Pay No Attention To The Man Behind The Screen – Part 17: Pulp and Two-Fisted Roleplaying

So I’ve talked about The Espionage game and I’ve talked, at length, about The Western, and while elements of both genres are features of this style of game, it is not, to the satisfaction, where I wouldn’t feel the need to comment. So now, it’s time to talk about The Pulp Game.  And a smattering of other things.  Pulp in particular, but I take the long way around.

Postmodern Pulp stories are my favourite.  By Postmodern Pulp, I mean stories that look at the exhaustive matter that made up narratives of the 1920’s to 40’s, as well as present tales couched in such splendor of the genre, but engineered for those who want more than the exploits of a two-fisted Renaissance Man and his trusty gorilla sidekick. Warren Ellis and Alan Moore are prime examples of what I  speak, when I say Postmodern Pulp.

Ellis’s Planetary, for example, not only sells you the story of super-powered archaeologists unearthing the mysterious secrets of Earth, but the first damn story is a coalition of Doc Savage, The Shadow, Tarzan and others fighting against a Justice League from another dimension for the survival of the human race. What’s not to love?  

But as much as I can wax lyrical about this genre, and may do as this article is still young, I’m here to talk about Games Mastering. And let me tell you, as far as pulp is concerned, there hasn’t been a better roleplaying match-up since somebody put an ‘&’ between a Dungeon and a Dragon. Here’s where we start:

When I  think of Pulp, I think of a series of linked events in a narrative that escalates the excitement and action with each arc, chapter or scene. It’s about putting a compentent fellow, or a team of competent fellows, in a threatening situation and watching hijinx ensue until the situation is resolved. Often it’s as much a surprise to the character as the viewer as to how it’s resolved.

Sound familiar?

In Pulp, your characters are expected to be the best in their field. Which may be Science and Kicking Arse. Or Engineering and Kicking Arse. Or Deduction and Kicking Arse. Where many systems and settings frown on min-maxing behaviour and outlandish combat-based characters, Pulp not only embraces the idea, but gooses it more than once. Distinguished specialists in varying fields, with the dramatically-skewed upbringing that result in one being as godlike in one attribute as they are deficient in another, is a Pulp Hero to a ‘T’.

And it gets even better for your Power Gamers. Go check out Doc Savage’s wiki entry when you have the time. Master of Sciences, Engineering, Art, Language, Arse-Kickery, Marksman as well as being bred to be the strongest and smartest man in creation. Sound like anyone you’ve played with? What makes it more interesting is that Doc Savage, despite his ubermensch capabilities that inspired the king of power-gamed characters, Superman, would travel with a team of more focused specialists for situations where he needed something explained!

Now, at this point, GM’s are probably choking on the idea of such characters kicking about in their world. ‘What the hell are you thinking?’ they cry as they relive the trauma of the eighteen or so drafts they’ve forced their players to rewrite because their new character is a puma and a ninja with the ability to recite the Magna Carta while bludgeoning their foes with it.

Well, for these nancies, let me show you something in the back…

Fu Manchu: Ruler of all Asia. Not just China and Japan. ALL ASIA, including Korea, Vietnam and anywhere else that Western Imperialism can’t tell the difference. After you’re done with Doc Savage’s wiki entry, go Google the population of China and you should see what I’m talking about. Then think about the kind of mind that unites such disparate cultures into one glorious army. And that’s before we start getting into skills and stats!

It won’t matter if your players are the offspring of eight gods fucking nine gods; they’re dead before they’ve decorated their secret hideout on Mars.

And then there’s Africa or Russia in the 1930’s, but lets not dwell on that for the moment. Being drunk on power is still being drunk, after all. Let’s go back to the story. I’m going to cite many examples of media that captures the Pulp feel. Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow is not one of these, but is included to highlight the most important element of the Pulp story:

I’m just making this up as I go along‘, isn’t just a neat line. It is the cornerstone of Pulp. It is the result of being thrust into dangerous situation after dangerous situation. It is the product of skill and luck and holding onto cliffs, trucks and trains by your fingertips. It is desperation. The only desperation I felt in Sky Captain was if this movie was going to get better before the 20 minute ticket refund window had closed. It didn’t. There was no sense of escalating insurmountable problems. No excitement. Jude Law and Gwynneth Paltrow could have used the phrase ‘My God, a it’s giant green screen’ in place of any other line and it would have been the best acted bit of the film.

