This entry is part 3 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. And now, onward, for the Game’s Afoot…

Plot conventions within a genre are vital tools for successful roleplay, dictating what a character’s options are, what will work and what won’t. In order to successfully fulfill their role within a game, they must represent a code of behavior, a contract between GMs and Players. In effect, they tell the players “Do this and the GMs will let you get away with it, even if it doesn’t look like it will work at the time”.

Action Is Always Right

…also known as “When in doubt, stick your neck out”. If a player ever finds that he has no idea of what to do next, he can always advance the plot by making a target of himself – going someplace that he’s not supposed to go, talking to the press, or whatever. The key to success is to invoke this genre convention in such a way that the GMs know that you are doing so.

In problem-solving, one of the key principles is “If you can’t see a solution to a problem, solve any part of it that you can understand and then reexamine the problem.” The pulp analogue of this principle is, “If you can’t see a solution to a problem, change the circumstances surrounding the problem and then reexamine the situation.” Force the villain (and, in back of him, the GMs) to react to something you’re doing – even if your character ends up deeper in trouble, you can never tell how things will come out in the wash.

Another way of phrasing this point is that “Luck favours the Active Hero”.

Risk Equals Reward

It follows that in a Pulp game, the greater the risk you take, the more success you will ultimately have. If it ever seems like you take one step back for every two steps forward, there are two possible reasons: either that is the technique chosen by the GMs to build matters to a climax, or you’re playing it too safe.

Overplanning Leads To Opposition

In other words, the more you treat the GMs as an enemy to be outwitted, the more likely they are to ensure that you get minimal reward for your efforts. Luck will never be on your side, and every success will be a struggle. Of course, this only makes players more likely to want to plan more carefully next time, so this is ultimately a game-destructive reaction; sometimes, the GMs just have to swallow the non-genre approach of the players and get on with the game.

I don’t want to give the impression that I’m blaming the players for everything or laying all the responsibility for change at their doorstep. The GMs should be willing to compromise, permitting some advance planning when the genre convention would be to kick down the door and see who’s on the other side of it.

But the players should remember that the GMs accept that role for the entertainment they get from the game, the same as they do – and player-planning is boring for the GMs, leaving them few avenues for entertaining themselves. Thinking up complications is one of those avenues.

In other words, provided the players can even half-trust the GMs, they might just be better off kicking in that door in the first place. Act fast enough, and they can seize the initiative from the GMs.

To be fair, this is something our players have been slowly getting better at. They have come to realize that if the GMs provide a convenient door to kick in, it’s at least worth thinking about using a heavy boot.

Players, Permit Your Characters To Be Captured

It follows from all of the above that if the GMs make an obvious attempt to capture one or more PCs, it will be better for the game in the long run for the targets to play along. That doesn’t mean that PCs shouldn’t resist; on the contrary.

“Better for the game” means that it will give the GMs an opportunity to give players more information, or manoeuvre them into position to do some more serious damage to the villain’s plans and organization, or both; and it also means that the GMs can propel the plot forward at an appropriately breakneck tempo.

Time and time again in the Pulps, the biggest mistake that the villain makes is to capture the Hero and then behave in typical pulp-villain fashion. They may have spent years building up their defences, but in one ill-advised move they will carry the Hero past those defences and into the heart of their operation.

A strict implementation of that genre convention, alas, means forcing the players aboard a plot train, so this requires a bit of modification for use in an RPG. The least objectionable approach that the authors have been able to think of is to ensure that the players consider this an acceptable tactic on their part, in which they remain in control of the situation.

At some point in every adventure, at least one PC should deliberately leave themselves wide open for capture by the bad guys. If the GMs don’t take advantage of the opportunity, the players can feel reasonably confident that in the opinion of the GMs, this approach will not advance the adventure, and the rest of the characters can act in the confidence of this knowledge.

