This entry is part 4 in the series Reinventing Pulp for Roleplaying

This article is being co-written by Blair Ramage, with whom I co-referee a Pulp Hero campaign. Although it started as a single item, it has grown so substantially that it has become necessary to split it into multiple parts. 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. Last time we got half-way through discussing plot and story conventions; so let’s pick up right where we left off…

The KO

Last time, I made a big deal of how cheap death is in a pulp environment, and yet the leading characters never die. In truth, they are never seriously hurt, either. This is a serious problem when it comes to maintaining any sort of tension within a pulp game.

There are two primary solutions to this dilemma.

Humiliation

The first is to ensure that the price of survival is so high that the characters and their players would almost prefer to die. The campaign world expects a certain level of success and achievement from its heroes, and can and should be cruel to those who fail to measure up to an almost-impossible standard of perfection.

When the PCs succeed, they should be lionized; they should be taken to the head of every queue, their opinions should be sought out and respected, they should be invited to every soirée and event. No party should be complete without them, and their name alone should be enough to get them through doors into the inner chambours of power (under normal circumstances). The public will recognise them wherever they go, will want to shake hands and slap them on the back, and so on (exceptions apply). The police will take the character’s word over the evidence before them, and violate procedure on their say-so. Villains will prepare for their intervention and may even revise plans completely in a (necessarily doomed) attempt to take the heroes into account.

With failure, all that goes away. With repeated or severe failure, it should be inverted. They will be kept waiting for every appointment, no-one will listen to their opinions, there will be newspaper stories about them being ‘all washed up’, they get invited to nothing and turned away if they have the temerity to show up anyway. Public officials will give them the cold shoulder and the police will view them with suspicion. Villains will dismiss them as irrelevant and the public will decry them or worse still, pity them.

Spreading these effects out and making them less all-or-nothing permits a graduated response to failure-without-death that is sure to have your players eager to regain their respect.

Throw in personal consequences such as investors withdrawing money from deals involving the PC, and the deaths of NPCs around the characters or in their place, and you have ample sources of motivation for the characters. So much so that the second solution is over the top – but it’s a pulp genre convention anyway, and so is being over the top, so that’s no reason not to do it.

Serial Cliffhangers

Players, over time, grow attached to their characters. I’m not sure that’s 100% universal, but it would be my bet that it would come close to it. The implication is that the threat of a character death is enough, you don’t actually need to carry it out. The closer you can bring the characters to death (or some other hopeless situation), more closely you can graze the ultimate penalty without inflicting it, the more keenly the players will feel the threat.

My co-referee and I have a rule: we always end a game session on a moment of high drama, imminant disaster, or extreme danger, except at the very end of an adventure. We will deliberately emphasise the danger and grimness, painting the blackest picture possible at such times. It works.

In The Nick Of Time

A cliffhanger implies that the characters will escape from their dire situation in the nick of time, every time. But more than that, the same is true of everything that takes place in a pulp story. A new weapon is needed? All efforts to create one will fail, until what seems like the 13th hour. Everything will happen at the last possible minute.

In game terms, that means that the task of the GMs is to lay foundation while delaying or blocking all attempts to solve problems until it is almost too late for the solution to be helpful. Everything should be a struggle, and the fates should conspire against the PCs.

This puts the GMs in a difficult position of a different kind – doing everything they can to make life difficult for the heroes while at the same time ensuring that they will ultimately have the opportunity to succeed and that luck favours them. But this is merely a more extreme form of the dilemma all GMs face all the time; the only significant difference is that instead of a strict neutrality, the pulp genre requires the GM to balance extremes of partisan support for both sides.

Ninety Miles An Hour

Laying foundation is left a little trickier, as is characterisation, by another genre convention – that everything should happen at Warp Factor 12. The only reason for a lull in the action is to put a full stop between the drama that has just occurred and the drame that is about to begin.

With less scope for the establishment of any sort of depth of characterisation, it is a good thing that the pulp game world conventions require most of the people encountered to be stereotyped. But even so, the successful pulp referee has to utilise every shorthand trick he can find to convey personality. Everything that the NPC posesses, says, or touches, has to serve a double or even triple purpose.

