The 2-Hour Fuse: How NOT to run Pulp Adventures

Over the last few weeks, I have been gearing up to run the first session of Hollow Earth Expedition for my game group here in Seoul. This past Sunday was our trial run, and the playtest of a one-shot introductory scenario based in Shanghai that I have been writing with intent to share with other HEX and Daring Tales of Adventure players. The result was an interesting week in gaming for me. It would almost qualify as a crisis of faith, were it more dramatic and affected more than just my entertainment and the entertainment of my friends. Still… it was a crisis… of sorts.

Running the Game

Even with novice players, one of whom was lukewarm about the whole thing, I was truly surprised at how fast everything moved along and how easily description translated into mechanics and back again for all concerned. The few things we had to look up were easy to find and easy to implement once found. Even a sudden discovery in the middle of ‘aggressive negotiations for a cessation of violence’ that a skill did not mean what the player thought it meant, was quickly and seamlessly dealt with without requiring a discussion or changing anything on the character sheet.

We had intended to play face-to-face, but due to circumstances beyond our control had to fall back on Plan B: Messenger. I really didn’t want to have a chat session be our first foray into Shanghai as while some games translate really well into text, and there is a lot to be said for more effectively using lurid language in a heroic pulp adventure to magnify the grandness of it all, I had really wanted to debut the game with the full palette of tools at my disposal. More than that, I did not want to be hamstrung by my typing speed – which is fast, but not nearly as fast as talking and face to face communication.

Even with that limitation the game moved like blue blazes and we got through a bar fight scene involving 10 combatants, a conversation (exposition) scene, a serious attack by villains outnumbering our heroes 2 to 1, involving 24 combatants (Thank Combos for Taking the Average), and a follow-up conversation in the three hours we had set aside. Had we been face to face, we could have easily completed the entire scenario and had our hair truly blown back by the glorious tempest of pulp action that is Ubiquity.

The Crisis

I suspect that the crisis was caused mostly by how little I have been playing live games and how much I have been thinking about how to improve my running of the pulp adventure genre. When I set out to type the opening lines to start play, I suddenly felt like the scenario I had prepared was nothing short of a massive railroad, and it put me off my stride. The first scene was not a problem as it begins in media res and that is a railroad everyone loves to ride, but from keystroke one I was worried about revising scene two and not seeing any good way to do that.

By the time we got to scene two I was alternating between amazement at how great Ubiquity plays right out of the gate, and massive frustration at my own idiocy for concocting this scenario in the first place. As we got to the final scene of the day, I just wanted to get the whole thing over as fast as possible. It was then that I committed what at the time seemed like just one of many GMing sins: I shut down a player’s creative attempt at input not once, but three times in a row. Yay me.

I realized what I had done as soon as I stepped away from the computer, but so what? I was already well on my way to a dark place. I sent off an e-mail of apology for the how the game had ended up, informed the players what revision to that final scene I wanted to make, and then in the hours in between, I revised the entire scenario to allow for more choices, and inserted massive amounts of details for each location giving a long chain of open-ended options for people to run with…

Those who are strong in pulp-fu will already be laughing at me. I can hear the guys at Campaign Mastery from here. I didn’t expect such giggling from them, but it’s okay. I deserve it. For the rest of you who do not get the joke, I essentially shot myself in the foot while dropping an anvil on my own head. By inserting so much open-ended choice into the scenario, I made it impossible for any kind of pace to be sustained, and as that was the very problem I had hoped to overcome, I guaranteed that I was going to not only hate the rest of the session, I was going to totally fail at running a good episode, and fail to represent the genre.

The result? The life was totally choked out of the game, the pace dragged, we completed half of a very short scene in about 2 hours, and I hated the session, totally failed at running a good episode, and failed to represent the genre. From triumphant high to abyssal low.

What happened next?

In a nutshell… I got better.

I wrote a massive blog entry which did not post as events moved on even as I was writing it, but it was useful to get perspective. Venting into the text entry window gave me the critical distance I needed to recognize that I hadn’t made a long series of errors, I had just made the one, and I had made it because I was too concerned about hitting a homerun on my first at bat. I also had a long talk with one of the players about the experience on the other side of the screen and that helped me find my way back to some semblance of normalcy. I made a long series of notes on how to *properly* revise the scenario to allow for the right kind of choices and the right kind of options. I also started in on writing out a full version of the piece in the spirit of getting back up on the horse.

