Pulp Time

If I could only have gotten here sooner, I might have prevented this

As I have mentioned many times in posts on this blog, I have a difficult time maintaining the breathless pace of heroic action I feel is required for great ‘pulp’ gaming. Whether this be of the mysterious vigilante variety, or that of the two-fisted cliff-hanger-a-minute type, as one session turns into three or four, my predilection for darker sets begins to exert itself, and the whole mood begins an inexorable slide off the roller-coaster of excitement, down the off-ramp of consequence, ending up on the rain-slick, lonely streets of bad decisions in the little town called, ”Noir.’

Toward rectifying that sad state of affairs, as I dearly love the genre pulpily referred to as pulp, I am putting this post out there to see if others have worked through this issue themselves.

Here he comes… Let him have it! 

Why are you killing our best scientists, stealing their secrets, and selling them to foreigners?

This morning, before the sun rose to ruin my day, I was watching King of the Rocket Men, an old Republic Serial. The story moves like gangbusters from one death-trap to another, through daring escape after daring escape.  The hero, as adept in the ways of science as he is schooled in the arts of violence, ably deals with threat after threat, absorbing blows, dodging bullets and outwitting a criminal mastermind.

I want my players to experience that pace and sense of breathlessness from the inside. Looking at the plots of adventure tales in the pulps, and watching them unfold in the serials and period adventure films, as well as seeing them emulated in more modern interpretations of the style, the structure of things seems obvious – yet, in actual play – that breathless atmosphere can slip away, leaving nothing to show for it but broken bodies, and a string of bad decisions.

It’s not my fault!

Of course, the tone of no game is set entirely by the GM. The players do need to understand the conventions of the setting as interpreted by the group, and guide their play accordingly. In the way that the Lone Ranger would not suddenly adopt the tactics of the Spider, players need to be informed and aware of what playing in a certain genre means, or the group as a whole needs to sit down and determine how a particular genre will be interpreted and implemented. To not do this, will absolutely end up in disjointed, unsatisfying, and off-topic sessions with poor tempo. Expectation is a powerful force, fantastic when it is met, disruptive and frustrating when it is not.

For example, I recently read the fun scenario entitled “To End All Wars” by Triple Ace Games. Not giving anything away, there is a very high probability of a chase scene [as there should be]  at a pivotal point in the flow of events. This is a staple of the genre, and works almost as well in print as it does on film. The scenario offers some handy tips on dealing with chase scenes in the Ubiquity rules set, and in a more general sense. As most of us have recognized at one point or another; comedy is easy, chase scenes are hard. For players steeped in the mindset of the genre, this chase is guaranteed to take place, and the story will be incredible as a result. For those who cannot, will not, or choose to ‘enhance’ the genre with elements from elsewhere despite the ostensible purpose of choosing that game, that chase becomes less and less likely. If it does not occur, the effects spread out in waves through the mood, the sense of pace, the level of risk, and the ability of the GM to sequence events and provide genre appropriate tasks and rewards.

As I bemoaned at the beginning of this post, GMs have just as strong an effect on the way a story flows, but from my perspective, this is less a result of choosing what happens than in choosing how it happens, or how it is described. A description of deadly peril, which should cause a gulp and a shrug in a pulp hero but leave him otherwise undaunted, may very well daunt PCs if your finely honed Call of Cthulhu skills seep mirthlessly into your tepid high adventure patter. The signals you send and the style in which you send them are the only means the players have of interpreting the story elements as they are revealed. If they keep making out-of-genre decisions… it can’t always be their fault. They are, after all, seeing the world you are crafting through the lens of your words.

It’s not about the Grail

In my games, I tend to feel that the problem I contribute to the ruination of the dangerous, high-adventure mood of the genre occurs in the adjudication of events. The notes I prepare for my scenarios are definitely high-octane, but in play, the by-the-seat-of-your-pants daring I hope to inspire in the players tortuously transforms into dread. In my heart of hearts I know it is because I spell fun this way: misery.

I go into a game session with a variety of ante-upping complications which circumstance or player ingenuity might require me to add to events, bold as brass villains seeking to test the mettle of our heroes, notes about archetype and motivation so as to guide the story along routes which relate directly to the core of those heroes. I also leave myself notes like, “Tire and Inspire, not Depress and Distress,” or “It’s not fun and games until the bad guy loses an eye while falling out of a zeppelin with the hero… whose hair is on fire, and whose gun is finally empty,” or my favorite: “You suck.”

I take notes along a timeline, rather than a standard notepad, and I plot out the adventure’s likely course and probable derailments on timelines as well. I like to visually remind myself of the pace I desire as well as minimize the time I spend, and the momentum I lose, when looking for information.

While I know that there are some things which a person is just not cut out to do, I also believe that striving for improvement is worthwhile in and of itself. To that end, I ask those who have taken the time to read this, “How do you maintain the sense of excitement and adventure in a pulp action game?”

2 Responses to “Pulp Time”
  1. Mike Bourke says:

    I think you might be falling into the trap of resolving one question before moving on to the next.. Tell the players that you’re only going to let them hav eone question before time starts moving in-game, and they will have to decide between them which one question or clarification they want before the action starts again. Note that you don’t necessarily have to hit high gear right away. That should push both sides of the table into the breakneck pace you want! This and other tips willl appear in the current series of articles on the pulp genre in RPGs at Campaign Mastery (http://www.campaignmastery.com/blog/)

    • Runeslinger says:

      Thanks for dropping by~
      I’ll certainly try giving that tip a turn at the table, although as with horror games, the tactic of controlling information to help generate a specific response among the players is often easier said than done. I’ll have to be charming~

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