After all, what’s the alternative? There is little worse than the following scenario:

  • The PCs have deliberately avoided capture by the bad guys and have gone to ground;
  • The Players refuse to act because they feel their characters don’t know enough about what’s going on to make proper plans;
  • GMs are frustrated because the intent was to have the villain capture the PCs, boast of his plans (filling in the missing pieces), and leave the PCs in a fiendish deathtrap from which they can reasonably easily escape, and none of it will happen while the PCs are holed up in their base of operations contemplating their navels;
  • The players are frustrated because they aren’t getting anywhere trying to fill in the missing pieces of the puzzle by guesswork and the referees won’t spill the beans;
  • both sides are rapidly getting bored because nothing is happening;
  • The GMs face the dilemma of either providing the missing information by means of a duex-ex-machina, handing the PCs the solution on a silver platter, and (in effect) rewarding them for bad play, or letting the PCs fail to act in time to stop the plan.

The solution to this dilemma is fourfold.

  • First, carry out a partial implementation of the villain’s plans. This not only advances the plotline, it changes the situation that the players have to deal with, hopefully into a circumstance in which they are no longer paralysed by indecision. It also educates them on the consequences of doing nothing, which is that the GMs will not stop time for them indefinitely. In effect, this is doing what the PCs should have done, if they had heeded the advice given earlier – “If you can’t see a solution, do something to change the circumstances”.
  • Stop when there has been some obvious change in the circumstances, and give the players a new chance to come up with a plan of action. As a villains’ plans mature toward success, a hero’s choices in opposing it will narrow into something simpler and more desperate. Since this serves the GMs purposes as well as the original plan would have done, it does away with the frustration on at least that side of the table.
  • When the GMs allow the players to become aware of the change in circumstances, they should remind the players that “luck favours the active hero” – nothing so plebeian as any game-mechanism for luck, what that means in this context is that the GMs will take a lenient view on any sort of action that advances the adventure. Players should also bear in mind the corollary: “Inactive heroes will encounter bad luck and a lack of progress”.
  • Finally, when the point becomes moot by the end of play for the day, or the end of the adventure, the GMs should tell the players what their original plan was, as a gentle reminder of this genre convention as it applies to gaming.

Spectacle Equals Success – For The Heroes

If there are two ways of doing things, the more spectacular will tend to be the more successful – for the heroes. Villains in a pulp campaign never seem to realise that the restriction at the end of that statement applies to them; their plans are always over the top, spectacular all-or-nothing power grabs. And the more that this is true, the more unsuccessful they will be.

The corollary is, of course, that the less spectacular the heroes try to be, the less they will achieve; and the less spectacular the villains try to be, the more they will succeed. But the villains aren’t permitted to think that way, so they are doomed to failure; it’s only a question of how much difficulty the Heroes will experience along the way.

Notice how these all tie together; they are all reflections of one single genre convention. Which one of these is the fundamental and which are implications of that central convention doesn’t matter, they are all equally valid aspects of the overall convention.

Fiendish Death Traps, Both Inevitable And Doomed

Death traps are always spectacular, dramatic, and tension-filled, and the closer a character comes to being killed in one, the more all this is true. And, as explained previously, spectacle always favours the heroes. Yet, villains cannot resist; every pulp villain has an ego big enough to float a battleship, and capturing a hero strokes that ego, as does proving the villain’s superiority with an elaborate death trap.

It follows that just as players should not struggle too much against being captured, so they should be looking for the inevitable way out of the inevitable death trap. It will always be there somewhere – the GMs guarantee it.

Characters Rarely Die

The reason the GMs do so is because of another Genre Convention, and breaking it would be a sign of poor GMing. Characters Rarely Die. Even if they do something stupid, which would normally give the GMs every right to cut the character off at the neck.

We were tempted to say “Characters Never Die”, but decided to make allowances for NPCs who were intended to prove how dastardly the bad guys were, and ex-PCs who were fair game.

Of course, just because the GMs can’t kill the characters doesn’t mean that they can’t make them suffer.

