that addition to fighting the thugs, the PCs have to protect Tombaugh from the thugs. So the GM should use every chance to make the most of this plot point, however, Tombaugh cannot actually be seriously harmed. (He has historical script immunity).

During the fight the thugs use their fists if the PCs brawl and guns if the PCs shoot. If the tide turns against the thugs, the man in the Mayan mask tries to flee if he’s still conscious. During his escape, he will lose a brief case he is carrying. GMs should do everything possible to allow his escape, as the recurring villain is a staple of the genre. If the PCs subdue the rest of the thugs, a search of the briefcase finds Harley’s missing files and a type written confession/suicide letter with Tombaugh’s signature block. If the man in this Mayan mask is caught, it will be Dean Jessup.


The police arrive and take Jessup into custody. Tombaugh goes on as history demands to locate the ninth planet of our solar system on 18 February 1930. He names his discovery Pluto and releases this information on 13 March 1930. Later, the PC read of Jessup’s mysterious escape as he awaits trial. This escape is optional in the one-shot version of the scenario.


As a one shot, Jessup was the mastermind and his motive simple academic jealousy. Long considered a fine administrator, but not much of an astronomer, Jessup decided to kill the two rivals and take credit for their work. Jessup killed Harley and stole his research. Finding them to be total rubbish, he then hit on killing Tombaugh, framing him for Harley’s murder, and then using Tombaugh’s work, discovers the ninth planet.


As the introduction to a campaign, this first scenario was just an eye opener to get the PCs involved in what will become a campaign of a grand super science crusade that will pit the PCs against a merciless Mayan adversary.


In the 30s, the Mayan language had yet to be deciphered and anthropologists of the time fancifully envisioned the Maya as group of peaceful philosophers given to scientific study. The Maya were too busy being thinkers to be warlike and the collapse of their culture had to be due to external influences. In this campaign, the anthropologists of the time are correct in their advanced culture assessment, but they just don’t realize how advanced.


In the campaign, the Maya hit on several breakthrough scientific discoveries to the point that they were so scientifically superior to the rest of mankind, that they could have conquered the world. But they were not conquers, they were scientists and men of peace. The Maya discovered and harnessed the power of the Darjing Crystal. A rare mineral that, once cut, polished, and focused could provide tremendous power and defy gravity. The Darjing Crystal is not native to earth, having been brought to this planet by the same asteroid that struck the Yucatan peninsula and coincidentally wiped out the dinosaurs in the process.

Mayan scientists used the power of the Darjing Crystals to flee the barbaric planet of their birth en masse and founded a colony on Alpha Centari. The uninhabited planet allowed the Maya to found a culture based purely on peace, science, and knowledge.


Yet, Earth always held a special place in the Mayan heart. They hoped one-day mankind would evolve past its warlike state and then the rest of humanity could join the Maya in harmony. So, to keep an eye on Earth, a special observatory was built on the ninth planet of the Sol system to watch mankind’s progress and a few specially trained observers would also land on earth incognito to keep closer tabs on humanity.


The Maya saw the carnage of the Great War and realized that mankind would never be able to curb it’s thirst for destruction and that it was time to end contact with their home world altogether. In this campaign Jessup is actually a modern Mayan and his job is to dismantle the observatory on the, so far undiscovered, ninth planet. He is also to delay the translation of Mayan pictographs and to wipe out any trace of Mayan ruins that mention the migration of 780AD. A few of the old Mayans refused to join in the exodus and stayed behind trying to maintain their way of life. They lasted until 859AD before they failed and the jungles started to reclaim the land.   


In his job as Dean of Astronomy, Jessup is in a perfect position to know the state of the art about “Earther” optical technology and theories and has spent years misdirecting research away from the ninth planet. However, Jessup is not what his philosopher-thinker rulers expect either. He has discovered a love for the concept of power and has decided that while he has no problem with shutting down the observatory on Solnine, as the Maya call Pluto, and covering the tracks of the exodus, he however will be staying on earth becoming a very big fish in a very small pond.


The observatory on Pluto only has a skeleton staff of five other Maya and they will complete their mission in 14 days. (February 21, 1930) They will then travel to earth in their Darjing Crystal powered spaceship to pick up Jessup and then depart earth forever. Jessup plans to kill the other Maya, send a message to Alpha Centari that they are on their way home, and then program the ship to fatally crash into Jupiter to provide a “tragic” end to the Earth Observation Corps mission.


