This article is being co-written by Blair Ramage, with whom I co-referee a Pulp Hero campaign. Although it started as a single item, it has grown so substantially that it has become necessary to split it into multiple parts.
In researching this article, a couple of other websites came to our attention, one of which divided the genre conventions for pulp fiction into three categories: World Conventions, about the settings in which stories take place, Story Conventions about the shape and nature of those adventures, and Character Conventions about the participating characters – though they were presented in a different order.
We thought this was a pretty useful breakup, given that we had identified almost 80 genre conventions and needed some way of organizing them. we would have presented a full list, but since that alone would consume more than 80 lines of text, we thought it better to just dive right in….
Women are almost always portrayed as helpless and in need of protection in the pulps, just about the only exception being the Dragon Ladies (which get discussed in the next section). What’s more, women are not welcome in certain places, it is considered demeaning for a woman to hold most jobs let alone have a serious career, and as for equal pay, you must be joking! The glass ceiling was made of bulletproof glass in the 1920s and 30s and the pulps reflected that as well.
A delicate balance
Where it’s necessary to compromise or alter the standard genre in order to be compatible with modern players, we’ll put those notes in a separate subsection, just like this. We’ll deal with the gender issues as they pertain to PCs in a later section, but in terms of the game world, there is a broader scope.
When there is an area that you can modernize without affecting other aspects of a historical-period genre, as is the case with Gender Issues, it can sometimes be a good idea to take the opportunity. Doing so provides accessibility at minimal cost. But it is possible that, after consulting with anyone who wants to play a female character, the story potential of a crusader for Women’s Rights might hold greater appeal, so this is a campaign-creation decision that should be considered carefully, in consultation with the players.
Racial Stereotypes And Cliches
Women’s issues are not the only area of social progress that bears scrutiny. In the pulps, every German is either a Nazi or an maverick scientist; every Irishman is a Cop or a Criminal or both; every Italian male is a member of the Mafia, and so on and on. These are all characterization clichés, and as such can be tolerated without giving extraordinary levels of offense, but this is a sensitive area, and also requires careful scrutiny.
An Answer In Generalities
The best answer is neither to blindly adopt the genre stereotype, nor to equally-blindly reject it. The stereotype can stand as an entirely acceptable description of 90-95% of the representatives of a given race, class, or nationality, provided that there are prominent examples to the contrary. These exceptions serve purely to indicate, by way of contrast, that the GM knows how shallow the depictions of the majority are, and these do not represent a personal belief on his part. This furnishes a compelling counter-argument against the taking of offence by anyone sensitive to these issues, gives the GM a broader canvas for character creation and interaction, and stops players from blindly accepting the stereotypes.
This last is especially important, since the players are all too likely to bring modern perspectives to such questions without thinking about it. Compromising the genre in this way gives license for the PCs to be liberal in their positions on the races, in other words to have a modern attitude, something they will tend to do in any event.
Equally important is the historical attitude of the dominant cultures to these races, which should be preserved accurately, even exaggerated, no matter how much the GM alters the actual circumstances. The GM can make the Japanese technical wizards (though that would not be accurate within the genre) or a land of Ninja and Samurai (closer to the mark!) as he desires; but to the American man in the street, they will be primitive sandal-makers who pose no threat to anyone. A significant portion of Americans support (or at least approve of) the Nazi regime in Germany while the majority simply don’t care beyond demanding the government not entangle the country in matters beyond its own borders.
It can be argued that the greater the stereotyping of the perceptions of the common man, the more latitude the GM has in ignoring those stereotypes for the actual representative examples in the game (NPCs); and that the greater this discrepancy, the more a modern treat-individuals-as-individuals attitude can be justified on the part of PCs through exposure to a reality that is different to the lay perception. In other words, they’ve seen for themselves that the stereotype falls short of reality, and modified their expectations accordingly; the only failure will occur whenever they try to ‘educate’ an NPC in this reality.