Death Is Cheap

For everyone else, there is a continual and mounting body count. By ones and twos, wholesale and retail. Bond and the major love interest never die; neither do M or Q. Everyone else is in trouble…

Henchmen Are Disposable

…and the people most closely in the line of fire are the disposables that the villain keeps around for the purpose. These are not resources to be conserved, they are expendables to be used and discarded, because there will always be more of them when they are needed. No villain ever has trouble recruiting thugs.

Assassination Never Pays

The occasional villain will be smart enough to decide to get rid of the heroes before they become a problem. When this happens, they may try assassination. Unfortunately, this works even less often than a death trap, which is to say not at all. At best, the villain (or the hired gun acting on the villain’s behalf) will embarrass the hero and inform him that there’s a criminal to pursue; more frequently, the shooter will hit someone who the hero cares about, ensuring that they will move heaven and earth to thwart the evil scheme.

My co-GM, who has read hundreds of pulp stories, can’t remember a single one in which an assassination attempt brought anything but trouble down on the head of whoever attempted it.

Not that Assassination was the way we think of it in modern times; pulp plots take place before the snipers of WWII and of the Asian conflicts that followed, before the age of Terrorism. When people read, in modern times, that the Assassination of Archduke Ferdinand triggered World War One, people tend to interpret the circumstances in a modern way, thinking about a sniper with a high-powered rifle or a professionally planned and staged attack. The truth is very different.

A grenade was thrown at the car of the Archduke and his wife, but Ferdinand deflected it and it detonated some distance away (very pulp, and well done to him!). The royal couple then insisted on visiting those who had been injured and went to the hospital (I think I would have liked these people). After the visit, they set out to return to the palace but the driver took a wrong turn onto a side street, where the killer spotted them. When the driver backed up to turn the car around, he approached the car and shot both the Archduke and his wife at close range. Neither were killed instantly; the Archduke was shot in the neck and his wife in the abdomen. Both bled to death, in a few minutes in the case of the Archduke, a few minutes longer in the case of the Duchess.

This is a tale of buffoon-level incompetence on the parts of the would-be assassins. Look at all the things that had to go their way after the grenade-tossing failed before someone killed the Archduke. Success was achieved through blind luck and the stupidity of the driver, coupled with the Royal Couples’ sense of sympathy for those who had earlier been injured.

No, most assassination attempts of the era have more to do with the action of a 1930s-era gangster movie – drive-by machine-gunnings and planted bombs – than with what the term brings to the modern mind.

This actually works to the genre’s advantage in modern times, as the old-style assassination techniques lend themselves to dramatic confrontations. And another of the genre’s conventions minimises the dangers involved in such confrontations: Characters are faster than a speeding bullet.

Faster Than A Speeding Bullet

In fact, pulp-era guns in general miss more than they ever come close to hitting a target. Not only were they less accurate and less reliable than modern weapons, in real life – “So you shot my hand, you shot the vase, you shot my pussycat, but you missed me” – but we’re talking about Pulp Adventuring here. There’s always enough time to dive for cover from a hail of gunfire. A garbage-can lid will deflect bullets. Even a pair of eyeglasses in a pocket will happen to be at exactly the right angle to prevent a character from being fatally shot – and if you aren’t fatally shot, you’re back on your feet in a day or two, at most.

The Damsel In Distress

Not all pulp genre conventions translate so well into the modern world. Some of them are notoriously sexist and gender-biased, something that was touched on early in the previous article of the series.

To be faithful to the genre, any attractive female within arms reach of the danger will either be a damsel in distress already, or prone to becoming one. All the mad scientists have beautiful daughters, and all of them will be kidnapped at some point in time. And yet, it never seems to be expected, there are never any preparations made. The women are virtually always depicted as helpless.

Deciding how and if this convention needs to be updated is one of the most important decisions that a GM has to make when he sets out to run a pulp campaign.

There are four options:

  • No exceptions;
  • PCs excepted;
  • PCs and Specific NPCs excepted;
  • All of society is different in this respect.

