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 parts Five and Six began an examination of Character conventions within the Pulp Genre. This time around the intent is to wrap up that examination, leaving the final part of the series to tie it all together with some additional GM advice.
Your Friendly Neighbourhood Fed
We start off by revisiting something that’s been brought up before: the citizens of the pulp world can, and do, trust the government. That means that for the most part, a Fed is the Pulp equivalent of a Paladin in D&D: virtuous, honest, mild-mannered, incapable of giving offense and completely unwilling to take offence. A mild exception is made for the Tax-collector, but even they are not so much mistrusted as feared and disliked.
The implication is that every encounter a character has ever had with any branch of officialdom is going to be a positive one except in the most unusual of circumstances. They can make mistakes, they can overlook things they should take into account, but their intentions are always good. Bureacracy is there to facilitate getting things done, and red tape can always be cut through in an emergency.
There are no ‘cracks’ for someone to fall through. There are no real safety nets because none are expected.
A World Without Depression
One of the changes to history that has been made in the Adventurer’s Club campaign is that the Great Depression was not as severe as has been recorded in real-world history. There were a number of reasons for this digression, but the main one was necessity.
It can be argued that part of the sense of optimism that is fundamental to the pulp genre derives from a role as escapist literature, a contrast with the difficulties post- Wall Street Crash. Blair felt that some historical divergence was necessary in order to make that escapist optimism manifest in ‘the real world’ when he created the campaign setting. Since then, we have discussed the consequences and implications on several different occasions.
I’m not going to repeat these discussions, but some of our conclusions bear reporting.
- The “New Deal” was not as substantial an economic revolution as recorded, because it wasn’t necessary.
- The underlying fragility of the American Economic Policies of the time that caused the Great Depression was masked but not repaired.
- While unemployment spiked, it was quickly restored. Economic prosperity is thus closer to 1940-45 levels than those recorded for 1930-35, and so are prices.
- There was no loss of confidence in the business leadership. Corporations are the people’s friends.
- Manufacturing is at a higher level as a result.
- There is enough loose capital floating around to make it practical for backyard inventors and weird scientists to ply their trade.
- Technological research has benefitted from greater access to capital, and is generally at an early 1940s level, though few of the benefits of this progress have yet manifested in benefits for the ordinary citizen.
- These changes enable wealthy dilettantes the wherewithal to build supercars and rappelling guns and whatever other gadgets are required to transform a playboy into a Pulp Hero.
Much of the required infrastructure and justification for the world having a more “Pulp” flavour can be traced back (with a bit of oversimplification) to this one point of divergence.
Of course, there are other consequences. Without the difficulties of the Great Depression to make reparations payments impossible for Germany and so stridently demanded by the allies of World War I, the rise to power of Adolf Hitler needs a little tweaking. His skill at oratory needs to be elevated to a near-superhuman level. He becomes, quite literally, a hypnotic speaker. Whatever shred of justification there may have been for the Nazi revolution in Germany is lost, and the entire ascendancy of the Nazi Party becomes one of deliberate subjugation by a demagogue. In short, the Nazis become even more pulp-villainous than they were historically.
Prior to World War II, the fascist economy was widely admired for its efficiency and productivity, transforming Germany from a crushed nation to a world power in a mere decade. There was a view that this was the next step in economic and political evolution. This view, a result of the contrast with the economic woes of the US and repercussive consequences on the rest of the world, won the Nazis many sympathisers. If that contrast is muted because the depression was less severe than expected, then once again, those sympathisers become more villainous.
A Depth Of Character
There is a mistaken impression that some people, both players and GMs, subscribe to – that Pulp characters are simplistic and without depth as a consequence of this simpler world-view. Blair and I would contend that the exact opposite is true; by making choices black and white in their morality, and forcing characters to have perpetually chosen between these extremes in their past, situations are automatically heightened in dramatic impact, and characters are forced to wear their past sins on their sleeves, as it were. While individual elements of characterisation may be simpler, the tapestry they weave can be every part as rich and complex as is found in any other genre.
