This entry is part 5 in the series Reinventing Pulp for Roleplaying

The Story So Far…

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. Which brings us now to Character conventions within the Pulp Genre.

It should be understood that what we’re talking about are the major characters of the storyline: PCs and important NPCs. Everyone else follows the guidelines layed out in World Conventions.

On a number of occasions, people have suggested that characterisation doesn’t matter in a pulp game. This is not a position that I agree with in any way; if it were true, then the lead characters of a pulp story would be interchangeable: The Shadow would be the same as Indiana Jones, Doc Savage interchangeable with Dirk Pitt. If you stretch the definitions just a little, you could consider Mitch McDeere (Tom Cruise) from The Firm to be a Pulp character – but he’s nothing like Evelyn Carnahan (Rachel Weisz) from The Mummy!

So, having demolished that arguement, let’s proceed to examine the characterisation conventions in pulp, from the perspective of PCs and significant NPCs in an RPG…

Gender Issues

While this topic was examined in detail under the heading of World conventions, we wanted to shed a little more light onto a dark corner. Regardless of the general attitude towards the female gender in the wider world, different rules can apply to featured characters. If the GM has modernised the attitude towards women, he has chosen a position that makes it less likely to provoke antagonism from pro-feminists, but the price paid is that he has also robbed the featured female characters of the campaign of a source of vitality and depth, stemming from their position on the subject.

In a campaign that faithfully preserves the chauvenism of the genre, while distinguishing between that position and the GMs personal beliefs, female characters have a background against which they can contrast. There are – essentially – four options for them to choose from, and they can all add considerable depth of personality and characterisation to such characters:

The Amelia Earhart Option

This option is presented first on our list because it is the one most commonly employed by female characters within a modern Pulp game. There have always been exceptions to the mould forced on women by a restrictive society, women who refused to play by the rules of the time and managed to do just about anything a man could do. Rather than a point of contention, except with the most misogynistic of individuals, this character’s gender became part of their legend, a wellspring of personal fame. In effect, this character type states ‘Your petty restrictions don’t apply to me’ and ignores or evades the public attitude of the genre.

This is the type of character who becomes furious at liberationists, utterly opposed to most laws aimed at equality, horrified to think that there is any suggestion that they are not every inch the equal of a man – Mavericks who carve their own path in spite of social restrictions. And, to be honest, this is the approach that every female PC (all one of them) and most of the leading female NPCs have taken.

The Iron-Fist-In-A-Velvet-Glove option

A second option is for a more subtle approach, in which the character is (at least in part) defined by the struggle to retain their femininity while acting as ‘one of the boys’. This is essentially an Amelia Earhart that tries to fit in with society in general, the epitome of the ‘everyman of female gender thrust into extraordinary times’. Perhaps the best example of this character are the leading ladies of the early Avengers TV series, Cathy Gale (Honor Blackman) and Emma Peel (Diana Rigg) (Series 2-5).

The Feminist Option

The third option open to female characters is to put the issue at the very centre of the personality, making the character a crusader for women’s rights. These characters must struggle to overcome or overthrow the restrictions of an ignorant society. This can actually be the hardest option for the GM, because it requires them to recreate faithfully the social attitudes and mores of the time – and society has changed to an unimaginable degree over the last 70 or 80 years. Unless the GM can succeed in this difficult task, however, he will be undercutting the dramatic potential of the chosen role of the female character; without the harshness of the attitudes of the time, the character will have nothing to fight against.

The Mata Hari Option

A character’s final option in a traditional environment is for them to employ their femininity as a weapon. This character type plays the ‘typical woman’ only when it suits her purposes; she can be seductive, sultry, ice-cold or passionate, violent or demure.

Other Options

There are a few other options, and a whole slew of variations and combinations available. The Dragon Lady, the African or Voodoo Priestess, even social Butterflies that are the 1930s equivalent of Cordelia from the early seasons of Buffy are valid characterisations. Look at any comic heroines of the era, such as the original Black Canary, the Phantom Lady, and the like, for more inspiration.

A character’s position on the feminist question relative to that of the world is one of the defining characteristics of a female character’s personality in a pulp game. It’s not the ONLY defining characteristic, but it’s definitely one of the big ones.

Racial Stereotypes And Clichés

If you’re smart enough to be reading these articles, it probably hasn’t escaped your notice that two of the “other options” given above are examples of racial stereotypes or Clichés. Characters of non-caucasian backgrounds have essentially the same options available to them concerning whatever racial standards are in place within the campaign: they can ignore them, embrace them, fight them, or manipulate others using them.

The same is true of any caucasian stereotypes, such as characters from the Deep South, or Scotsmen, or Germans. One way or another, the relationship between the character and the stereotype is fundamental to the characterisation.