Use family crests on personal property to provide identity. Use objects like cigarette holders as affections to articulate personalities. Use accents. If it takes longer than thirty seconds to get your characterisation across, completely, cut something out and reveal it in a subsequent encounter. Take your pacing cues from the Indiana Jones movies and Under Seige and the Die Hard series.

The Improbable Is Probable

Another convention of pulp genre stories is the level of coincidence. Frankly, it’s so high that it’s unbelievable. And that’s a problem.

Throughout these discussions, we’ve been careful to distinguish between genuine genre conventions and bad writing, but let’s be honest – there was some awful writing in the pulps. Up until this point, that process had proceeded smoothly, but now we struck a point of mild disagreement: is this extraordinary, improbable, implausble level of coincidence a consequence of bad writing or a legitimate genre convention?

What decided the issue in Blair’s favour is that even the better pulp writers resorted to this plot device at regular intervals. He brought up Doc Savage, I conceded with EE ‘Doc’ Smith. But that leaves another problem for GMs: how to maintain plausibility in the face of this genre convention.

We batted that one around a bit, and ultimately came to only half a solution: the GM has to pick his coincidences. A coincidence that advances the plot is good. A coincidence that is the result of PC luck, because they have acted instead of debating, is fine. A coincidence that heightens the drama or even the melodrama is fine. Anything else is to be approached with skepticims and wariness. But this is a guideline, and not a complete solution; it took very little effort for us to think of exceptions on both sides of the question. So this is less than completely satisfactory, but it’s the best and most consistent answer we could come up with.

The Villain Will Return

This is something that the various pulp-inspired movies don’t seem to have caught onto, Star Wars being the possible exception. It doesn’t matter what happens to the villain or how inescapable his death is, he will always come back sooner or later, either directly or in the form of a son or brother or father or admirer or flunky who steps up.

It used to be said amongst our players that no-one’s dead in comics or roleplaying games unless you see the body, but there have been too many ways found by GMs to get around this requirement for it to hold much weight any more. The first villain of my superhero campaign had this as one of his central stikhs!

The Villains are protected by a variation of the same immunity from harm that protects the PCs. They will face consequences of failure, of course; they may lose the entire organisation they had built up, they will lose access to resources and finances and favours. About the only advantage they will retain is anonymity, and that only because they have to be presumed dead until proven otherwise. But the villain will always return – eventually.

Story Trumps Reality

Another point that was emphasised in the discussion of genre in general is that plot supercedes any simulation of reality, but it’s sufficiently important to the pulp genre to reiterate. Physics in a pulp game works like it does in a warner brothers cartoon – it only matters when you notice it, and sometimes not even then.

A Foolish Consistency

This is an implication of the previous point that is often overlooked. It states that just because something works one way in one adventure, that doesn’t mean that it will work the same way the next time around. Weird Science may work, but it only does so through the power of Plot.

This genre convention derives from the few examples of multiple stories featuring the same characters within the pulps, and it’s something that I made a special point of in the discussion of Weird Science. I’m bringing it up again at this time because there is a need to discuss some plot implications.

Just because you can do something does not always make it wise to do that thing. Thus, while you can change the way anything post-1930s works in terms of technology or science, and even a few things that were accepted scientific canon of the era, you should not do so nilly-willy. Before you change the game physics, make darned sure that its an essential plot point to do so.

The Asimov Connection

The rules of science-fiction detective stories, as elucidated by Isaac Asimov in the introduction to Asimov’s Mysteries, are the golden rules in this respect. He wrote,

“Clues might be obscured, but not omitted. Essential lines of thought might be thrown out casually, but they were thrown out. The reader was remorselessly misdirected, misled, and mystified, but he was not cheated.