The American Negro
Even more troubling is the issue of African American equality. These are the days of segregation, when Negros did not even have the right to vote. Higher education – heck, even any education – was not usually an option. The reason this is a subject that needs careful thought is that even in modern times, there remain controversies in this area, and people are still sensitive to it, both within the US and in the rest of the world.
The point can be debated endlessly without reaching a satisfactory conclusion: is it better to deliberately permit a more liberal attitude in this respect out of respect to those who are sensitive to such issues, or to deliberately replicate the social inequalities as an educational aid to those who don’t realize just how bad it was?
In general, once again, the best answer is to adopt a compromise approach. The story potential of the historical reality is too great to ignore, so as a rule of thumb, the historically-accurate circumstances should be the norm; but the PCs, and anyone who is allied with them, should have a more modern attitude unless it is a significant plot point for them not to do so.
This permits the GM to have his cake and eat it too. It promotes a modern attitude as being the right thing to have, permits the players to be more liberal in the PCs attitudes, while leaving intact that story potential.
For example, in the pulp campaign that Blair and I run, The Adventurer’s Club, the American Government is beginning to recognize that the Nazis are a threat and future enemy, but they are helpless in the face of public opinion to do anything much about it. This permitted the Nazis in a recent scenario to use the KKK as cat’s paws, inciting civil unrest in the factories by pushing a Racial Equality agenda that was designed to harden public opinions against the African American workers while disrupting the economy and (it was hoped) the future military effectiveness of the American military. This put the PCs in a position of having to support the ongoing mistreatment of the workers, who had very real grievances, in opposition to a liberal stance being promoted by the KKK, who planned to ride the resulting civil unrest (The Chicago Riots) all the way into the White House, with the Nazis poised to undermine the only opposition they saw as able to prevent total victory in the coming conquest of Europe. The resulting plotline was very satisfying to all concerned.
One final aspect of this issue deserves mention – the Leakage of contemporary and recent social and international-relations issues into the pulp world. One of the best examples is “The Red Menace”, but others include Apartheid, and Irish Terrorism. In small doses, these can be acceptable from a story perspective, but in general, it’s a bad idea to colour the genre with such modern accoutrements. Of course, there was an outbreak of paranoia concerning Soviet activities in 1919-20, more properly known as the Red Scare. Even if the GM opts for these fears to have substance in his game world, as some pulps of the era did, he should be careful to distinguish between the post-war attitudes of the USSR and those pre-war. This article on Joseph Stalin and this one on Lenin should be useful. In general, it can be said that post-war, Soviet Paranoia stemmed more from invasion or attempted conquest from the outside than the West of the time believed, seeing all soviet actions (through their own paranoia) as aimed at conquering the world. The Communists may have believed that their system of government would sweep the world, but they were less concerned with accelerating that process for its own sake and more concerned with securing their borders and resources against an invasion such as that experienced in 1941. It is only since the fall of the Soviet Union that the actual Soviet perspective has come to light – explaining why the west was caught by surprise time and time again. Not understanding the Soviet mindset – Putin is the first Russian leader in office since Lenin not have personal memories of that invasion, something that was often overlooked by American leaders. In essence, both sides were suspicious, even paranoid, and each side’s paranoia fueled that of the other.
In the pre-war Pulp era, this dominant – even overriding – motivation was not a factor, and since that motivation was central to Soviet attitudes and policy throughout the cold war, it is extremely difficult these days to see past it. The “Red Menace” of the Pulps is about fears of subversion and revolution, focused on the labor relations of the era – greedy industrialists and robber barons against employees. Note that even that last sentence is coloured by modern attitudes!
Weird Science Works
It’s surprisingly hard to track down a definition for “weird science”. Often, what you find equates the term with “pseudoscience” or “fringe science”. For game purposes, I would define “weird science” as a plausible extrapolation from unfounded assumptions, but that’s not as important as defining how it works.
- Scientist formulates theory.
- Scientist constructs a device which utilizes the theory.
- The Device works.
The theory, when examined by any other scientist, might be absolute rubbish. Certainly, when examined from the standpoint of scientific knowledge acquired after the 1930s, it will be utter nonsense. None of that matters.
