This entry is part 8 in the series Reinventing Pulp for Roleplaying

If all has gone according to plan, you are now looking at the final part of what’s been a massive series on the Pulp Genre. This article is mostly afterthoughts and GM advice that I’ve culled from many discussions with players and with my co-GM, Blair Ramage, together with some stuff straight from my own head. It’s a cleanup article, let’s be honest, the appendices that go with the series. But there’s something of value here for everyone…

Invert Tropes Selectively

There was a lot of advice in parts of the previous articles about inverting established tropes and genre conventions, especially when it came to matters of race and culture. It’s easy to get carried away when doing so, making each NPC a square peg in a round hole, simply to make them more interesting. Doing so devalues the effect; in order for the exceptional characters to contrast strongly with the norms, those norms need to be the most common foundation for characters. Your game is best served by working within the clichés as much as possible and reserving the exceptions for when they will be significant.

Your accountants should all be mousy types who are good with numbers and not much else – unless it is especially important that one is not. Your Irish-Americans should all be heavy drinkers who work in law-enforcement – unless it matters that one is not.

Another way to look at this is to say that your characters should follow clichés unless the genre is overruled by the power of plot, which – as discussed in the first article of the series – overrules genre conventions when necessary.

This has the effect of letting your players quickly assess the nature of a character, extrapolate from the genre conventions, take note of what’s significant, and discard the rest; it enables them to focus on the plot.

There is also the added benefit that the players are rewarded for knowing and following the genre conventions and stereotypes, which is an important subject addressed below (“Genre Enforcement”).

Especially For Sidekicks

The temptation to invert tropes tends to be especially strong when it comes to sidekicks and villains. Because these characters are more significant than the run-of-the-mill NPC, there is a desire to make them individuals, and to ensure that they stand out from a crowd.

That alone is not a good enough reason to invert a genre cliché of characterization. Giving the villain enough originality that they can be the foundation of multiple plotlines is a better reason, but one that will not normally be valid for sidekicks.

If anything, convention inversion should never be used for sidekicks so that they do not distract from the villain. If a hierarchy of increasing NPC individuality is considered:

  • General Public
  • Grunts and Muscle
  • Named One-off NPCs
  • Recurring NPCs
  • Prominent NPCs

…then villains occupy the top level, while Sidekicks occupy the middle level. In effect, they are a Mook with a name and a smattering of personality.

I once created a Villain for my superhero game and made the mistake of giving him a sidekick who was more interesting than the supposed focal point of the adventure. As a result, it did not go well – right up to the point where (in desperation) I made the Sidekick the real “power behind the throne”, pulling the villain’s strings. Suddenly, the adventure came to life just in time to reach a sparkling conclusion. Sidekicks should exemplify the genre conventions.

Players, Trust Your GMs

No matter how much the theorists might suggest that participating in an RPG is a cooperative venture between GM and Players, there is always an element of competition between PCs and GM simply because the latter controls the former’s enemies. This sometimes-adversarial aspect of the relationship can never be wholly eliminated from the game.

Unfortunately, this often leads players to be suspicious of the GMs when they offer information or plot leads. At its worst, this can become something akin to full-blown paranoia. Because of some of its genre conventions, like the deathtrap, the Pulp Genre can be especially susceptible to this.

Just because your GM is plotting, that doesn’t mean that he’s plotting against you!

It’s part of the GM’s job description to make life as difficult and interesting as possible for the PCs – and to make sure that they get out of it with their skins intact. They are to generate situations that produce thrills and spills, but setting out to willingly screw his players over would also be screwing with his campaign.

The more adversarial the players are, the more a GM is forced to reciprocate in order to keep the adventure moving. So, players, cut the GM some slack – and expect him to reciprocate when the time is right. The goal is to have the best adventure collectively possible, okay?