Before I (Mike) was a co-GM in the campaign, I was a player. My character was named Paulo Lumierre. I started writing a background for the character, but my status changed and the character was retired before it was complete. But, as proof of the statement made in the previous paragraph, here’s a snapshot:
- Son Of A Made Man: Paulo started life as a Sicilian American named Gino Samuele Vassili shortly after his family emigrated to New York. His father became muscle for Donatello Lancioni (a gangster) and was eventually killed in a turf war with the Jade Dragons, a minor Tong.
- Footsteps On The Path Of Betrayal: Gino blamed both Tong and the Lancioni family and spent two years setting himself up as a double agent for the Tong to get the information he needed to have them destroy each other in an orgy of escalating violence. Heo could have gone to the police, but he didn’t want them found guilty of other charges, he wanted blood for his Father.
- Exposure & Flight: Obsession led to Gino making a mistake: the heir to the Tong expected him to continue to spy for them. At the same time, the Lancioni family’s territory was taken over by Don Corlione, who knew that the Tong had a mole in the former family and set about discovering who it was. Gino’s brother was ordered to “take care of the problem” but Guiseppe gave Gino just enough warning to flee.
- Performer: Gino changed his name and became a roustabout and wandering clown for Barker’s Cavalcade Of Star Attractions, a minor circus. He stayed with them just long enough to establish his credentials as a Carnival Hand before moving on and again changing his name to further muddy his trail.
- Europe: He eventually hooked up with Simon’s Travelling Big Top, who were concluding an extended tour of the US and Canada, and returned with them to the Continent. Now using the name “Larry Sanders”, he was an established member of the troupe when they were joined by a new act, The Great Zabroski, a stage magician. “Sanders” became Zabroski’s friend and understudy and mastered the secrets of hypnotism.
- Agent Of Deception: Two years later, “Sanders” discovered that Felix Zabroski was actually a spy for the Romanovs who stole government secrets wherever the circus went. Rather than kill his friend, Zabroski recruited him.
That’s as far as I had gotten in the 3-and-a-half pages that were completed before the project was put on hold, but I had roughly as much again plotted out. Zabroski was going to get wind of the unrest that would unseat the Romanovs and go into business for himself; then get caught and sell out his “friend” to save his own skin. “Sanders” would then flee to France and adopt yet another new identity, “Paulo Lumierre”, only to get caught up in World War I. Distinguishing himself as a spy behind German Lines for the Allies, he would rediscover his morality and after the war, become an adventurer. He would always be looking over his shoulder in case the Tong or Corlione families learned of his survival.
What’s the point? Well, “Paulo” became a bad guy to avenge his father, betraying two crime syndicates in the process. He made his escape only to become a spy in the employ of another villainous family in order to save the life of his friend – who then betrayed him, anyway. He then used a solid War Record to give himself a clean slate, using everything he had learned to become a hero – but a hero with a shady past and a solid streak of ruthlessness. He was someone who would do the wrong thing for the right reasons without blinking an eye.
There’s a lot of very solid characterisation there, and the ongoing story of Paulo’s redemption would have been great to play. Certainly, there is no trace of simplicity in the finished product, even though every element is starkly black and white, morally.
Pretty Girls And Macho Men
Plastic surgery would not be a very profitable career choice in a pulp world. The women go from being pretty girls to voluptuous women, and the men from strapping youths to Macho Heros. Even characters who are thin and emaciated are “whipcord leather”. Unless you’re a villain, you are handsome/beautiful. And so is everyone else you meet – think of 1930s movie stars.
Warped Body, Warped Mind
The reason, of course, is because of this genre convention (which is occasionally honoured with an inversion, but that is always noteworthy). There is a social assumption that any physical abnormality will be reflected in a mental abnormality. This does not mean that the unfortunate character will be slow or stunted or any of a dozen other impolite terms applied to describe intellectual disability or limitation; it means that the character’s thinking will be aberrant in some manner. And, since aberrant thinking is incontrovertibly NOT “right” thinking, it follows that any form of aberrant thinking makes the character in question a villain, or the murderous henchman of a villain.