If you want an inertialess star-drive, build one.
Weird science, in this context, becomes an outgrowth of another of the genre conventions, one which was alluded to in part one of this series: plot trumps simulation. In this case, simulation can be considered “simplified or representational reality” – ie “real” science – and plot knocks it down flat.
This is actually one of the key points of distinction between different rules systems for running Pulp-genre adventures: in a points-based system, such as the Hero System, there is a mechanism for the characters to create weird science gadgets if that is appropriate to their stickh; other systems rule weird science as being available only to the GM for use as a plot device or Macguffin.
For some pulp subgenres, like Pulp SF / Space Opera, the potential for Weird Science creations by the PCs is absolutely essential; in others, such as Pulp Detective or Pulp Horror, or Pulp Action-Adventure, it can be detrimental. So this is something that GMs need to consider carefully, and Players should analyze the implications of the chosen rules system for the additional information it will give them about the game world.
A word about consistency
Consistency of “weird science” theories should be maintained within a single adventure; if a time-travel gadget works at the start of the scenario, it should work throughout it. If one theory of the nature of matter is ‘right’ at the start of an adventure, it should be accurate throughout that adventure.
Consistency of “weird science” theories over a longer period is a more problematic question. On the one hand, if you change it all the time, you risk players becoming uncertain of the way the game world works; on the other, maintaining a consistent weird science theory can get in the way of future stories by providing resources to the PCs that get in the way of future adventures. I’m normally a big advocate for consistency, but this is one genre in which it can be counterproductive.
It’s my opinion that the subgenre chosen should be the determinant factor. In a pulp-SF game, because the “weird science” is an integral part of the campaign, it should be maintained consistently. In other subgenres, where the science is not so integral, it should follow the 90-10 rule discussed regarding racial stereotypes – the first time a “science” or “scientific breakthrough” is made within the game, that theory of nature will be consistently correct 90% of the time, but the needs of the adventure become paramount.
Any weird science actually given to the PCs must either be archived and left behind at the end of an adventure, or it simply works (even if the pseudo-scientific rationale behind it changes). If a PC spends character construction points on a device, it works regardless of the scientific reality, and if that means that you have two clashing scientific theories operating at the same time, so be it.
The Backyard Is The Forefront
Those are the really big-ticket items. The rest should start to come through a bit more quickly from here!
Scientific progress is not made by research institutions or government-sponsored labs, it happens in the private labs and backyard sheds of maverick inventors. Their discoveries are often unreliable, poorly-controllable, and prone to strange side-effects, but they are at the cutting edge. The technology which can be reliably engineered for mass production, in general, is several steps below that of the “weird scientist”. You really can build a rocket to mars in your backyard, for a ten-thousandth (or less) what it would cost a government to do it.
Outlandish Technology Should Look The Part
GMs should never ignore the “look and feel” of weird science technology. Buttons and dials and levers and switches and plungers and flashing lights and arcing electricity should be the norm, not something that looks packaged and manufactured.
Strange Things Lurk In The Unknown
In a Pulp world, not everything is subject to scientific explanation. Lightning can bring a Frankenstein’s Monster to life. Weird creatures do abound in swamps. Ghosts and Goblins and Ghoulies are real. Cthulhu really does want to eat the world. Strange Cults really do have mystic powers. Not all the world has been explored, and that which has been explored is not as well known as people like to think.
Only those who deal with such matters know it, of course. The ordinary citizen is mind-numbingly ignorant of such threats, incapable of dealing with the horrors that lurk in the shadows. They wouldn’t believe you if you told them.
Magic Is Real And Usually Evil
This was touched on in the previous point, but it’s worth reiterating. What’s new here is the “and usually evil”. The Shadow clearly had his dark side, and he’s one of the closest examples around to a heroic magic user, taught the ability to “cloud men’s minds” in a Tibetan monastery.