Jessup has had years to amass a large personal fortune and has a very large pool of thugs to call on as well as the ability to hire and equip more.  He will have, as many super science devices as the GM deem necessary to remain nearly invincible and impossible to catch. Think of every thing Buck Rodgers had and Jessup will have a better one. The Maya are TL 10.


If the PCs subdue Jessup at Tombaugh’s lab and he is arrested, his mysterious escape is with help from his Maya comrades. The other Maya will be upset about the announcement of the discovery of Solnine, but using his consummate acting skills to catch them unaware, he eliminates them as planned.

If Jessup escaped from Tombaugh’s lab, he will lay low until he again uses his acting skills to eliminate the other Maya. Either way, he will then flee to Central America and set up a Second Mayan Empire.

GMs are welcome to expand the Second Mayan Empire as far as they want. Jessup can be a simple crime lord, a local dictator, or you can even change history and have a Mayan Blitzkrieg swarming up out of Guatemala and threatening to over run the United States.









Thomas Jessup (150 points)

ST 11, DX 13, IQ 13, HT 11

Speed 6, Move 6, Dodge 6; Mayan Super science equipment: Form fitting body armor. Laser pistol, Survival gear, Holobelt, Implant Communicator, and TL 10 Medicines.

Advantages: Eidetic Memory (Second level), Unusual Background (Mayan), Very Wealthy (x20)

Disadvantages: Bad Temper, Fanaticism, Greed, Intolerance, Megalomania, Secret Identity. 

Skills: Accounting 13, Acting 18, Administration 16, Anthropology 15, Archaeology 14, Astrogation 15, Astronomy 17, Beam Weapons 15, Blowpipe 12, Bolas 12, Boxing 12, Computer Ops (TL 10) 15, Computer Programming (TL 10) 15, Detect Lies 13, Diplomacy 13, Diving (Car) 12, Electronics (TL 10) 13, Electronics Ops (TL10) 14, Electronics Ops (TL6) 14, Fast-Talk 14, First Aid (TL10) 15, Free Fall 12, Guns (Pistols) 15, History 13, Jumping 13, Language (English) 14, Language (Maya) 17, Leadership 14, Mathematics 16, Navigation 14, Piloting (Starship) 14, Poisons 15, Research 14, Savoir-Faire 16, Stealth 13, Survival (Jungle) 14, Tactics 14, Vacc Suit 14, Xenobiology 14.   



ST 12, DX 11, HT 11

Speed 5.5, Move 5, Dodge 5:

Skills: Knife 12, Guns: Pistol 12 and Brawling 14.


The Mayan Super science is as per GURPS: Space or Hi-Tech except for the special body armor which is a curious blend of Kevlar and Reflec giving PD 2 DR 8 versus crushing and cutting attacks and PD 6 DR 2 versus lasers.  


Historical Personages:


Lowell, Percival (1855 - 1916) American astronomer

Born in Boston, Massachusetts and took up astronomy after Giovanni Schiaparelli reported finding 'canali' (often mistranslated as 'canals') on Mars in 1877. Lowell concluded that Mars was inhabited after he claimed he saw canals as well as oases and clear signs of vegetation, later writing several books on his observations.

Based on known anomalies in the orbit of Uranus that Neptune’s influence could not account for, Lowell became convinced that there was a Planet X beyond Neptune. He began his search in 1905 with a set of calculations to determine orbit and position. Two years before his death he published negative findings.

Tombaugh, Clyde William (1906 - 1997) American astronomer

Tombaugh self-taught observational skills were good enough for him to be hired by the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona, in 1929 and he took up the search that Percival Lowell had begun for a planet beyond Neptune. Fourteen years after Lowell’s death, while using Lowell’s original equations and a special instrument call a blink comparator, Tombaugh discovered the new planet. The blink comparator rapidly evaluates a set of long-exposure photographs taken over several days, side by side. This causes any moving object to jump back and forth when compared against the background stars. After a year's observation Tombaugh detected the new planet on 18 February 1930 and announced to the world on Lowell’s birthday 13 March 1930. The planet was later named Pluto, both for it’s similarity to the god that ruled as prince of the outer darkness and because its first two letters were Percival Lowell’s initials.