Genre Enforcement

Another part of the GM’s job is to enforce the genre, and this is where things can get sticky. For example, in the pulp genre, federal officials are trustworthy and honest until proven otherwise, regardless of appearance. If the players react to everything that such an official says with distrust and suspicion, they are contravening genre, and the game suffers as a result. The harm might be as small as hours of wasted time while the players hatch plans to deal with any betrayal, or it might be the total derailing of the adventure because the plot twist (betrayal by the official) has been anticipated by the PCs.

For that matter, spending hours planning anything is a violation of genre by the players.

Having said that, you can take the player out of the culture, but cannot take the culture out of the player – at least not completely. Or perhaps that should read, “you can take the PC out of the player, but…”. The GMs have to compromise genre a little to make their game accessible to modern audiences. That means that if an NPC is supposed to be trustworthy, according to convention, part of the GM’s task is making that NPC feel trustworthy to the players.

That means that in most modern campaigns, especially with players who are unfamiliar with the genre conventions, genre enforcement can be a significant problem. It was while discussing this issue that Blair and I began to conceive of this article series.

Adversarial Enforcement

The worst possible approach is to attempt to employ force majeure to enforce genre conventions. Banning players from making plans, for example, or mandating that “your characters trust this NPC”, or otherwise explicitly interfering with the players freedom to express and control their characters. This achieves nothing in terms of solving the overall problem while arousing resentment.

Only slightly better is attempting to use logic, even the logic of genre convention, to persuade players that their PCs should behave in a certain way, or not behave in a certain way. This can arouse feelings of inadequacy in the players and heighten the sense of disconnection from the genre that logically results from not living in that time and culture.

Education

A far better approach is to educate the players as to the genre conventions, and then use a carrot-and-stick approach to enforcement. Providing such education is the purpose of the entire article series to this point. The articles are not aimed at GMs so much as they is aimed at Players.

Having provided the information necessary for such an education, it’s now time to move on to the ultimate point that the series has been aiming toward from word one, which is providing specific advice or GMs on the subject of Genre Enforcement.

A Foolish Consistency

The first point to be made is this: Choose Your Battles Carefully.

Fighting unnecessary battles does nothing but tire both sides out and make people sick of the subject, unwilling to listen, when it does matter.

Every time that a genre convention is broken, the GM should consider whether or not it will make any real difference to just let it slide. Only if it will really matter should the GM consider any form of active genre enforcement.

In-Play Constraint

That is not to say that the GM should not anticipate possible genre violations in advance, and arrange in-game circumstances accordingly. If there is a character that you expect the players to mistrust and who you want to make trusted, introduce them early and spend game time making them trustworthy. If you want the characters to act and react on their wits and not spend time pre-planning, arrange events in-game so that they don’t have time.

Communications technology is primitive. Enforce the difficulties of collusion. If the players are separated, require contact to be by (written) telegram, or timed telephone call (there’s no such thing as a conference call in this era, remember), or a simulation of radio protocols (you can talk or you can listen, you can’t do both).

Transportation technology is also primitive. If the party have different places to go, they will have to split up, and may have to do so immediately if they are to reach their destination in time.

Control WHEN the genre violation occurs instead of WHETHER it occurs. If PCs have to travel to the adventure on a ship, give them a brief period to brainstorm in advance (5 minutes per PC sounds about right) before they depart, and let them plot to their hearts’ content when underway – with no preparations that can’t be made with what they have with them already. If they discover that they need a radio set, they will have to acquire one while underway unless they had the foresight to pack one in the first place. Force the players to improvise with what their characters have brought with them.

Lead By Example

It is incumbent on the GM to ensure that he establishes the standard of behavior that he expects to enforce with his own behavior. It is not enough merely to tell the players what is expected of them in terms of genre conventions, he has to demonstrate them.

Experience

Most genre-enforcement will occur in a metagame context, however, and controlling the experience awarded is one of the best tools available.

Award extra experience to a character who is played in-genre even despite the players’ natural inclinations. If the players want to take an out-of-genre advantage, let them buy the ability to do so with a reduction in the amount of XP to be awarded for achieving success.

These techniques in combination make for a very powerful tool. It leaves the choice of whether or not to violate genre in the hands of the players while establishing that there is a cost to doing so – in effect, a cost for claiming an advantage within the game that the characters are not supposed to have.