“…You don’t spring new devices on the reader and solve the mystery with them. You don’t take advantage of future history to introduce ad hoc phenomena. In fact, you carefully explain all facets of the future background well in advance so the reader may have a decent chance to see the solution. The fictional detective can make use only of facts known to the reader in the present or of ‘facts’ of the fictional future, which will be carefully explained beforehand. Even some of the real facts of our present ought to be mentioned if they are to be used – just to make the reader is aware…”

Interpreting Asimov for Pulp

To interpret this recipe for a pulp campaign, all you need do is replace the word ‘present’ with ’1930s’ and the word ‘future’ with the phrase ‘weird science’ (or, if you prefer, ‘pulp science’).

It’s really that simple. If a weird science gadget is going to factor heavily into the plot, or a change in science, make sure that you establish the change and its ramifications and consequences before it becomes critical to the plot. So long as you do this each and every time you institute a change, there is no absolute need to be consistent from one adventure to the next.

It is of course preferable for the physics to be consistent from session to session, adventure to adventure. We use two techniques in combination to achieve this while still leaving the ‘playing field’ of physics wide open: the Baseline and the Unusual Condition. Note that we don’t go out of our way to tell the players what the situation is unless they are in a position to find out about it, and unless the knowledge will make a critical difference to the scenario – most of the time we simply get on with the adventure.

The Baseline

This principle simply states that the first game physics we use, unless discounted by an Unusual Condition, will be the de-facto game physics from that point on. So, if an NPC invents a flying car that ends up in a PCs posession, the vast likelyhood is that it will work in the next adventure, and the one after that, and so on.

Unusual Conditions

You can get away with just about anything if you allow for the premise that unusual conditions modify or tweak the game physics as necessary. This is a ramification of the premise that plot overrules genre. What it means is that if a PC has a flying car and it’s important to the plot that no-one has flying cars, we can posit early on that unusual conditions make it impossible to fly. Maybe the sun has moved into an unusual region of space-time in which the antigravity whammistat doesn’t finagle the gravitons. Maybe the big greebly who is the main opponant of this adventure has cast a spell to stop cars from flying, or which has the side effect of stopping cars from flying.

What you pay for, you keep

A key point in this example is that the car was ‘inherited’ by the PC, it’s not something the character has actually paid character construction points or game $$$$ for. In other words, it’s an ongoing plot device that the GMs can take away at will. Things would be entirely different if the character had paid character construction points for the flying car, or the equivalent.

Taking something away once a character has invested part of his or her capability into is something that can be done only temporarily, and is a big deal. It’s something that the player needs to know about, and to know that it will be only a short-term exception to the general rule of it’s being available, and to be compensated in some way for the reduction. And they need to agree that the compensation is fair, ahead of time.

Anything else risks disgruntling the player concerned, who would have quite a legitimate grievance.

One of our players has invested points in a ship, the Antares. Another has invested points in an aircraft (as yet, unnamed). Both fall into the category of things that we will take away only briefly; otherwise, they are part of the resources that are available to the characters for use within the adventure.

Can they never be taken away?

Of course not. Nothing is forever, and if the character chooses to sail the Antares into a known minefield, we make no guarantees beyond offering fair warning – either in advance, or when a lookout shouts “Minefield, dead ahead!” to the PC.

If, however, the character survives the experience, we DO guarantee that either he will get his investment back, or we will replace the Antares within a reasonable timespan (one or two adventures at most).

Silencers Are Golden

Silencers are rare in pulp, but when they appear, they are typical hollywood – both more effective than the real thing, and good for unlimited shots. In the real world, one shot is about all they are good for, and they don’t reduce the sound of a gunshot to a soft “phut”.

Which brings up a related issue, while we’re in the vicinity:

Use Detail where it doesn’t matter

One of the two of us (and it isn’t me) is something of an anarak when it comes to weapons and weapons technology. We use this as colour text, and one of the perpetual struggles we face is to confine it to that role. In practical terms, it shouldn’t matter if the villain is armed with a Webley 9mm or a golf club, only the game mechanics used to describe the weapon should matter. If we lose the descriptive patter, it should make no difference to the course of the adventure.

