Edited 11/10/09 because sometimes I can be quite slow…
Edited again 21/08/14 because not only am I slow, but also an atrocious speller!
When last we left our intrepid column, we were talking about the tropes and styles to hit, whether you’re a Player or GM, in a Pulp roleplay game. In this exciting episode, we’re going to expand on the Postmodern Pulp idea.
Postmodern is when you examine ideas set in the past or beset by traditional values – in this case, Pulp – with a frame of reference of modern sensibilities.
A great example of this is Batman The Animated Series. Despite Batman being created in the 60’s, the cartoon’s setting employs architecture, vehicles and clothing of the 1930’s, as well as maintain ideas that are much more contemporary. Batman employs jet propulsion both in the Batmobile and in the VTOL enabled Batwing, as well as being in possession of a Batcomputer capable of forensic investigation in excess of today’s standards. But that’s all for plot; the postmodern element comes in characters like Renee Montoya who, incongruous to the sentiments of the period, serves as a cop while being both Hispanic and a woman at the same time!
To bring this back to the intention of the article, though; do the ideas of Pulp work well in a game where your players are fleshing out character depth and also have access to the Internet and watch CSI?
A common theme of Pulp characters is a distinct lack of character history outside of justifying why they are so accomplished, or why they pursue such high-minded agendas. And for some players, this can be refreshing from the biography you write to explain your other character’s motivations. Or it could be that this is the level of character intimacy a player may prefer.
Players I work with prefer to flesh out their characters to a lengthy amount of detail. For a character like, say, Doc Savage, who was raised in isolation and schooled by his parents as dictated by a formula of genetic and psychological conditioning, could produce a Renaissance Man as per the stories. Or, in the interpretation of players I know, could produce a raging loony resulting from lack of experiences with civilization and particulars of the wider world full of people that he’s not psychologically equipped to deal with.
One man’s heroic origins are another man’s villains. Or woman’s, if you prefer.
So you, the GM, have a choice before you. For the short-term games, it could be fun to play Pulp as it intended. That is, things need only make enough sense to advance the story and everything else is wasted, detracting from the adventure and excitement. Again, refer to the Lester Dent Formula for Pulp .
But for long-term games, this amount of back-story may not be enough. Players and GM’s have questions about a character’s origins and the things that shaped them, viewed through the lens of knowledge accumulated over the last 70 years. And this can be just as interesting. Which is why it’s important, among other reasons, to get an understanding of what story you’re trying to set up and whether it’s what your players want to play in. The last thing you want is your racially-stereotyped strongman to be waxing lyrical about the equality of men while armies of zombies are about to be unleashed.
In point of fact, racism is one of the big elements of Pulp and your own comfort, as well as your players, may be jeopardy if it’s inclusion is likely to cause offense. So check these things out before play!
For the GM’s, the postmodern view is as important to your NPC’s as it is to the players and the world you’re building. In particular, the villains you produce. Back in the day, it was accepted that destruction and domination was the end goal of your villain with little justification than ‘He comes from that country’. But the best villains are the ones who think that they are heroes, who can answer for their crimes in a considered and justified response, however misguided.
It can also encompass the world you play. Doc Savage had pretty much the run of America to conduct experiments on the brains of criminals, enter foreign soil to take on other governments or pillage lost civilizations. By our sensibilities, these ideas aren’t as accepted, but rather than make it a problem, you can either embrace the lack of accountability your heroes have to their government – outside of jingoistic rhetoric – or you can play with it on the postmodern level. Does somebody ‘draft’ Doc Savage to fight in the war and, if so, in which division and what rank? Is The Shadow thought of as a Draft Dodger while ‘our boys’ march off to die in some godforsaken place? Not much of a hero to Chicago then, is he?
The joy of Pulp can be two-fisted story advancement with a snappy one-liner. Or it can be an examination of the genre through your game with a light shining through the humble and simple characteristics for exciting possibilities.
Which are then resolved through two-fisted story advancement. Either way is good.