This entry is part 1 in the series Reinventing Pulp for Roleplaying

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 – yet another series!

It’s pointless re-creating precisely a historical period or past fictional genre. For maximum utility, like television programs, these have to be adjusted to suit a modern audience who simply don’t think the same way that the people of the source era or genre.

In some cases, the adjustment is beneficial, increasing the options and storytelling range of the GM; in other cases, it is counterproductive at best, and some form of genre enforcement may be necessary. I know that this flies somewhat in the face of the advice offered in part four of the “Game Mastery” series so I thought that I should start by addressing that.

The Hierarchy Of Dominance

  • Gameplay Trumps All
  • Campaign Trumps Plot
  • Plot Trumps Genre
  • Genre Trumps Simulation
  • Simulation Trumps Rules
  • House Rules Trump Official Rules

This hierarchy of dominance operates in all my games and defines how one game element controls and overrides another. It’s arranged here in a sequence of dominant to submissive, but for maximum clarity, it should actually be read from the bottom up.

House Rules Trump Official Rules

This is the most obvious level of the hierarchy. I was going to add ‘inarguable’ to that adjective, but then realised that there are people out there who feel that it should be the other way around – that the only justification of a House Rule is to cover a situation not addressed by the published game system mechanics. I don’t agree with them, but that doesn’t make the position they adopt necessarily wrong, as this dominance relationship comes at the price of universality – before one can join a game, you have to know the house rules; taking the opposite perspective promotes universality (the published rules are the same everywhere and in every game). The key to resolving this debate (in my opinion) lies in the reason for the House Rule: if the rule exists to facilitate, or derives from, one of the hierarchy layers higher up the ladder, then it should trump the official rules; if a rule is present purely to be distinctive or different, then it has insufficient justification and should be overruled anywhere that it conflicts with the published rules.

Simulation Trumps Rules

A more contentious relationship. It has long been my view that when we participate in a roleplaying game, we (players and GM) are describing events within a reality in which the in-game events are actually occurring, and that the game mechanics exist purely to (imperfectly) model those events. It follows that if a given outcome is logical within the bounds of a real simulation, then that outcome should transpire, no matter what the game mechanics describe.

For example, in a science fiction campaign (and just off the top of my head), you might have a gimmick that increases the intensity-vs-distance relationship of particle electrical charge, so that protons and electrons don’t repel others of their kind so strongly, and don’t attract each other so strongly. This change would have a number of consequences – nuclei could be more compressed, fusion power and black hole creation would be easier, electron orbits would increase until equilibrium between the speed of the electron and the charge tethering it to a nucleus are obtained – gravity being a negligible force at this scale. This would mean that electrical bonds are more easily broken – more materials accumulate static electricity, materials are more conductive, etc. This could be offered as an explanation for how Fusion is achieved, or how a black-hole-making-weapon operates, or how artificially-strengthened super-dense alloys are created for starship hulls, or the principle behind a room-temperature superconductor. In essence, from a game mechanics point of view, you buy the gadget that does what you want – whether that’s a fusion power-pack, a weapon, or a starship hull, or a length of room-temperature superconductor.

With Simulation trumping rules, however, all of the physics-based consequences apply, not just the one that justifies the high-tech. Using the tech in question requires either it experiencing the side-effect, or having some ancillary engineering requirements to address them. So the fusion power pack gives off high-voltage electrical arcs (very Pulp SF) when it’s plugged in, and operators have to wear protective suits. Or perhaps the weapon has to have a lead grounded before it’s safe to fire, making it only semi-portable at best, or whatever. Buy the effect or tech you want, then justify its existence in a manner consistent with the genre, then simulate the side-effects and deal with them.

It might sound like this is a lot of extra work, and even detracts from the purity of the genre; I get such arguements regularly in my superhero campaign. But, in the long run, it saves me time and effort, and vastly increases the verisimilitude of the campaign.