And yet, it makes all the difference in the world, because his encyclopedic knowledge is a touchstone into the game world. Being able to describe minutely the differences between a Smith&Wesson and a Luger (or whatever) makes the game world feel all the more tangible to the players.

We could spend weeks inventing this stuff, but it’s better to take the real world info and use it as colour – then spend that time on other things. Pulp stories swarm with this stuff, everything from the performance of cars to aircraft routes and makes to weapons. The more that you can bring the era to life through details, the better the game will be.

Super-men And Elite Forces

Most traditional pulp plots revolve around a single character, a Super-man if you will. This doesn’t work very well for a pulp game because it forces one character into a dominant position over the others, which is generally not a lot of fun for the subordinate characters’ players.

Some groups are experienced enough to be able to distinguish between one character being subordinate to another and the player of a subordinate character being subordinate to the player of the superior character, so it’s possible to craft a completely acceptable game using the traditional pulp model – but it imposes an extra burdon of difficulty on the players, and there are better solutions out there, even if they aren’ traditional Pulp.

The Elite Force

The most functional solution that we have found is the concept of “The Elite Force”. This is the one that we have chosen as the foundation of our Pulp campaign. The concept runs like this:

Originally, there were a whole mess of Lone Wolves out there having solo adventures. The most prominant amongst them formed a club to permit him to associate with others of similar interests. Those who joined treat the club as a gathering place, and visits to it as a social event; they still persue their adventures Solo, and come back to the club after each to boast a little, to relax, and to recharge their batteries.

As time went by (a couple of years), a new generation of adventurers was recruited to club membership at the very beginning of their careers. With the club already in existance, they treated it as a shared resource, and the senior members as advisors and consultants. In part, this was a fulfillment of the original purpose of the establishment. They also tended to adventure in small groups, usually composed of the same people. As this group grew in prominance, so did the organisation in back of them, and so the Adventurer’s Club became popularly known.

The PCs represent the third “generation” of members, recruited four or five years after the club was founded. As the “new kids” they tended to stick together, socially, and it was natural for them to adventure together as well. They never developed the “Lone Wolf” mentality. The Adventurer’s Club to these characters is the glue that binds them together. They are the first generation to take its presence as a given, and the generation who have to come to terms with its fame. Together, they – and the rest of the club – have found that they are stronger than the sum of their parts.

There are analagies to be drawn between these generations and the different approaches of pulp genre campaigns. The Super-man with a group of associates and assistants is one of the most common approaches, and its one with some shortcomings, as already noted.

The second generation, in which something acts as a unifying factor between groups of characters, is where a lot of groups end up. This unifying factor can be anything from a common heritage to a common enemy. It works, but it’s limited in scope.

The third generation, which is established along the lines of an elite force within which each character has his own speciality, and hence his own turn at dominance according to the circumstances at hand, is the best answer of all. It has the benefits of all the previous answers and none of the drawbacks. Again, the key is a unifying factor, but it’s something that persists beyond a single adventure, and can attract characters from a number of different backgrounds. The biggest distinction in terms of campaign background and plot is that this unifying factor has been established before the characters start their adventuring careers, so that it becomes a framework around which the campaign can be constructed.

As an aside, I find it interesting that this also parallels the path that I took in creating my superhero campaign: the super-man was a solo campaign (with myself as both GM and player) which I used to teach myself the rules, and to develop house rules that reflected the style of campaign that I wanted to achieve; the loose-group stage was a short-lived campaign in which there was a husband-and-wife pairing and the villain of the campaign bound them with a third character for mutual defence and with the occasional passerby; and the Elite Force was the commencement of the main campaign, and still serves as the central focus of the campaign to this day, almost thirty years later – a longevity that reveals the strength of this campaign structure.

The effects on plot

This part of the series is supposed to be all about plot conventions in pulp, character conventions are for next time. So it behooves me to show how these concepts affect plot within a pulp campaign, or to remove this entire section until next time.