But they are very blunt instruments. Reserve them for major violations or plot points. Willingly letting themselves be captured in hopes of learning more about what is going on? Bonus XP. Refusing to let themselves be captured? Reduction in XP. Letting the Villain capture them only to avoid this penalty? Neither bonus nor penalty.

Most importantly, communicate. If someone is about to violate genre, warn them of the infraction and the cost if they continue to pursue their current course, then leave it up to them. This reminds the players of what the genre conventions are, educating them while rewarding those who learn.

And if you’re concerned that the extra experience will unbalance the game, make allowances for the awarding of extra XP when planning your regular XP awards. Instead of “4 XP” (Hero Games scale), make the base for successfully completing the mission “2 XP + up to 2 bonus XP”. Use one point of bonus for roleplay or being clever or whatever, and use the other for genre enforcement.

Bonuses & Penalties

For lesser choices that are either in keeping with, or opposed to, genre convention, a better choice is to award a one-off bonus or penalty to whatever it is that the character is attempting to achieve. That could be a bluff, or a persuasion, or an investigation, or an attack mode, or (in fact) just about any task the character wants to attempt.

This bonus should be doubled, or penalty halved, if the action is in keeping with the character’s Shtick, whatever that might be. An acrobatically-inclined character should receive bonuses to swinging from chandeliers when that’s appropriate.

To be honest, we’re fairly generous when it comes to these one-off bonuses. If the action is entertaining enough, or advances the plot in the direction we think it should go, or is simply fun for the player, we might award additional bonuses. If the circumstances favor performing the action, of course, there will be bonuses on top of that. Even if each of these individual bonuses were capped at +2 (on 3d6), putting them all together could earn the character up to a +10 – and there is no such cap (but bonuses of this scale are rare, +4 is more typical total).

On the other hand, actions that derail the plotline (like trying to kill the villain in the first act rather than learn what he’s up to), actions that are contrary to what’s appropriate to the character, actions that put a dampener on the fun at the table – these are all good reasons to award an ad-hoc penalty. Doing everything wrong can earn a -10 penalty just as easily as doing everything right grants a +10 bonus.

It’s also fairly unusual for us to announce these bonuses, though we will do so from time to time (as much to remind the players that they exist). More often, we will vary the target value to be achieved for success.

The result is that actions that are in keeping with genre conventions, that are in line with what the character is good at, that bring the fun, are all more likely to succeed – and those that aren’t are more likely to fail. And you had better believe that players are quick to learn what works and what doesn’t!

Plot Convolutions

Another technique is to convolute the plot to circumvent any genre violations. This is a more problematic approach, but one that has its place in any GMs repertoire.

There is not a lot of fun for the players if things are too easy. Contemplate the following sequence of events:

  1. The GM presents the PCs with a problem;
  2. The players spend three hours plotting and making contingency plans to deal with the problem;
  3. The GM informs the players that everything went according to plan and hands out XP for the adventure.

Inserting an intervening penultimate step to have the players actually roleplay through their success is an improvement, but still a marginal one.

This is no fun for anyone. It is far better for the GMs to metagame in this situation, to improvise plot complications and convolutions that the players have not anticipated, than for them not to do so.

This is a delicate line to cross, but as an example it clearly shows that there are some circumstances in which the GM should adopt an adversarial approach, and should employ every dirty trick in their repertoires, utilize every advantage that they can muster, including any knowledge of what the players have planned or might plan in secret.

This is, paradoxically, a situation in which the players have to trust the GM – not to abuse their authority and power. That simply won’t be possible unless the GM has previously earned and established that trust.

Compensation

Which brings me to another tricky point. If the GM blatantly metagames in this fashion, should the PCs be compensated in some way? Extra XP, bonuses?

My opinion is that the only justifiable reason for the GM to metagame in this way is to compensate for an egregious and blatant genre violation on the part of the players. Any form of compensation for doing so sends mixed messages and rewards the players for failing to live up to their part of the genre equation. On the contrary, the penalties discussed earlier are more appropriate than any form of compensation.