Blair and I are actually fond of inverting this convention (I hate the word ‘trope’) with respect to the major villains on occasion. We will not scar them, mutilate them, or deform them; instead, we make them as close to perfection as a PC would expect to be (in his or her own way) to offer a subtexted implication that the villain is a twisted reflection of the hero. This plays especially well when it is obvious that by his or her own standards and objectives, they ARE a hero – but those standards and objectives clash with those of The Good Guys and so must ultimately be flawed in some way.
However, as a general rule, all our villains are marked in some way. The Nazi super soldiers all have a mass of surgical scars all over their bodies. The head of the Nazi division responsible for recovering treasures and artefacts of a possibly arcane nature wears a skull-like mask made of steel for a face (after his real skull was crushed in an accident – the mask holds the shattered pieces together), and so on. The occasional crazed expression may be used if the villain is otherwise unrelentingly normal. Once it was a pair of eyebrows that looked like animated overgrown hedges and a nervous twitch. Shades Of Cindy Crawford, even our femme fatales (and we haven’t used enough of them) usually have a mole or birthmark or tattoo somewhere on their bodies (even if it is never visible to the PCs).
At the same time, we are careful in our choice of language to describe the “good guys”. There are no blemishes, there are beauty marks. Wrinkles signify character and experience, not decrepitness or age. Old people never have liver spots. Everyone has perfect teeth, and eyeglasses are practically an affectation.
The same should apply to the PCs, of course. Paulo Lumierre was scarred multiple times by the life that he led before becoming a hero, but when he did so, his deepset eyes went from “sinister wells in the shadows” to “mysterious pools hinting at the fringes of the unknown” as fast as the character could take breath, his expression from “haunted and edgy” to “concerned and constantly aware of his environment”.
Philanthropists And Industrialists
These same dichotomies reduce CEOs to two fundamental types: there are Philanthropists and there are Industrialists. The first are good guys, charitable, usually friendly and helpful. The latter are greedy schemers out to advance themselves beyond what is fair and reasonable – villains. The concept of a corporation or business entity which did not have the welfare of its staff and customers foremost in mind when making policy decisions is unthinkable, and no shareholder would want or trust such a person to operate on their behalf.
These labels are subtexts that can always be used to place a moral appraisal on a businessman’s performance and behaviour. This is not only the language employed within the game by the GMs, it is the language employed by the newspapers and the public. Ebenezer Scrooge would be described as a “wealthy industrialist”.
Some labels can supersede these categorisations, especially those relating to noble origins. A Duke may be a Philanthropist and a maniacal would-be world conqueror. A King can be an industrial magnate and still concerned with his citizen’s wellbeing – that simply means that his slave labour comes from outside his own subject population. National titles, such as President, or Senator, can similarly mask either of these labels, as can military titles. Remember that a heroic figure can do the wrong thing because he believes the end justifies the means just as easily in Pulp as in any other Genre.
This is one genre convention that we found the players could access more easily than we expected. On reflection, we realised that this is because the ideological loading placed on these terms persists from the pulp era into the modern day, even in the real world. We have also had some success infusing the same ideological subtext when applying the terms “Newspaper Publisher” and “Media Magnate” – the first implies a love of and reverence toward truth and honesty and public welfare, the latter is underhanded and sensationalist.
Through careful use of language, we have been able to apply similar value judgements (not always accurately in fact, but always accurate in public perception) to just about everyone the PCs have encountered in the Adventurer’s Club campaign – though I doubt many of them were aware of it! While not in any way railroading the campaign, this subconsciously preps the players to react appropriately to the characters they encounter.
People Dress Appropriately (Unless It’s Funny)
It’s a strange thing, but characters never seem to LOOK out of place, in terms of attire, in any pulp story. If James Bond is not dressed appropriately, the villain will expand the Hero’s wardrobe when inviting him to lunch – usually at the point of a gun. A Magician always wears his coat, cape, and top hat.