In the World Conventions, I proposed the 90/10 rule – 90% of individuals should embody the cliché, 10% should be at significant variance to it. PCs should be given the choice of where they fall within this division, and players should treat it as an opportunity to develop a characterisation.

Society Is Perfect

To modern sensibilities, these inequalities of gender and race are symptomatic of a society with many problems. Blind faith and trust in authority is now considered laughable. Unchecked avarice on the part of any corporation is considered the norm. Unemployment is a social issue rather than an expression of personal sloth. Health care is proportional to income. The poor are to be pitied and given the occasional handout, not educated and assisted. Morality is defined by dogma. There is no concept of an oil shortage, and environmental concerns are nonexistant or simply a matter of “cleanup” afterwards.

None of that is perceived as true by a pulp society. All problems and difficulties exist in isolation, frequently out-of-sight and out-of-mind. The authorities can be, and are trusted. Corporations act in the public interest, and exist to service their customers. Anyone who wants one can have a job. Health care is not expected to be universally available. Since there’s work for everyone, the poor can take care of themselves with just the occasional helping hand – besides, they are often happier living a simple life. The American middle-class defines the ideals, and moral guidance is the job of the church. There’s plenty of every raw material, it just needs brave men to goout and find it. Man has conquered nature and is lord and master of all he surveys.

Modern characters tend to focus on the tragedies that a character has experienced; they are expressions of the unqiue angst of the life that has led the character to this point. Positive influances are generally present only to provide context and highlight.

Pulp-game characters have to be very different. They are not defined by the disasters and personal calamities that have been experienced and the tragedies that have been endured; they are, characterised by their successes and achievements. That does not mean that the society that produces a character for a pulp game has to be flawless; like an oil painting, it is the small flaws that create the illusion of reality.

As a result, Pulp Societies embody an idealism that makes the Pulp Game a perfect vehicle for Progressive Social Commentary. There are things that can be said by analagy and metaphor that are utterly intolerable if stated directly. The most obvious application of this vehicle is to address the social problems that have become publicly aparrant in the years since – equality, civil rights, class distinction, corporate greed, and the like; but a lot of GMs don’t seem to realise that you can go further, and examine modern issues without the heat of current events: terrorism, privacy, censorship, access to data, government corruption, pollution, medical ethics, and more; all that must be remembered is that each problem exists in isolation, because – in general – society is perfect. And Pulp characters are exemplars of that idealism.

Morality Is Black And White

A reflection of the idealism and social simplicity of the setting that directly affects characters is that for a Pulp Character, morality is black and white. There is always a right thing to do and a wrong thing to do. You can be a Good Person or a Bad Person, a hero or a villain. The former are lionised, and accepted; the latter are condemned.

In general, there isn’t even room for angsty hand-wringing about what the right thing to do IS. The choice will be obvious, even if the price is not fully known. That makes a pulp environment a great setting in which to explore difficult moral questions, because players, characters, and GM can’t equivocate – they have to commit to an ideal and live with the consequences.

The concept of someone who prays devoutly, donates his time to charity, is generous and warm-hearted and friends with everyone, but who cheats on his taxes and is having a secret affair on the side is unthinkable for a pulp game. In a modern game, it works perfectly well. The moment a pulp character succumbed to the temptation to cheat on his wife, or lie on his tax return, he has crossed over to the dark side; either he confesses and performs an appropriate penance, or the virtuous qualities will erode as the character progressively succumbs to evil. Should the infidelity become known, his piety would be considered false, his friends would desert him, and his charitable associations would distance themselves. He would be considered cold and calculating, deceiptful and untrustworthy. He might well lose his job, and certainly he would be considered of dubious character.

It follows that if a character is morally upright in a pulp game, he would not permit himself to commit an infidelity. Consequently, all Pulp characters are expected to conform to an appropriate moral code, not only in play, but in their character’s backgrounds.

Enforcement

This poses a tricky challenge for the GM. How does he enforce this principle? Players who violate it weaken the game by weakening the conncetion between genre and campaign, but having the world react to this behaviour in the way they would if an NPC commited the offence would damage the game even more. Its also unfair to punish those players who did not commit the offence by restricting the group’s capabilities and limiting their fun. So there’s one line of arguement that the punishment should be in-game, and another that it should be completely metagame – a reduction in the XP the character receives, for example.

It’s a stramge thing, but players find it easier to tolerate and accept any in-game penalty than they do a comparatively minor metagame penalty. Perhaps they feel like the latter is criticism of them personally while the former is more impersonal. For that reason, I reserve metagame penalties for severe violations of acceptable game behaviour. A PC deliberately killing a bystander might – almost – qualify; nothing less is serious enough to risk someone being so irate that they might consider walking out of the game (and make no mistake, I have seen that reaction in other people’s games). That leaves an in-house penalty.