  • When two forces or objects interact, this additional information can be used as a guide to what happens if the rules aren’t clear, especially in unusual environmental conditions – which happens surprisingly often. “I have this gadget that creates an artificial gravity ‘glue’ to trap people, and he’s just fired his gravity-bender at it – what happens?”
  • Side effects and other colour narrative stem naturally from the way things work, and can be enhanced with a lot of little technical details. I don’t have to get creative and worry about consistency, I can just be descriptive.
  • Effects and technology acquire a distinctive flavour, and through asking ‘what else can be done with this’, entire families of tech improvements can be created which have that flavour.
  • It adds to the challenge and mental stimulation of the game for the referee.
  • Ad-hoc decisions can be made more quickly and certainly.
  • And finally, it helps replace technobabble with something a little more meaningful.

The downside is that players can feel cheated when side effects cause problems; their characters have spent money or building points on some ability or some gadget, and they want what it said on the label. This is especially the case in game systems like the Hero System, where side effects and limitations are specified and factored into the price. When such disputes arise, my answer is always the same: we work out a way to mitigate or overcome the side effects and you can build it into the original device or ability for free, or we can add the inherent limitations into the pricing, or both. When you buy a car, it will do the job – propel itself, turn corners, brake, etc. But you always have engineering and design side effects – blind spots, long brake pedals, being temperamental on cold mornings, or whatever. Since this is what everyone is used to, including this sort of detail in the details makes an ability or piece of engineering feel more real.

Genre Trumps Simulation

This was implied in the previous section. I a gritty detective yarn, you don’t use flying saucers to justify something – not normally, anyway. In Science Fiction, you don’t use magic. In FRP, you avoid modern concepts of chemistry and physics and biology. The Square-Cube law routinely takes a vacation whenever genre says that a giant critter is called for. People can be 30′ tall.

Players can mix charcoal, sulphur, and saltpeter all they want to, in my fantasy campaigns – if the genre doesn’t permit gunpowder to work, all they get is a gluey mess or a gritty powder, rumoured to be good for festering boils (or some such). Even if there are primitive explosives available from an alchemist, gunpowder won’t work.

Astonishingly, in all the cases where players have complained about the simulation not giving them what they want (or not being free of complications, which is the same thing in their book), not one of them has couched an arguement in genre terms. There have been rules terms, one or two playability terms (we’ll get to that in a little bit, and even once a campaign-based justification – but never a case where the player said that a simulated effect is not in keeping with the genre.

Plot Trumps Genre

Do what you have to in order make the story work. Just because flying saucers are non-genre, that doesn’t mean that you can never do an “invaders from mars” plot in a wild west game – just that you shouldn’t make a habit of it.

The same is true of player actions – normally, genre would prohibit players from undertaking certain actions. In a superhero campaign, the characters should be reasonably heroic. In a fantasy campaign, they shouldn’t attempt to use mass-production principles, or atomic physics. But I will permit the occasional non-genre action to succeed if it advances the storyline (or if it’s self-contained and funny enough) – on the understanding that it’s a one-off concession that might not work next time it’s tried.

Campaign Trumps Plot

This is another contentious one. Should plot – an one-off individual storyline – trump genre, instead? The answer is both yes and no.

On rare occasions, you can violate your campaign premise for the sake of a single story, but doing so comes at a price: every time you do so, you weaken the campaign premise, and eventually it will be so full of holes that it will fall apart. So, while the investigators of CSI might, on a rare occasion, solve a case with a shootout, it should be the exception and not the rule. In general, the campaign premise should trump the plot, and a different solution to the problem be found.

Gameplay Trumps All

This is the big one, the High Card, the Ace Of Spades. Above all else, the game mechanics have to be easy to use. If a simulation element gets too hairy, if the concept of customising weapons damage to the type of armour worn gets too complicated or too slow, it doesn’t matter what the rules say, or the house rules, or the genre, or modern science, or the storyline – practical game-play considerations rule supreme. If you really need element X of the rules to accurately simulate the genre, but the cumulative burden is too much, maybe you need to simplify somewhere else.

The alternative is for the game mechanics to get in the way – of the story, of the game, of the fun. And that doesn’t help anyone.

In Part 2, my collaborator and I will look at the genre conventions of a Pulp-game world, and where and how they can or should bend to suit a modern audience.

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