In the Adventurers’ Club campaign, My co-GM decided (before I was even brought into the GMing picture) that the third of these options was the way that he intended to handle this question. In general, women would be as the Pulp Genre demanded; but there would be exceptions made for various adventurous NPCs, and for any female PCs. What’s more, no adventuring males would be surprised at the exceptions being different from the run-of-the-mill in this respect; they would all have more liberated attitudes.

At the same time, he established an unwritten scale of femininity (though he did not think of it in those terms). Some of the NPCs approached their adventuring in a very feminine way, others were as professionally dominant as any male and as capable of knocking your head down around your ankles if you ticked them off, and some were in between. By making the way in which these characters went about their adventures a reflection of the personalities, and vice-versa, a harmony of characterisation was achieved that kept the whole picture coherent and generally set the issue to one side; the players could simply take their enlightened attitudes and get on with the game.

SWF, Villain’s Assistant, Seeks Hero

One notable exception to the general case is the villain’s female assistant, if any. These are frequently as competent as anyone bar the villain and the hero, certainly way superior to the thugs and general populace. And yet, there was always an undercurrent within the pulps of these characters being behaviourally aberrant. As soon as the Hero came swanning into the Assistant’s life, she would fall for him like a ton of bricks and begin entertaining notions of frilly dresses and curtains and gardens and mindless mediocrity, as though the life ‘enjoyed’ by the majority of the population was something that should be aspired to. Given any opportunity, under the hero’s influence, they would become just like everyone else.

This is another genre convention that needs careful thought in a game being played in the modern era, regardless of when it is set, because it informs the game world as to the psychology of the female gender within the game. Are the exceptions aberrant, psychologically – suffering from a condition to be cured (if possible) and desirous of that cure? Or is the general public suffering from socially-backward restrictions and myopia regarding the potential of women, with only the adventuresses (PC & NPC) and Villain’s Assistants living up to their true potential? Or is the truth somewhere in between?

Our answer (which may not work for you)is two-fold, combining the last two options listed. While women in society in general are capable of more than society currently permits, and than they expect, there are people in the game world with still higher potential. When the circumstances are right, that potential can be realised, and the character transcends not only the role that a repressive society expects and enforces on women in general, but also what the typical woman is truly capable of. We use a similar arguement to explain male adventurers. This elitism is the easiest way of resolving these dilemmas and integrating a reasonably accurate depiction of the pulp era with players from a modern time. But I can’t help being aware that all the players in our game are male – and a female player might have a completely different take on the subject, and on the validity of our answer!

The Government Are (Usually) The Good Guys

In the previous part of this series, I made the point that optimism trumps cynicism. The pulp environment is one in which there is not only a lack of cynicism, but there are none of the causes of cynicism. That means that not only is the government (mostly) trusted, but they (usually) can be trusted – they are the good guys. Exceptions are treated as aberrations and abnormalities, not as symptoms of a wider cultural situation.

That doesn’t make them all-knowing or all-wise, by any means. It doesn’t even make them completely trustworthy; it just means that whatever they do, they will do it because they think that it’s the right thing to do.

There are times when the modern attitude can overcome a player’s knowledge of the genre. It’s one thing for them to know, intellectually, that the government can be trusted, and quite a different thing for them to react to an unexpected development with immediate trust and confidence. This was never so clear to us as when, after a security breach put several cities in jeopardy, the government decided that the Adventurer’s Club was too dangerous to world safety to be permitted to run itself, and was taken over by the FBI. The kneejerk reaction was everything that we expected, having anticipated that our players were a modern audience; but as the scenario proceeded, they quickly recovered their equilibrium and started to wonder whether or not they could trust the agent appointed to run the club. From a position of initial wariness, they are slowly coming to trust and respect their FBI appointee and unabashed fan of the club.

That’s a key fact about the genre conventions: unlike the situation in the original pulps, where society really was like that, simply exaggerated, with a modern audience you can play off modern expectations and attitudes – you can leverage them to the overall benefit of your campaign. All it takes is a little knowledge and a little thought.

We’re only half-way through the discussion of pulp genre plot conventions! So come back a week from now for the second half…

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