Opposing both the users of Magic and the Strange Things That Lurk are two types of character: the religious, who can wield their faith as a weapon; and the ghost hunter or paranormal investigator, who is usually modeled on some of the exploits of Harry Houdini. Houdini’s favorite pastime was debunking ghost stories and other paranormal phenomena, such as mind-reading. His basic tenet was that if he could replicate the results with sleight-of-hand and cheating, then it invalidated the claims of proof offered for these abilities and experiences. In short, he was a skeptic.
Of the latter, there are three subtypes: those who believe that its all bunk, those who simply want everyone else to believe that it’s all bunk, and those who want to convince the world.
Nightmares Leave No Mark
Unfortunately, that last group has to contend with this genre convention: the Strange Things That Lurk never leave proof of their existence behind when defeated, or certainly not enough evidence to convince anyone who didn’t already know the truth. Bodies turn to ash and blow away, or disappear into nothingness, or are sucked up by space-time vortices, or whatever. Film is confiscated by the Government “for study”. You get the drift…
Optimism Trumps Cynicism
We live in cynical times. Personally, I trace much of this cynicism back to the Vietnam war and the Watergate scandal and the Kennedy Assassination, and still more of it back to the advent of sensationalist journalism (don’t get me started on those subjects or we’ll be here all day). Regardless of the cause, the fact is that Pulp originates in a different era, when the Government could be (mostly) trusted, where entrepreneurs (mostly) were perceived as popular heroes and philanthropists. There was a conviction that good was stronger than evil, that war had been rendered obsolete by the technological horrors of the Great War, and that the guys in white hats always won – eventually.
This is one of the most difficult aspects of a Pulp campaign to get right. To modern sensibilities, these attitudes are innocent at best, naive at worst; asking players to faithfully apply them amounts to asking them to “play stoopid – does ‘stoopid’ have two or three ‘ohs’?” (as one player once described it).
And to some extent, that player was right; as GMs we are committed to ensuring that victory is earned and not cheap, and that the characters will get themselves into tight spots and, in general, that life will be made as difficult as possible for them.
At the same time, this is such a hallmark of the genre that it cannot be left out.
The optimism is reflected on the way adventurers in the Pulps go about their business, which can be summarized as “Boots and all and we solve the problems as we go”. There is no situation too dangerous, no problem too difficult, no mountain too hard to climb, that it cannot be overcome by intelligently-directed action. It is reflected in the attitudes of ordinary people to the adventurers, brave souls who do what most men cannot, and walk calmly where others fear to tread. It permeates the background, and the inhabitants of the game world. And therefore it also has to permeate the personalities of the PCs – without diminishing the player’s control over their characters.
The only solution is for the GMs to give the players some room to exercise their cynicism, especially in terms of planning; and to ensure that if the players make honest efforts to find a solution to a challenge the GMs have posed in an adventure, a solution will be found. At the same time, they have to clamp down hard on excessive planning, and boneheaded moves. Action is not enough, it must be intelligently directed by the Players.
That is the compact that GMs must make with the players, and stick to: no matter how dark things get, and how improbable a victory may seem, there must always be a way to win, and if the players don’t find it, any intelligent attack on the problem will yield another solution. That’s not to say that everything the PCs will do will work, or even appear to work; one advantage that we have is that we can permit a temporary win by the Dark Side so long as it opens the door for the Men In White Hats to achieve the ultimate victory. There will always be a flaw in the other side’s planning or execution. It may not be easy, and it certainly won’t be assured of success; but if it fails, there will be another opportunity, and then still another. As long as they keep trying and don’t give up, we (as GMs) will keep throwing open windows of opportunity.
There’s Always Enough Money
Another concept of modern times that doesn’t translate to a Pulp Era is that there are limits to natural resources. There is always enough oil, there is always enough money, there is always enough of everything – unless it is important to the plot that there be a temporary shortage, of course.
It’s hard to get people to appreciate just how big a difference this makes unless they read fiction of the era. It flows through everything. Atomic Energy with minimal shielding can be used to power rockets, there is unlimited power to run cities, and when Atomic Energy is not enough there will be something else, and then something after that. A financial crisis like The Great Depression is due to mismanagement, or criminal greed, or both – because there is plenty for everyone, if they will only make the effort to go and get it.