Depending on the severity of the offence, that might be anything from a slap on the wrist through to an in-game disadvantage of indefinite duration. The more extensive the penalty, the greater the need to put some sort of limitation on it – it might be duration (so many sessions in real life or so many days or weeks in-game), or it might be until some trigger condition is achieved. I might also follow it with some sort of probation, depending on what the player had done.

Parity Of Weapons Use

In most RPGs its entirely acceptable to use the biggest weapon you can get your hands on. Pulp is entirely different; it follows the principle of The Conservation Of Weapons Parity. If the other side uses non-lethal force, you can’t use lethal force. If the other side uses knives or swords, you can’t use guns. If the other side uses pistols and small-calibre weapons, you can’t use submachine guns, and so on. Or, if you do use them, you can’t aim them at the enemy.

Of course, the opposition in a pulp game rarely pay more than lip service to this principle, which is why it is the bad guys (read: NPCs controlled by the GM) who set the parameters for each combat. But in general, violations of this genre convention are not considered “cricket” (refer “it’s just not cricket” if the expression is unfamiliar).

Enforcement

This is another of those tricky ones to enforce. The best approach, once again, is in-game – one or more NPCs deciding that they can no longer trust the PC who violated the principle. The second time, he or she becomes unwelcome, and the third time, they get treated as a pariah, a villain-in-waiting. This approach uses peer pressure as a corrective mechanism. If the character persists beyond the pariah stage, it obviously isn’t working; at that point, more severe punishments may be in order.

Motives Are Simple

Most game sites – including Campaign Mastery – encourage players to give PCs rich and complex motivations, as these are lead to depth of character. Pulp games are different. In a pulp game, character motivations are simple, and can usually be stated in just three or four words. “To get justice.” “To beat the Nazis.” “To advance science.” “To discover the truth.” “To keep us safe.” “Protecting My Family”. “To Protect And Serve.” “Mom and Apple Pie.” Even “I Like French Fries” could be acceptable, if presented properly (I forget the movie, TV show, or book that I got that idea from, but it was a discussion over Baked Potatoes vs Fried as a reflection of freedom of choice).

But more than just motives, immediate goals are also straightforward. No-one worries about the long view, because tomorrow will take care of itself – it’s all one problem at a time. These facts should always be in the back of your mind when working on a character for a Pulp game.

Simple Motives and Black-&-White morality do not have to translate into simple characters, however. It’s surprising how quickly simple choices can aggregate into a complex personality. Ten yes/no questions gives two to the tenth power (minus 1) combinations – that’s 1023. And if half of those are about which 5 questions from a list of twenty actually matter to the character, you get an exponential increase. It can even be argued that by keeping the motives simple and the morality straightforward, you are (effectively) removing those elements that can distract from the characterisation, enabling greater depth and focus on the remaining areas of the character.

Chutzpah Beats Expertise, Every Time

In most games, a lack of expertise is a sure-fire recipe for trouble – but Luck Favours The Active Hero, so flipping switches and dials at random can be more useful than taking a lot of time to think about a problem. If there’s a bomb, cut the red wire. Or the black wire. Or the green wire. It will either be the right one, or it will increase the dramatic tension to the point where the next one that you cut HAS to be the right one!

But this Genre Convention goes further. Many of the villains are acknowledged experts, even geniuses – Fu Manchu, for example. But they never succeed, because the hero goes in and kicks down the delicate sandcastles their plots have been built apon.

Experts are Boffins. Their undoubted brilliance in their chosen fields of expertise gets in the way of an understanding of the real world; that understanding can be replaced, but only at the price of overwhelming hubris and megalomania – the traits of the villain of the week, in other words.

Everyone’s Jack

This is a consequence of the previous Genre Convention. When was the last time a pulp character said “I don’t know how to do that?” I can’t think of an occasion, myself. Everyone has the expertise necessary to succeed at the last possible minute – somehow. In other words, everyone’s a Jack Of All Trades – unless it’s important to the plot that they can’t do whatever it is that needs doing.

This has to be modified somewhat to work in a group situation, and hence in a roleplaying situation. Anyone can do it, unless there is a PC in the party with that particular expertise, or unless it’s important to the plot that the characters not be able to perform whatever act they are attempting.

Gamemastering A Jack

Very little of what’s been written so far in this article has been easy for the GM, and this is yet another point of difficulty that must be contended with (and people wonder why Pulp is such a hard genre to run, and run Well!). Here, the GMs have to maintain the fine balance between handing the PCs a blank cheque to do as they wish, and adhering to this genre convention, between maintaining tension and uncertainty, advancing the plot, and putting it on railroad tracks.