When it comes to the PCs, the GMs will ensure that there is always a mechanism to at least let them look appropriate to the setting IF they want to avail themselves of it. What’s more, the character’s usual dress will get them by in most settings. Consider who our current PCs are, for a moment: There’s a Merchant Captain who dresses in Naval costume; a Dashing Pilot with multiple decorations from the war; a Priest; and a Doctor (and they are always well-dressed). It doesn’t matter whether or not they are at a warehouse, a graveyard, or a reception, these are reasonably appropriate clothing.
The only times a PC is dressed inappropriately is when they insist on wearing something other than their normal attire as a disguise, or when it’s just plain funny for them to be out of place. If the PCs ever try to sneak into somewhere by way of a brothel, expect them to emerge wearing veils and tassels – and his collar, in the case of the Priest! Not because it’s reasonable for them to emerge dressed that way, but because it’s downright hilarious. If we’re feeling generous, we might let them be carrying their street clothes!
Individuality Thrives, Conformity Withers
This is one of the more subtle, not-recognised-at-first-glance genre conventions, and yet it is one that anyone who is at all well-read in the genre will recognise the truth of, immediately. Heck, I’ve read hardly any pulp, Blair is the expert in our little team, but even I recognise it!
The more individual and individualistic, the more distinctive a character, the more they will succeed over the long run. As soon as a character leaves his life of distinctiveness behind and “settles down”, his life – and his enthusiasm for life – begins to wane. Cipher characters are a dime-a-dozen and matter about as much, in terms of plot and relationships.
And it’s not just because the most individualised characters going around are the PCs either; the same is true of NPCs. Either they are colourful and noteworthy (in which case they will probably survive and even prosper in the long run) or they are chicken fodder of no great relevance.
Not only should GMs and players actively bear this in mind and use it as a characterisation tool to ensure that the most interesting characters are those tapped for success by events, they should also apply the converse; characters who thrive or prosper should always be a little more colourful in some respect than those of less success in the same task.
You don’t have to take it over the top – that should be saved for those really special characters that come along every now and then – but giving each character that meets this description some unique mannerism or personality element is necessary to conform with this genre convention. Of course, this is a good idea in any genre, but when it comes to pulp it is mandatory.
Doomed By Destiny
Every character in a pulp game has a destiny, and no matter how much they struggle against it, fate always wins. Villains, for example, are fated to fail, usually at the hands of a specific nemesis or group of enemies. Heroes are fated to have the lives and fates of others thrust into their hands. Some characters are doomed to lives of misery, no matter how promising events may seem in the short term. Some characters can fall into a cesspool and strike oil, others will always struggle.
Obviously, this also applies to PCs. Players can make their lives (and their characters) more interesting by determining what they think their characters’ destinies are going to be – but the final determination should be left to the GMs and to the outcomes in actual play, and the GMs are under no obligation to match the PCs ambitions in this regard. In fact, it can be argued that the tension between expectation and reality elevates the interest within the character.
When it comes to NPCs, GMs should take a more active role. They should never control events while the PCs are present and involved (though they may shape them) – that way leads to plot railroads – but as soon as the NPCs are whisked off stage, events should conspire to restore the appropriate “status quo”.
Hoist By Their Own Petards
Another genre convention that GMs should respect as often as possible is the mechanism of defeat for the villains – as the title of this section says, they are generally undone by their own natures. This is, in itself, an expression of the “Doomed by destiny” convention.
The easiest way to achieve this without railroading the players is twofold:
- Build multiple potential failure modes and plans to overcome them into the Villain’s plans in the first place, then ignore every failure mode except the second one that the PCs pursue (or possibly the third); and
- Don’t only take the genre convention literally – consider metaphor and allegory and symbolic representations as well.