This is an extremely hard-line position to hold, and that means that it should not be applied lightly. A certain level of planning by the PCs should be accepted by the GM, and if he needs to alter the adventure slightly to keep it challenging as a result, that is part of the burdon of being a GM. Only in the most extreme of circumstances should the GM adopt such a hard line, and he should make it very clear to the players that this action has been taken in response to the genre violation.

The result will almost certainly be a heated conversation, something the GM should be prepared for. The players will almost certainly see this as penalizing them for being too clever for the GM, and they will have a point; however, the ultimate good of the game is at stake, and the GM should make his objections to the behavior clear to the players.

This should certainly be a last resort, not to be employed until after other attempts at remedial action have failed.

Integrating Exceptions

Of course, if there is an occasion when letting the PCs have planning time will change nothing in terms of the adventure – and this happens more often with Pulp scenarios than many GMs expect – then the GM should permit the players to plot and plan all they want. At the same time, this represents the perfect opportunity to educate the players without creating ill-will – “It’s not quite genre-accurate, but I’ll let you do it this time”.

A Summary Of The Conventions

I thought that it might be a good idea to reiterate all the genre conventions before moving on to the big finish of both the article and the series…

World Conventions

  • Gender Issues – how are women treated?
  • Racial Stereotypes – use clichés and exceptions
  • Weird Science Works – use it as necessary
  • The Backyard Is The Forefront – most scientific progress happens through private research by backyard inventors
  • Outlandish Technology Looks The Part – practice your descriptions of “look and feel”
  • Strange Things Lurk In The Unknown – there are strange powers and unspeakable horrors that science cannot explain
  • Magic is Real and usually Evil
  • Nightmares leave no mark – there is never proof of the paranormal
  • Optimism Trumps Cynicism – make sure that there is always a way for the PCs to win in the end
  • There’s Always Enough Money – resources are unlimited
  • The Five Corners of the World – nowhere is fully explored
  • Most worlds have breathable atmospheres – and there are ways to travel to them
  • It’s Alive! – and it wants to invade earth
  • The Ether is Real – which means no Einsteinian Limits

Story Conventions

  • Action is always Right – doing something always advances the plot
  • Risk Equals Reward – the more risk a PC takes, the more success they will have in the long run
  • Over-planning leads to Opposition – as explained above
  • Players, permit your characters to be captured – put PCs in position to learn what the villain is up to
  • Spectacle Equals Success for the Heroes – the more flamboyant the action, the more likely it should be to succeed
  • Fiendish Death Traps are both inevitable and doomed to failure
  • Characters rarely die
  • Death Is Cheap for everyone else
  • Henchmen are Disposable – so use them up
  • Assassination never pays – attempting to kill the heroes before they interfere only makes them mad
  • Most targets are faster than most speeding bullets – everyone should miss more often than they hit
  • Damsels may be in distress – the role of women in a campaign is an important decision
  • SWF, Villain’s Assistant, Seeks Hero – assistant villainesses always fall for the hero
  • The Government are (usually) the Good Guys
  • KOs – Violence that should break bones and cause permanent injuries do little but knock PCs & major NPCs out
  • In The Nick Of Time – cliffhangers are an occupational hazard
  • Ninety Miles An Hour is how fast the game should run
  • The Improbable is Probable – coincidences happen – in the PCs favour if they have acted instead of debating
  • The Villain will return
  • Story trumps reality
  • A foolish consistency – physics can change from adventure to adventure if necessary – use the Asimov technique
  • Silencers Are Golden – good for unlimited shots and more effective than they have ever been in real life
  • Use detail where it doesn’t matter
  • Super-men and Elite Forces – have a rational explanation for the alliance of the PCs
  • The Authorities are Inadequate to whatever the problem is
  • Straight (plot-) Lines always Twist
  • Optimism Trumps Cynicism (again)- there’s never a problem too big for a PC to solve

