This entry is part 6 in the series Reinventing Pulp for Roleplaying

A real thompson submaschine gun in a violin case

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 grew so substantially that it became necessary to split it into multiple parts. The first part dealt with the relationship of genre to other aspects of a roleplaying game, and furnished a context for the whole series. The second part covered Pulp environmental and game world conventions. Parts Three and Four dealt with the plot and story conventions of the Pulp Genre, and the previous part began looking at Character conventions within the Pulp Genre. That examination was supposed to take two parts, but time ran short, and so it has now been split into three; this is the middle of those parts.

The Jungle Breeds Noble Savages

There is an unusual dichotomy in pulp fiction, and hence in pulp game characters, in the juxtaposition of an optimism toward the future and a romanticization of the primitive experience, expressed most clearly in Tarzan and similar stories. At first glance, these are so radically at odds that the pairing seems unlikely. But a deeper analysis of this genre convention leads to a few more important facets of Pulp characterisation, and reconciles the amomaly.

The deeper truth within pulp characterisation is the belief that regardless of exterior trappings and circumstances, men (and women) have an innate purity of self at their core, a distillation of their personality that remains a central truth of that character. Noble or Ignoble, Hero or Villain, Angel or Devil – this innermost core is fundamental to the character.

This is the wellspring of both the sense of optimism that pervades and permeates the pulp genre and the concept of the “noble savage”. Given the precept that good is fundamentally stronger than evil because it permits characters to join together into a whole stronger than the sum of its constituants, while the latter is inherantly selfish and suspicious of others, it is inevitable that the pure of heart will always win (all else being equal).

It is, in part, the job of the GM to unbalance situations sufficiently that all things are NOT equal, giving the villains advantages in timing and preperation sufficient to ensure that the situation SEEMS TO BE in doubt, while preserving enough of that fundamental (and hidden) bias to permit the PCs to win – in the end. In other words, to challenge the PCs and make them work for their success, while preserving a back door to success that does not give the impression of a Duex-ex-machina.

Leopards Hardly Ever Change Their Spots

It follows that villains tend to remain villains and heroes tend to remain heroes. In particular, the villains learn only the most superficial possible lessons from their mistakes and defeats; and, rather than refine a plan that almost worked to remove the flaw, they will abandon it entirely.

On extremely rare occasions, a villain whose heart was pure may reform, but this is very much an exception to the general rule, and such characters remain under suspicion for years and even decades, no matter what good deeds they may commit in the meantime – because even if a leapard actually does change his spots, most people don’t believe it. That’s a measure of how much a truism this genre convention is.

At the same time, a special level of condemnation is reserved for any heroes who prove to have feet of clay. There are no shades of gray, it is not considered possible for a character to be “mostly” heroic; you are either a hero, or you are a villain, there’s nothing in-between.

Irredeemably Evil?

A number of GMs fail to realise that this absolutism actually makes it easier to explore fringe issues within their campaigns. One nation’s hero is another nation’s villain, and those loyal to the first nation will remain “pure” to the ideology they champion. At the same time, because they are “heroes”, they are able to transcend that ideology from time to time and find common ground with those they would normally oppose.

If black and white lines or spots are sufficiently densely packed, they will seem to be a shade of grey.

Villains (Usually) Boast

I’ve only ever heard one or two explanations for this genre convention, which I’ll describe in a moment. First, I want to emphasise that this genre convention is even more universal in pulp RPG games, even more ubiquitous than in other media. The only real exception is when the PCs have already got the whole story of what the villain is up to, so he can spend his time threatening them instead of making sure they are up-to-date.

Yet, my co-GM and I have found that on many occasions the players are unwilling to let the villain monologue at them simple because he has to render them (aparrantly) helpless first. I make this observation to re-emphasize a note made within the article on pulp plot conventions: Players, let your PCs be captured!

Boasting From Respect

And so, to the first explanation. It has been suggested that villains boast of their plans to the Hero or heroes simply because there is no-one else who they feel can appreciate the brilliance, the nuance, of their plans. They boast out of a need to stroke their egos.

I’m sorry, it doesn’t hold water. While there may be a few cases where the arch-villain has insufficient self-confidence and arrogance that he needs to reassure himself, for the most part, they are utterly convinced that no-one, especially the heroes, is at their level.

Boasting to Humiliate

What, then, of the other oft-mooted possibility: that the villains boast to humiliate the heroes, rubbing salt into the wounds of failure? On the face of it, this seems entirely more plausible, so much so that I would accept it on the part of any villain of lesser intelligence. The more intelligent amongst them, however, would be aware that nothing is won until the finish line is crossed. “Smart characters are still smart”, and this would constitute an unneccessary risk to their plans.