In Indiana Jones, even the fourth movie, there are moments where Lucas and Speilberg are merciless in keeping you breathless. “What?” they cackle from on high atop their castles of money. “Nobody’s depriving you of oxygen, but if you take a breath now, you’ll might miss the really good bit.” And they rub their hands together as you decided between living and watching and choose the latter.*

This is where Sky Captain fails and it’s the path you, as GM, should avoid at all costs. Your characters should be rolling all 10 dice or adding +20 to skills and still feel like they’re getting short-changed. Pulp stories are meat-grinders where players go in and leather-jacketed, hair-parted, mad-grinning heroes come out!**

Now, at this point, players are probably choking on the idea of such a games. ‘What the hell are you thinking?’ they cry as they think back to the Tomb of Horror module that all but swore them off gaming again. To them I point out the following: If any GM is concerned about the extent to which a player should or shouldn’t be allowed to do in a Pulp game; the correct answer is ‘Don’t Blow Up The Planet’. That’s about where the line is drawn and anything approaching that line is fair and reasonable in the eyes of God and Man. Let the players entertain you and it will be more amusing then just saying ‘No!’.

As much as I’ve lambasted players for powergaming and as much as I’ve decried GM’s for being Cardboard-Fisted Dictators, this should be the one game where the two can come together and manufacture some semblance of shared entertainment. But for those of us who are well-adjusted and and know how to have a good time, here’s the advanced course of Pulp Gaming.

Some of these tips come from exhaustive watching of movies. Some come from the famous, and now linked so you have no excuse but to read it, Lester Dent Formula for Pulp Writing. Some come from the short-lived attempt I  had at running a Pulp game and the lessons learnt from that. All is open to my interpretation or recollection of such things so employ them as you will:

1: Find out if your players are aware of, or enjoy, the particulars of Pulp Adventure as you. This may seem pretty damn obvious, but Pulp comes in different flavours and some people are allergic to chocolate. I wanted a gung-ho, seat-of-your-pants adventure. Two of the players I’d enlisted were not the gung-ho seat-of-your-pants type. One was an ex-assassin master of stealth and was just discovering the wider world, the other a mentalist who could hide in an alternate dimension contained in his own head. Outrageous, to be sure, but not much opportunity for two-fisted story advancement.

2: Pulp adventure is characterised by people who explore abandoned tombs, go out each night to fight crime or think nothing of strapping unknown devices to their backs and flipping the switch. They do not wait for test results, they do not pack the A to Z of Guns and Ammo for any possible encounter, and they DO NOT argue how best to open a door for 30 minutes (unless there is deathtrap imminent. Then it’s fun!). They go in with a vague plan for the beginning and fast reflexes for the end, with nothing that weren’t already listed in their inventory. Donald Rumpsfeld would love these guys.

3: You don’t dangle something in front of a player, you swat them with it! If your players aren’t inclined to go looking for trouble, be sure that trouble knows where to find them. In this genre, there is no shame, nor anything too embarrassing to get your players involved in an adventure. Don’t just bait the hook, blow up the damn river!

4: Think big! The stakes should be nothing less than a country and more often than not, the world. And don’t just say that either. Show your players the folly of crossing Doctor Argus Shadow by plunging France into a new Ice Age! If you don’t get the Nordstone of Odin back, America could be next!

5: As much as I’m ranting about action, be aware of the other tropes of the Pulp Genre. Mystery is my first recourse when I need to break up the combat. Exploration, negotiation, back-and-forth dialogue between heroes and villains. Most important to the pulp game, though, is put a time-limit on this. Exploration works in pulp better if it’s a race (Indiana Jones, The Mummy), mystery if the villain is steps ahead of you (The Shadow, Sherlock Holmes) and dialogue when there is something counting down to 00:00 (The Incredibles). The reason Matthew Reilly’s books are more fast-paced than any other books on the shelf is because he uses exposition while characters are dodging bullets or racing cars.

The standard theories of Players First and Risk for Reward apply here as much any roleplay endeavour, but like Doktor Lucas and The Sadistic Spielberg, you can’t afford your players the mercy of a quiet moment in-game. You must be as ruthless with the numbers of enemies. You must be maniacal as your Doctors, Dictators, Generals, Professors and Tyrants. Most important; you must end each adventure on a cliffhanger!

TO BE CONTINUED IN PART 2

*It gets worse if you have to choose between watching and going to the bathroom. Every time a kidney explodes, Lucas and Spielberg take a shot.
**There should be a joke about the steaks being high but there’s only so much I can do with a paragraph.
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