Construction of a space ship, or the complete re-arming of a fleet with new armor or weapons, or whatever – the holdup is always the number of skilled men available to do the work, or the political will, or sabotage, or a shortfall in theory; it’s never a shortage of material (unless that’s a plot point) or a shortage of money (same caveat).
If money is short, that means that the characters have to find and convince a backer, or find out who has persuaded the banks not to trust them, or whatever else may be necessary to solve the problem. Similarly, if materials are not available, they have to convince the manager of the manufacturing plant to give them what they need, or raise more money to buy what they need, or find out who is working to derail the project – because there is always enough available.
As a side-note, there’s a lot in this philosophy that I believe in. The fear-mongers would have it that oil is running out – the first such forecast that gained major attention I’m aware of was in the 1960s – but production per year in modern times is greater than the 1960s estimate of the total oil available globally! Do I accept that there are limits to the amount of oil that can be extracted from the earth? Absolutely – but Jupiter has lakes of petrochemicals millions of cubic miles in size that can be extracted and refined. The total oil consumed by humanity, multiplied 100-fold, is less than 1% of these vast reserves. Would it be difficult to extract, refine, and deliver to Earth? Absolutely – though we’re just about at the technological point where it’s practical. OPEC exists to regulate the price of oil and it does so by regulating global production. Which is why I sneer whenever someone talks about “the oil shortage”.
It’s all a piece of modern cynicism. Ecological concerns (I’ve written before about my doubts concerning Global Warming in The Frozen Lands: A Science Fiction Campaign Premise. Money concerns. Distrust of Government. Distrust of Authority. Distrust of Corporations. Intelligent Design (a distrust of Science fostered by religious extremists – to give them the benefit of the doubt). Insecurity and Cynicism, rampant. A dystopian view of life that permeates modern society.
In a way, the moon landings were the ultimate expression of the Pulp-era optimism – it didn’t matter how much it cost, it got done. There was always enough money! When Armstrong actually set foot on the moon, there was a palpable sense of “anything is possible”, and an optimism for the future. But then came the cutbacks, and the cynics and naysayers piped up, and the attitude became “we went all that way just for a couple of pounds of moon rocks”. The romance was gone. As Leo McGarry (the late John Spencer) comments in the West Wing episode The Warfare Of Genghis Khan (season 5), “My generation never got the future it was promised… Thirty-five years later, cars, air travel is exactly the same. We don’t even have the Concorde anymore. Technology stopped.” Josh Lyman then suggests “the personal computer” as a sign of progress, to which McGarry replies, “A more efficient delivery system for gossip and pornography? Where’s my jet pack, my colonies on the Moon?”
The Five Corners Of The World
In the pulp era, much of the world is unexplored. Every continent has its unexplored wilderness. Once you are off the edge of the map, anything’s possible. The unknown is a shadowy fifth corner, lurking outside the experience of the known world. In such places may be found lost temples, strange beasts, monsters, tunnels to subterranean worlds, and who knows what else.
Even in the supposedly well-known and explored parts of the world, hidden byways lead to the unknown. Abandoned subway tunnels, deep forests, isolated valleys and mountain peaks, moors and swamps, cellars, and strange shops and storefronts…
One morning, a PC sees a man walking stiffly, eyes glazed and unfocussed. The man walks up to a wooden door hidden in the shadows of an alley, opens it – still apparently sleepwalking – and enters the room beyond. Behind him, the door swings closed. Curious, the PC opens the door, only to find that it opens onto the brick wall of the alley. Where did the sleepwalker go? He’s found a doorway into the fifth corner of the world…
Sometimes, the boundaries are not so easy to locate. As part of an epic multi-adventure plot thread, the PCs in The Adventurer’s Club campaign recently had to travel up the Yellow River into South-western China, then proceed on foot up into the mountains. The further up the river they travelled, the more they left behind the world they knew and entered a region in which Chinese Mythology was the literal truth. Encounters with warlords gave way to semi-plausible monsters such as a freshwater Kraken, and then the outright supernatural: Chinese vampires, Chinese gods, dragons, something akin to veloceraptors, the footprints of something that might (or might not) have been a yeti, and so on. All this was preparation for their encounter with the last Emperor of the Zhou dynasty (very Mummy III) and his terracotta army (and some Nazis as misdirection). Rather than a solid and fixed boundary, the edge of the world they knew was smeared and the transition gradual.