And yet, the smarter the villains, the more likely they are to boast. So this is, at best, only a partial answer to the question.

A third answer: Morale

In thinking about this, I devised a third answer to the question, one which is consistent with almost all the characterisations involved: the villain boasts to demonstrate his superiority and confidence, not to the heroes, but to his minions.

“Criminals are a superstitious, Cowardly lot” according to the mythology of Batman. It follows that the mere involvement of the heroes would be enough to cause some of the minions to hesitate or waver in their loyalty (usually with good reason). Demonstrating that the hero is completely within the power of the villain is a means to reassure those who have weakened in their resolve. That is sufficient motive for the villain to run the risk of the heroes subsequently disrupting the plans, even in the face of the experience of the heroes doing exactly that – because if he does not, his plan might well be forfeit anyway, due to the phenomenon of rats deserting a sinking ship.

The only circumstances under which this explanation is insufficient occur when the ties that bind the villain and henchmen together are religious, or quasi-religious, in nature. With his henchmen’s loyalty and obediance assured by other means, this villain has no need to reassure them; but these types generally take every opportunity to reinforce their divine destiny in the minds of their followers, and frequently suffer from self-restraint issues (having come to believe their own PR). These offer ample justification for them to boast anyway.

Impact on characterisation

One of the most important decisions a GM has to make, in referance to a villain’s characterisation, is whether or not they will Monologue, and if so, why? This decision can either reflect personality decisions already made, or can be the key to unlocking other aspects of the villains’ characterisation. Either way, it’s critically important to get it right, because this is one of the villain’s primary interaction modes with the PCs. Who can forget Goldfinger’s rebuttal, “No, Mister Bond, I expect you to DIE.”

Melodramatic Schemes

To describe the plots of villains in a pulp game as grandiose is to understate the description. They can be subtle, brilliant, blatant, or even foolish, but they are never small and petty.

Creating and implementing such schemes requires a particular personality element on the part of the villains, a form of exhibitionism, a compulsion toward the melodramatic. Each pulp villain needs background elements that justify this compulsion. Obsession, a reaction to teasing and humiliation in childhood, megalomania, or any of several other psychological and historical factors can account for this, but each villain needs something.

This much is obvious; what is not so obvious is the impact of such schemes on pulp Heroes, who seem to do everything they can to feed this self-aggrandised image. There have been some suggestions that the heroes suffer from an equivalent psychology, sometimes described as the Hero Complex; a need to see their names in the paper, to be publicly lauded. But this isn’t the only possible explanation.

Enough Rope

Surely, the principle of feeding a villain enough rope is sufficient in and of itself to justify the behaviour of the heroes in a pulp game? By playing to the villains’ melodramatic impulses, the heroes incite revelations (see “Villains (Usually) Boast”, above), and feed a sense of confidence to the villain to the point at which it becomes overconfidence.

In other words, there is no need for a character to suffer from a Hero Complex.

This is a good thing, because those who do are not being heroic through any innate purity of spirit, as demanded by the principle stated in “The Jungle Breeds Noble Savages”; their need to be Heroic is a flaw in their characters, and can eventually lead to the performance of villainous actions purely to provide an opportunity to display their heroism. This was the premise at the heart of Backdraft, and it’s an entirely valid premise for use in a Pulp Game as well.

A Wolf In Sheep’s Clothing

I’ve taken pains to emphasise this point because it demonstrates, once again, that even in a morally black-and-white world, a morally black-and-white character can posess a personality every bit as sophisticated and complex as a character in a less absolutist environment.

Many GMs and the occasional author of Pulp modules and supplements fail to appreciate the possibilities that occur within the genre when it is fully exploited. By portraying the characters as simplistic and cartoonish archvillains, they impose a juvenile aspect to the genre that is neither warranted or necessary. This approach, in turn, hinders the complexity and sophistication of the plots within the campaign, and reduces the genre’s ability to engage a modern audiance.

A rejection of the oversimplistic while applying the moral absolutism of pulp, on the other hand, is perfectly capable of producing immersion within the campaign on the part of most players, though a few “just won’t get it”.

As with all RPGs, depth of characterisation and intriguing plot lines within a plausible game world are 95% of the recipe for a successful campaign.

Masters Of Disguise

It doesn’t matter whether or not characters have disguise skill, if they dress and behave appropriately, they will never be discovered. This is a consequence of events moving at the speed of plot, and one of the few that PCs can take advantage of.

The key here is “dress and behave appropriately”. That doesn’t mean that you can dress as a mechanic and wander the executive corridors with impugnity. It doesn’t even mean that you can do so wearing an appropriate business suit and go around sticking your nose in every door that you pass, or peering intently at every passing face.

Mug a flunky for their clothes, and look as if you both belong there and know where you are going, and success will be yours.