Character Conventions

  • Use Gender issues to define characters
  • Racial Stereotypes & Cliches – employ the 90/10 rule
  • Society Is Perfect – someone’s always to blame when things go wrong
  • Morality is Black & White
  • Parity Of Weapons use – PCs shouldn’t use anything stronger than the villains do
  • Motives are simple
  • Chutzpah beats expertise, Every Time
  • Everyone’s (a) Jack-of-all-trades – every character has whatever skill they need to win in the end
  • Smart Characters are still Smart
  • and yet, the smartest characters have Inexplicable Lapses in Judgment
  • The Jungle Breeds Noble Savages
  • Leopards hardly ever change their spots – villains will usually stay villains and heroes usually stay heroes
  • Irredeemable Evil can be used to explore complex moral questions with focus
  • Villains (usually) boast
  • Melodramatic Schemes are par for the course
  • Everyone is a Master of Disguise at times
  • Respect your enemy (your enemy grudgingly respects you)
  • Optimism Trumps Cynicism (one more time) – people are always confident things will get better (doubters aren’t right in the head)
  • Characters are colorful
  • The Feds are the Good Guys
  • A Depth of Character – don’t mistake simple building blocks for simplistic characters
  • Pretty Girls and Macho Men – everyone is attractive
  • A Warped Body means a Warped Mind
  • Businessmen are either Philanthropists or (Greedy) Industrialists
  • People dress appropriately (unless it’s funny)
  • Individuals thrive, conformity withers
  • Everyone is doomed to fulfill their Destiny (whatever it is)
  • Villains are frequently hoist be their own petards
  • Consumption is (usually) safe
  • Internal Consistency is important but less vital in pulp

It’s Not Just Pulp

Much of the advice offered in this series transcends the pulp genre itself, as Rodney observed in the comments to Part 7.

But the value of these genre conventions extends beyond the pulp genre in another vital way: considering them and translating them into the equivalents for a different genre can be used to create a similar roadmap for that genre. The advice and discussion offered with each can then be used to determine game impact of the specific genre and subgenre.

For example, let’s start looking at:

a science fiction genre:

Gender issues – equality is assumed. Issues relating to gender equality can be explored using a character who is deemed to be equal but who is actually inferior by nature.

Racial Stereotypes – racial profiles are in common use but are considered to be oversimplification, however accurate a foundation they form for individual personalities. Many races are subject to racial prejudice by a small minority, but equality is the standard.

Science works – everything that happens has a scientific explanation (or at least a pseudo-scientific explanation).

Technobabble works – the better a player is at describing how to rearrange the engineering using buzzwords and technobabble, the better his character is at getting technology to achieve a specific effect.

Progress Requires Teamwork – almost all scientific progress is achieved by a research team focusing on a single issue in a specially-equipped laboratory. Only advances in theory may take place outside this environment.

Outlandish Technology looks mundane and is remarkably easy to use.

…and so on.

Conclusion: What Is A Genre?

When you get right down to it, What is a genre? I consider it a set of assumptions concerning the environment in which a story takes place, a set of conditions that describe the nature of the stories, and a set of characterization guidelines that are compatible with, and logical derivatives of, the preceding elements. Sometimes this defines a subgenre within a broader framework, but for all practical purposes a subgenre is merely a genre which has a certain resemblance to related genres.

ANY genre can be defined using this framework, and those definitions are automatically in a format that manifests as a practical guide to GMs and Players and Writers working within that genre. The Empire Of The Petal Throne is not the same genre as Bushido, which is not the same genre as D&D, which is not the same genre as Rolemaster. These are similar, clearly related, but with different assumptions as to the nature of the world, the nature of the plotlines, and the nature of the characters that will participate. Some things are common to all – in the broadest possible sense – but there are enough differences to make each unique.

What’s even more important and useful is that individual campaigns can be described using exactly the same framework. The result is an explicit blueprint by which the GM can communicate the ground rules of a campaign to his players.

And anything that makes it easier for GM and players to communicate is worthwhile. These are your tools now – go out and use them!

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