Google Earth and other resources
We’re fortunate in that we don’t have the kind of players who will go out and look up encyclopedias, atlases, or other reference books, or go searching for information on what can be found ‘off the edge’ unless we specifically ask them to do so. Not everyone is so lucky. There are players out there who will seek out what is known on the presumption that the game world will at least resemble it to some extent.
That gives us the liberty to actually base these ‘off the map’ areas on what’s really there, saving us a lot of work in the process. At the same time, we have absolutely no compunction about changing details as necessary to suit the plot – from inventing a Bavarian Castle to serve as the headquarters of the Büro Ausländisher Geheimnisse or “Office Of Foreign Secrets”; or remodeling Rugen Island into a top-secret R&D facility; or moving Haiti 150km in the middle of a scenario and then moving it back again a little later in the same scenario (no-one noticed).
Our players know that the more they try and rely on knowledge that was not available at the time, the more we will rearrange the landscape on them – usually at the most inconvenient time and in the most inconvenient way, so they don’t bother. As you can see, this produces a win-win situation for us – we can use real-world details to make the verisimilitude compelling while ignoring them at need. This is also the secret to dealing with players who try to obtain unfair advantages!
Most Worlds Have Breathable Atmospheres
It’s not yet come up in our game, but it’s a pulp truism – if there’s solid ground, there’s almost certainly an atmosphere of some type, and it will either be breathable by earthmen or completely inimical to terrestrial life…
…and home to something nasty that wants to move to the address just down the block from you. That holds true for Planets (Venus, Mars), Moons (Titan, Europa, Ganymede), and even the Gas Giants themselves (Saturn, Jupiter). Even the frigid depths of space occupied by Pluto (which is still a planet in a Pulp game) will be occupied by someone or something.
The Ether Is Real
…more specifically, the Luminiferous Aether is real. This was how physicists of an earlier time explained the transmission of light and other electromagnetic radiations. This was a plane of existence, the boundary between the world of solid matter and the world of energy, also known as the Etheric Plane. And, of course, so is the sub-ether, home of strange vibratory energies such as those used by EE ‘Doc’ Smith’s Ultrawave and related technologies.
What difference does this make? Perhaps the best answer is to repeat a misquotation from Shakespeare that is known around the world: “There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy, Horatio”. Weird Science works, remember?
More importantly, it means a lot of pesky Einsteinian restrictions aren’t around to bother anyone. The speed of light is akin to the speed of sound – it’s just the speed that something happens. There is NO absolute limit to speed.
And who is to say what manner of weird and terrible beasties live in the subether? Perhaps that’s Cthulhu’s home address. Or perhaps not.
Imagination, unfettered by reality, is free to soar above and beyond our mundane existence, in a Pulp World; and few are the genres that are so open to all influences and yet still keep their feet firmly planted on the ground. That’s what makes it so appealing.
Next time: Pulp Story Conventions….
- Blat! Zot! Pow! The Rules Of Genre In RPGs
- Bam! Zap! Crunch! World Conventions In Pulp
- Pow! Wham! Bang! Story Conventions In Pulp
- Pow! Bam! Crunch! Story Conventions In Pulp (continued)
- Wham! Clang! Kapow! Character Conventions In Pulp
- Zot! Zap! Crash! Character Conventions In Pulp (Continued)
- Bang! Blat! Whoomph! Character Conventions In Pulp (Continued)
- Clang! Crash! Pow! Game Mastering The Pulp Genre