Which raises the question, what is the value of having skill in Disguise or Acting in a pulp game? The answer comes when players do NOT behave as outlined, or when they attempt to alter their appearance to match a specific individual, as opposed to a generic member of a group. There will be times when chutzpah alone will not suffice, and that’s when this expertise enters the picture.

If players and GMs think of these skills as being the ability to craft “super disguises” of the type made famous by Martin Landau in Mission Impossible (the original TV series). Those skills don’t mean that such a character is immune to discovery, especially if they behave in a fashion that will call attention to themselves; it just makes it less likely that they will be discovered by a casual search, or even a close search if they haven’t behaved stupidly.

Respect Your Enemy

Most villains and heroes in pulp have an unspoken respect for their enemies, whether they will admit it or not, or – more specifically – for their abilities. This respect is at odds with the usual explanation offered for villainous monologues, as explained earlier.

The more intelligent the villain, the more they will attempt to hero-proof their plans. The more intelligent the heroes, the more they will focus on the problem at hand – the villain’s current plan – without getting distracted or overambitious. The first is fairly obvious, the second less so; but the exercise of some simple logic on the part of the player should make it obvious:

If the GMs expect or intend for the villains to meet their doom at the climax of the adventure, they will provide an opportunity for the PCs to achieve this, regardless of what the PCs ambitions. More frequently, the GMs will have the villain make some doomed and desperate attempt to salvage their plans in the face of PC success. It follows that the PCs should focus on the plot and not the plotter in this circumstance.

If the GMs do not expect or intend for the villains to expire in a blaze of failure, they will focus the luck that they grant the PCs, and every nuance of good fortune, towards making up the slack, ensuring that the plan will fail despite the PCs cavalier attitude; then balance the books by giving the villain all the advantages when they attempt escape. In other words, the PCs won’t succeed at taking out the villain unless the GMs permit it, anyway. If they want the villain to get away, he will, and focussing on that objective is therefore a waste of time.

Either way, then, the best choice is for the PCs to focus on the immediate issue, and let tomorrow take care of itself.

Optimism Trumps Cynicism (One More Time)

This is the third time that we’ve brought this up in the course of this series; it’s that important, and that difficult for people to grasp. Sure, people can get the notion, intellectually, but feeling it and responding in the right way automatically, is much more difficult.

So, how does this genre convention affect characters?

Well, first of all, it has a massive impact on the personal history of the character. There are no glass-galf-empty moments, there is no misfitting public policy, there’s no angst. People are either villains or they do the right thing as best they can. Mistakes are just that; characters don’t obsess over them, even if those mistakes destroy a character’s old life; that just means that they have the opportunity to build a new and better one. A character can be hard-drinking and cigar-smoking without ill effects – even without a hangover.

Secondly, it has a major effect on the character’s ambitions, which is to say his current status. Anything a character wants can be theirs, if they just work hard enough to achieve it. Failure to achieve something inevitably means that they didn’t work hard enough to deserve it. Remember, no negativity. So favouritism and nepotism and sexism and, in fact, any other kind of “ism” don’t exist.

Ultimately, it is WHAT the character wants to achieve that distinguishes Hero from Villain. Some ambitions carry with them a willingness to achieve by means of violence and evil, to do whatever is necessary regardless of the impact on others. Others temper their ambitions to accommodate the wishes and needs of others.

Both are incurable optimists. Heroes are optimistic that evil will never defeat good, so long as it is opposed by men (and women) of courage and virtue. Villains are optimistic that this time, things will be different and everything will come out the way they want it to.

Any sort of negativity or cynicism is a mental illness – to be treated with such “cures” as shock therapy. Both players and GMs have to bear that in mind.

Colourful Characters

There’s just enough room left in this post to discuss this point, which should be fairly self-evident. All characters in a pulp setting should have a measure of flamboyance about them, one way or another.

Villains tend to be bathed in the reflection of their grandiose schemes, so they are easily accommodated in this respect.

Heroes can be a little trickier. Some are inherantly flamboyant, but most have a need to insert colour into their pasts and circumstances. The easiest way to demonstrate this is to consider a GM’s-eye-view of the PCs in the Adventurer’s Club campaign:

  • Father Justin O’Malley: A catholic priest who fights a private war against the supernatural in the name of God and his virtues. (That sounds pretty colourful to me, all deriving from the nature of his personal adversaries).
  • Tommy Adkins: A dashing, barnstorming, decorated WWI aviator from Australia who is always willing to chance his luck and throw caution to the wind. (Plenty of colour there, too, stemming from the personality of the character and (in this case), the player).
  • Captain “Blackjack” Ferguson: An Australian seafairer with an iron will and quiet sense of Justice; gruff and implacable on the surface but a closet softie underneath, who brave any pirate den in defence of his crew, ship, or friends. (Again, plenty of colour, but more deriving from the circumstances surrounding him than his personality).
  • Dr Matthew Hawke: A GP who suffered from a listlessness until he found a home in the Jungles of the Pacific, ministering to the natives. (Oh dear, there’s not a lot of colour there. This was the player’s first pulp character and his first exposure to the genre.)

