The Analog Gamer: Now with Extra Pulp!
The settings of a tabletop RPG don’t have to revolve around the dungeon or large fire breathing lizards. Sometimes its even best if you take a break from the endless crawling and looting and reach out into different genre.
One of the more interesting settings I’ve enjoyed over the years thanks to my love of comics and films like The Rocketeer and Indiana Jones is the classic pulp adventure. Pulp is quite a bit different from the fantasy tropes of many RPGs as it usually takes place in a modern setting with an interesting mix of fantasy or sci-fi thrown in to mix things up a bit.
This week I thought I’d highlight some of the games that focus on this high-adventure oriented setting and give some suggestions for how even those married to the dungeon can integrate elements of Pulp into their existing games.
The core of the Pulp adventure is a genre that evolved during the 1930′s thanks to mainstream availability of poorly printed fiction magazines aimed at young adults and teens. These magazines used cheap “pulp” paper and were in many ways the successor to the earlier “penny dreadful” and “dime novels”.
Pulp magazines often featured story’s of heroes like Doc Savage, Buck Rogers, Flash Gordon and Conan the Barbarian, and covered the gamut of story types including Sword and Sorcery, Horror, Detective Stories and many of the sorts of themes that would later move into the comic books. Adventure pulps focus mostly on modern humans who might have supernatural powers, expertise in unusual martial arts or fighting skills or a keen scientific mind and super-gadgets. The core conceit of the genre is that there are great heroes in the world always fighting the forces of darkness and often unknown to the rest of humanity that save the day.
There is an often cheeky approach to these characters as well. The heroes are generally well meaning and forthright, loyal and bold but usually they have one or two personal quirks that humanize them more than say the “super boy scouts” in fiction like Superman. Indiana Jones is a bit more mercenary than you’d expect, Doc Savage can be extremely brutal when fighting a foe, they were men and women with great burdens, but in the end they did whatever they thought was best to protect society or their friends and to defeat their enemies.
Aside from characters, Pulp also is commonly portrayed containing elements of super-science or supernatural elements mixed in with the “modern” world. In pulp settings there may be a Nazi moon base or a quest to find the lost City of Gold. The heroes often stumble upon these developments in the course of their normal adventures and become involved in bigger and more fantastic events as a result.
The key thing is that while Pulp often existed in the scope of the 1920′s and 1930′s, the tales always focused on fast-paced high adventure. Pulp stories can be told in any setting and in any era but the tales must be driven, frenetic and exciting while featuring two-fisted action and exotic locations. Pulp is often wrapped in a simpler morality than we’re used to: Good guys are obviously good, bad guys are obviously bad. While betrayals and treachery play an important role in the storytelling its not a genre filled with anti-heroes and unlikable champions.
So how do you create and run a pulp game?
Well there are a number of RPG systems out there that have been tailored and developed expressly for use in a pulp setting. Steve Jackson’s GURPS has a Pulp setting called Cliffhangers that brings the genre to life in that universal RPG. Spirit of the Century and White-Wolf’s Adventure! both introduce rule systems that are tailor made to running Pulp style games but even Wizard’s d20 Modern works with some basic modifications and the d20 Past supplement as a guide. There is a very extensive list of Pulp oriented resources for in and out of print products as well as support groups and web communities for tabletop Pulp games here.
However trying a new rule set is often an expensive proposition and difficult if you or your players are not comfortable or willing to switch. Pulp adventure games can be fit into any setting, any system and any time frame. Being “pulp” is about concept not mechanics. There are a few basic guidelines to creating a pulp feel in a game.
1. Pulp heroes are larger than life. The protagonists are not normal people in many ways, whether its just that certain spark of heroism and an indomitable will, or special powers or training. Pulp heroes can be quirky but they are usually good people with good intentions who find themselves in unique situations that normal people wouldn’t accept or handle well. Your players need to realize that pulp adventure heroes are iconic in their bravery, daring and integrity. They are often called upon to perform self-sacrifice. They are the heroes of the age, gain the respect of the people and can become known for their daring deeds (like Buck Rogers and Flash Gorden) or secret heroes who pride themselves on their actions not the results (like Indiana Jones).
2. Death is dramatic, not the whim of a die roll. This means that while there is danger around every corner, the heroes of a pulp game are not likely to die because they slipped and fell into a pit with no dramatic effect. The Game master needs to keep the challenge level high and the threat of failure is a far worse fate than death because it means the enemy might get their way or gain the upper hand. Death is dramatic and appropriate for story reasons, but it isn’t uncommon for players to be badly injured, incapacitated and even maimed by their failures.
3. The more colorful the villains, the more interesting the heroes. Pulp bad guys are odd sorts. Mad Scientists, Nazi mythology experts, super-dimensional despots, etc. They also tend to be overly dramatic and driven, like the heroes. The arch-villain is the center of the web, they are involved with the machinations of the story and the adventure usually culminates with the discovery of the adversary’s plot and a confrontation. There are often lesser foes working for the main enemy who are also colorful but they should not outshine their boss.
4. Weird science and fantastic gadgets are important. Though they also serve as the McGuffin in a pulp adventure (like the Ark of the Covenant or Crystal Skull in Indiana Jones) the heroes and villains of the pulp world have access to strange, deadly and often wonderful toys that the normal people may never even know about and the heroes may not understand.
5. Pulp often surrounds bizarre crimes and mystery. As amazing as the heroes and villains are, the crimes and events that draw them into the game are just as unusual. Normal crimes draw the normal authorities. Pulp adventures always include an element of the odd that leads whomever you choose to contact the heroes and get them involved, or catches their interest during the course of their normal day.
6. Exotic Settings and Lost Worlds are common. Pulp heroes don’t just save South Chicago, they don’t just journey to Cleveland Heights in the course of the adventure. Be sure to include amazing settings and lost civilizations in your games.
7. Pulp has a 1930′s-1940′s “feel”. Remember that no matter what time setting or world you choose to play up a pulp adventure there is a feeling of discovery and the speech may be punctuated by jargon of the era, cars and other technologies are just beginning the change the way the world travels, etc. Pulp games should have a nostalgic feel and the storytelling should reflect that idealized version of the era, even if you’re crusading through the lands of Hyborea. It doesn’t hurt to do some research, read and absorb a few collections of pulp stories to get a feel for the tone of the game.
I hope this has served as a useful introduction to the Pulp Adventure genre of gaming. If you’re looking for some quick inspiration you can always pop in Indiana Jones films or even the 1980′s Flsh Gordon film. Star Wars even has a bit of the pulp sensibility in it.
Here are a few general pulp reference links:
A general introduction to Pulp as a setting.