This manner of directed Sandboxing ensures that the GM (and players) are not overwhelmed by options, as the Villain himself has closed off most of them in advance, just be being a competent opponent, while ensuring that the adventure will be challenging. What’s more, by making the “weak point” the second or third option pursued by the PCs, the GM ensures that the PCs can attempt one thing, make progress, encounter setbacks, and still ultimately succeed – all while staying true to the genre convention.
Of course, there are still weak points in such planning – what if the PCs can’t find the flaw in the plan? What if they think of something the GM hasn’t? In the case of the first, the GM should let events progress while dropping the occasional hint or clue as to the flaw, preferably as a result of the attempts to utilise the ‘first’ flaw. This gives the PCs a sense of achievement even while it delays the ultimate success. And in the case of the second, let the Villain do everything that the GM thought of, blocking all avenues of failure of his plan – except the one that he didn’t think of, and the PCs did. This is one of those occasions referred to earlier in which everything works out the way the PCs expect it to – eventually.
Consumption Is Usually Safe
In 1982, Joe Jackson released Night And Day, which included a track with the chorus “Everything Gives You Cancer”. In modern times it seems there is something wrong with everything – not enough of this, too much of that, this side effect, that problem. If you listened to all these pronouncements of doom, you’ld never eat or drink anything again, and would wear a respirator connected to an oxygen bottle at all times.
The Pulp world and its characters reflect a different attitude. While a few things are poisonous, most things can be consumed without ill effect. You can be a hard-drinking chain-smoking private eye while never worrying about Cancer or Liver failure. And, so far as poisons are concerned, the attitude is “whatever doesn’t kill you only makes you stronger” – read the story of Rasputin, for example!
Only when it becomes important to the plot will a character encounter any ill effects from any form of conspicuous consumption.
Even unlikely radiations are generally safe – even though Marie Curie died of radium poisoning caused by the radioactivity of the element she made her life’s work, this was still considered a case of accumulated poisons and not an effect of the radiation itself. Characters can handle refined uranium with their bare hands and suffer nothing worse than a few blisters.
Consistency in pulp tends to be a one-adventure-at-a-time thing, as discussed in part one of this series (and elsewhere). Anti-gravity can be impossible in one adventure and central to the next. Throughout a character’s history, that character’s personality remains the common thread that ties the adventures together, while the definitions of some skills will change as necessary to encompass whatever the game reality is within the current adventure.
That can be tricky for players to manage, and even trickier to integrate within a character’s timeline; GMs should expect to have to help them, and to encourage the players to get creative. Once again, the general solution is to take the first interpretation to feature and consider it to be the default, and all other interpretations to be limited exceptions.
I have to apologize for the vagueness of that advice; it’s hard to be specific about this without making this article even more unreasonably large than it now is. I can only refer the reader to earlier parts of this series where the problem and solution was discussed at greater length.
Even more likely is the problem of intersecting backgrounds in conflict. Character A proposes that Voodoo works one way, with one set of limitations, in his character background, while character B has a quite different set of rules in place for his own encounter with Voodoo in his background. Or perhaps they have both encountered someone with the same title but a different name and personality, at more-or-less the same time. The players expect the GM to sort this problem out, and without requiring substantial revision of either of the characters if at all possible!
In cases like this, we will generally choose the option that has the most story potential, or is the most interesting/inviting, and make that our default (unless we don’t like either of them). Then we simply have to graft in a circumstance that explains why it worked differently, or appeared to work differently, in one character’s case (or both cases, if we’ve chosen option C, Neither Of The Above).
We may not tell the players of the solution, or even that there is a conflict – we can build an adventure around their discovery of the truth, and it gives the characters something to talk about!
Or, if we’re feeling lazy, we’ll simply let the players argue it out until they come up with a solution – or leave it as a mystery. Not everything needs to be explained!
The finishing line is now in sight! Next time around there’s some general advice, some discussion of genre reinforcement and integrating exceptions, and a look at why it all matters. Join me next week as we wrap up this examination of genre!
- 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