Matthew Hawke: A case study in characterisation

Since it will also be instructive, let’s take a moment to contemplate how we could impart a little more colour to the character of Dr Hawke. Note that most of this is speculative and not signed off on by the player.

To start with, here’s what we’ve already done, approved by the player:

  • We have established that he is not the obsessed-with-healing type.
  • We have established that the character was more at home in the tribal wilderness, and has a deep respect for “primitive” medicines.
  • We’ve written into his background an incident involving the sale of out-of-date medicines to primitive cultures – a modern social referance that fitted the character.
  • We’ve seen strong indications of an overblown sense of responsibility that for some reason the character supresses or keeps hidden.
  • We’ve also seen hints that the character has a hot temper that he actively supresses most of the time.

There are many possible points of expansion here, but the first item on the list isn’t one of them. It is really only an exclusionary statement, telling us what the character is not; there isn’t a lot of scope for expansion there.

The second item on the above list is more fertile ground. Clearly, the character did not get his medical licence in the jungle, so something must have driven him there. What that could be is a decision for the player to make, but it is also the first potential location for an injection of colour. Perhaps he had a patient or an emergency situation in which he found his western medicine to be useless, but his patient was saved through native medicine of some sort. Or perhaps he got involved in some sort of crime ring and fled to the jungle, where he began to redeem himself. Maybe he was the innocent dupe of a criminal and fled before he could be jailed, putting a dark shadow over his past – which would explain why he’s been reluctant to speak of it.

Or perhaps he was on a holiday cruise and somehow got washed or thrown overboard, and that is how he came to find himself in simpler circumstances. That’s certainly got a bit of colour to it.

In any event, it seems clear to ME that the Doctor has come to embody a variation of the Noble Savage, which is something that the player could develop as part of his in-play personality. He could extend this profile by becoming a little more hesitant in his use of technology, or a little more elementary… no, that’s the wrong term. A little more primitive in his sense of society and propriety, that’s a better way to phrase it. Or simply a little more obviously uncomfortable in more advanced society, and a little more desirous of simple, straightforward solutions.

The third point brings to the fore his current personal goals – he is trying to hunt down whoever was responsible for the dumping of the out-of-date medicines on the tribe that was under his care. So far, there hasn’t been much of an opportunity for this to factor into the campaign, but there was one occasion recently in inner China where we were able to bring it to the fore, and we have one or two variations planned for the near future. The problem is that this is relatively limited; we can use it a couple of times, but it will quickly grow monotonous. So we need to have this expand into a broader motivation.

There are two possibilities: the first is for the character to generalise this objective into a hatred of greed, using a character convention of the pulp realm which we’ll discuss next time; and the second is for us as GMs to tie the distribution of bad medicines into organised crime, permitting the character to generalise his antipathy in that direction. The player can choose either, and we can happily work with it.

This item on the list also offers the potential to add colour to the character by tying it into his background even more extensively than has been done to date, specifically to the character’s motive for abandoning his western practice and heading into the jungles in the first place. I speculated that Dr Hawke may have been involved in some way with a criminal act – what if he was involved in the despatch of the oout-of-date medicines to the Jungle but didn’t realise it until it was too late – and then dropped everything to undo what he had inadvertantly done? That’s another fairly colourful suggestion.

The fourth item speaks of a hidden or suppresed sense of responsibility that goes beyond normal levels. Certainly, that would fit with many of the speculations offered here, but most especially with that last one. The expiation of personal guilt, even if it is not warranted, definitely gives the character a depth that is currently lacking.

Finally, we have the temper. Once again, there are many possibilities – the character may have gone too far in dealing with a situation, for example. Exposing those responsible for the speculative medicine-rebirthing ring and uttering threats against them, or personally seeing them behind bars are both possibilities. Or maybe the character was just a hothead, with no other connection between that and the events leading up to his time in the jungle, but was taught self-control by the simple life of the natives; this would give an additional focus to the ‘noble savage’ concept.

And I have to admit that I love the dichotomy of a professional healer, a respected doctor, as an embodiment of the Noble Savage. But the player might not agree, and it’s ultimately his character.

There’s still one more slice of character conventions in pulp to look at! But next time around, this series will be taking a brief break to enable me post something for this month’s Blog Carnival on Life and Death. I have three article ideas for that post and no idea which one I’ll choose to write… or maybe I’ll do all three, who knows?

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