I can’t speak for anyone else (and didn’t think to quiz my co-referee on the question) but here’s the mental process that I use to dance on the head of that particular grenade pin.

  • Rate the importance of the question or action to the plot on a 1-to-5 scale (high is more important).
  • Adjust up or down for the current level of player frustration (up = more frustrated).
  • Adjust up or down for the degree of time-criticality (up means the clock’s counted down to ’2′…tick….’1′…).
  • Adjust up or down for the appropriateness of the action (up is ‘exactly the right thing to do’).
  • Adjust up or down for the current level of GM frustration (up = ‘let’s get this party started’).
  • If the result is really low, I’ll consider being an obstructionist, or at least, taking a hard line on my interpretations of the game mechanics.
  • If the result is in the mid-range, the characters can stand or fail on their abilities and let the dice fall where they may. I’ll neither help nor hinder as GM.
  • The higher the result, the more willing to bend the rules – in fashions permitted by the genre – to permit the character to succeed.
  • But before I announce the results, I have a couple more questions to flash through my mind. Will the action advance the plot – or derail it? Will it be more fun for the character to succeed – or fail? These considerations can override the previous decision.

Note that I’m usually not this methodolical – at most, I’ll spend a second or two with these thoughts flashing through my mind before I make a ruling and get on with the game. Occasionally I’ll take a couple of extra seconds to contemplate the implications; about half the time when I do so, my co-GM will take the initiative in resolving the question, and take the lead GM role for a little while. His judgement’s usually pretty good.

Smart Characters Are Still Smart

A superficial reading of these genre conventions might suggest that this means that Intelligence is a less important attribute in a Pulp game than in other genres.

That is absolutely not the case. Brain vs Brawn is a recurring theme in the pulps, and brain always wins – if it’s the hero who’s smart. If anything, smart characters are even more ingenious than they would be in real life. Genius is far more common – and often far more costly – a character trait, allied as it is to other character defects. Can anyone doubt the mad genius of many of the pulp Villains?

Inexplicable Lapses

And yet, many of the smartest characters have inexplicable lapses in intellect – an expression of plot overriding the internal reality of the game. A supergenius will still leave a hole in his plot for world domination, and a pulp hero will eventually put his finger on the weak spot – usually followed by his fist.

Villains

I don’t know whether or not it started in KODT or if it simply reached a mass audiance in an early issue of that magazine, but there are a number of Evil Overlord lists. The explanatory information provided at the start of the web-page that I’ve linked to suggests that it predated that appearance, as does this wikipedia page. Pulp Villains will fall foul of many if not all of these in the course of any campaign – not all at the same time, of course.

Heroes

The same is true for Pulp Heroes. If it would ruin the plot for them to see the elephant in the room, they see no elephants – or decide that the elephant is really a disguised zebra or a red herring. They make no allowances – ever – for a character going bad, or making a mistake.

Once again, this raises some thorny issues for GMs and players to grapple with. Should players ignore the obvious? How do they know the GMs aren’t playing on the greater sophistication of the modern audiance, and intend for the players to “see the elephant”? Are the GMs justified in deliberately misleading or outright *gasp* lying to the players in order to simulate this genre convention?

Our answer to these questions is NO, it doesn’t matter, and both yes and no, respectively.

If the players see through the GMs plot, they are fully entitled to act on that insight unless it derives from non-character knowledge. The GMs should simply remember the genre convention that I described in the previous part under the heading of “Straight Lines Always Twist”: If the players ever work out what the plot twist is going to be, it should be immediately replaced with something even more bizzare and unexpected.

That principle absolved both sides of the need to concern themselves with the modern-vs-genre issue raised by the second question. The defining parameters on the plot are no longer the characters, but the players. You don’t give each character a chance to shine, you give each player a moment in the spotlight in which to feature his character.

Does that justify attempting to mislead the players? Absolutely – so long as they can invoke a plot twist of some sort to justify it. Like the Science Fiction Mystery writer, discussed in “The Asimov Connection” within the previous part of this series, the GM can and should do everything in his power to obfuscate, downplay, and/or conceal the key detail or line of thought – short of being dishonest. And if that’s not enough, throw a plot twist at them.

In other words, try to make the elephant seem unimportant – and if you fail, assume that the real villain wanted the Heroes to waste time on the Elephant, and rework the rest of your plotline accordingly.

Whoops! I’m out of time, and still only 1/3 of the way through character conventions. So I guess I’ll have to get back to the list next time…

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