Having multiple story vectors to persue permits a diversity of plot that breathes new life into a campaign. You can have a spy yarn this week and a cthulhoid incursion next week and a Nazi Plot the week after that; you can go from Voodoo and Zombies to Space Opera to Archeology to The Land Of Dinosaurs with complete equinimity.

All the other approaches to character relationships described mean that anything that falls outside the pervue of the central lead character quickly feels forced, or irrellevant. Neither is conducive to player involvement, and hence weaken the campaign.

What’s more, you can mix it up. A Voodoo plot which centres around a Weird Science gadget? no problem. An ancient sorceror who is vulnerable to modern technology? great! The elite forces approach not only encourages and facilitates variety in character types, it facilitates variety in adventure types.

Inadequate Authorities

A truism of the Pukp Genre is that whatever is going on, the authorities are inadequate to the problem. It requires one or more individuals to step forward, or be thrust forward, before the problem can be solved. In the case of an individual, that step beyond the typical ability standard inevitably produces a super-man who is never at a loss for very long, can look death in the eye and spit, and can solve any problem with his superior morality and abilities. In the case of a group of similar characters, this is a ‘second-generation’ collection of characters. In the case of a disparate group, this is inevitably an Elite Force.

The phrasing of the description of the authorities is very deliberate. The original draft of this section was titled “Incompetant Authorities”, but that is not correct; they can be quite competant, but unable to go beyond the limitations of the established parameters of their world, whether that be a military unit, a police station, or a starship command. They are Starfleet to the Enterprise.

They sure sound like PCs to me.

Once a group is established as “problem solvers”, the wider group will go out of their way to present them with the most difficult, most critical, most dangerous problems. The problem-solvers will also discover problems on their own behalf, and solve them, long before the general authorities even know that a problem exists.

And that sounds like a campaign.

Straight Lines Always Twist

We’re almost at the end of the list. The penultimate plot convention is something that has become almost universal in RPGs – the plot twist. There should ALWAYS be a plot twist – or several – in any pulp adventure. To paraphrase The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy, if the players ever work out what a plot twist is going to be, it should immediatly be replaced with something even more bizarre and unexpected.

The real trick is making these twists seem logical and not imposed for the sake of having a plot twist. This requires the construction of a story infrastructure around the twist. The GMs should go back over everything that has been revealed to the PCs, examine how the new plot twist would have affected each event and decision, and what needs to be done to ensure that when it comes, the plot twist seems logical and inevitable.

One way of looking at a Pulp Campaign is adventure-by-adventure. A more rewarding perspective may be from plot twist to plot twist, with the conclusion of one adventure, the awarding of XP, and so on, occurring in the middle of each:


That permits the GM to plant the seeds of the next adventure, and the next plot-twist, in the current one, or even the one before that, when the player’s minds are on other things. It does require a change of mindset on the part of the GM; it certainly does not come naturally. But it’s something that every GM of a pulp campaign should at least attempt.

The Bluff Twist

Adding to the tools in the GMs repetoir is what we call the Bluff Twist. This is a plot twist that seems obvious and inevitable to the players, that the GMs have made obvious even while (aparrantly) doing everything they can to conceal it. This requires the GMs to walk a very fine line, but when it works, it yields big results: at the critical moment, instead of the “expected” plot twist, the GMs ring in something completely unexpected.

Optimism Trumps Cynicism (Again)

The last of our Plot Conventions should be familiar, we made a big thing of it in the section on World Conventions. But this principle is not just a general state of mind within the campaign world, it is a driving point within every pulp adventure. The only reason not to do something should only ever be “It won’t work”.

“It’s too dangerous”, “It’s foolhardy”, “it’s won’t last” – these should never be mentioned, never mind being considered unacceptable. They just don’t exist in a pulp world.

“We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it”. “That’s a problem for tomorrow”. “One Thing At A Time”. Those should be the bywords of everyone in a Pulp campaign – players, PCs, NPCs, governments, Arch-villains, GMs – the lot.

In a pulp campaign, there’s always time for another sequel!

That brings the discussion of Plot Conventions of the Pulp Genre to an end. Next time, Character Conventions!

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