I took a step back and really evaluated the elements of the scenario that I had suddenly felt were railroading once play started, reviewed discussions about the scenario with gurus like the wise man who lives atop Mount Mythic Eras, the armed and dangerous paragon who operates under the code name Black Campbell, and of course my own players, and came to the conclusion that I had overcompensated. I have entered into negotiations with myself to discuss possible forgiveness for the lack of cool, but in the meantime have just moved on with being glad I had this valuable playtest experience which clearly showed my habits in action and how what works well in a plan-heavy environment like an investigation game can absolutely and irrevocably kill a pulp action game.

What really happened was a combination of me trying too hard to get it right, compounded by a lack of genre buy-in from one of the players. While I was merrily burning down the house while standing in it, someone kept handing me gasoline and the occasional stick of dynamite. Normally, I would reject such gifts, but deep as I was in my delusion, I took them gratefully and set harder to work. Madness!


The primary result is that we will finish the scenario as written, and then I will write two versions of it. One will be a one-shot, as originally envisioned, and the other will incorporate that one-shot and expand it into a full scenario for the launching of a campaign. When the one-shot is finished I will post it and the original version up along with a transcript of the play sessions for comparison.

The secondary problem of player buy-in will need to be addressed, most likely by expanding our circle of gamers and running our Shanghai campaign with those who sincerely wish to play in that genre.

This all leaves me feeling fit and ready to try again. I have stared my enemy in the face, and although let’s face it, I blinked, once it started to gloat, I gave it the bum’s rush right out the door. If it ever comes back it will find me waiting with my twin automatics and a mocking laugh, ready to unleash a beating the likes of which the world has never seen!

Stay tuned!
8 Responses to “The 2-Hour Fuse: How NOT to run Pulp Adventures”
  1. Mike Bourke says:

    No gigglinh coming from my corner, Runeslinger. Sounds like you’ve used the playtest for EXACTLY WHAT A PLAYTEST IS THERE FOR. I’ll admit to a rueful groan as I thought, “Oh no, he’s overcompensating” and a chuckle when I read almost those exact words a paragraph later. No, we’ve all been there and done that – and then a few years later, done it again.

    One of the reasons for the series on Pulp at Campaign Mastery was so that Blair and I could educate our players on how to buy into the genre a bit more than they had been, so I can sympathise regarding the player who wasn’t completely getting it. (It was originally intended to be just one article but. there was far too much to say).

    The one suggestion that I have for you to consider is that you try and find a way, through character choice, of taking advantage of the player who had trouble. Giving him a character from the distant future of 1960, for example, could permit him to be ‘a fish out of water’ and still preserve the pulp genre. Of course, if he decides not to participate, that’s a different story. Plots have to be resiliant enough to accommodate such players, a lesson that Blair and I have learned the hard way. Even now, we will allow extra real-time for the players to plot and plan because they grow unhappy when you don’t – so we’re breaking genre convention (or permitting our players to do so) ourselves. But we’re also careful to ensure that those plans never get in the way of an exciting adventure – even if we have to throw out half of what we had planned in the first place. And, eventually, we will have a scenario in which the players get everything right in their planning, simply because it’s unrealistic to expect that they never would.

    • Runeslinger says:

      Thanks again for the tips~
      If I had not read the series, I am fairly sure I would have been looking at other factors entirely to figure out what had gone wrong, and I likely would have just stepped away from trying to run pulp games. It is very nice to have such a highly-detailed and organized series of posts to draw from and benefit from someone else’s hard won experience.

      • I have never overcompensated ever! No every goes exactly to plan, due to my inherent awesomeness, which stall not be…hey, okay….we all do it.

        I read the adventure and it looked good, but that’s what a play test is for. I doubt it needs more than a tweak or a “if this happens, then…” section.

  2. Oh, and thanks for that lnk to the Game Mastery site. I loved their pulp posts.

  3. Hi Runeslinger,

    just need to tell you I have made similar experiences, even just recently. We are all too human and fail once in a while, especially to our high ideals and ambitions. That’s totally okay.
    Just recently I failed my own desires as a GM by an absolute sin, and I know you have watched my report on it. Still the players took it with a smile, a grim one, but still a smile and a joke, because in general and in average we have great experiences together, which is this way because not only of them but also by my GMing. I am totally sure it’s even better with yours.
    Also just recently, with nearly the same players, but this time one of them as GM, he got our feedback that the first 25% of the session he had his common old problems resulting in a mediocre experience, but the rest 75% of the session was awesome.

    My point is, don’t let you down by such a fail, no matter how bad it seems. Remember all the great experiences you have shaped and will shape. Failure and acceptance of it is part of Improvisation, right?

    Probably you don’t need that encouragement anymore, as your final sentences said. You’ve got the spirit right, but I felt I needed to be drop these lines, if only for solidarity alone. 🙂

    Best regards


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  1. […] got in the way of that, so humanity is still in some peril, but the experience of running these early demos of Ubiquity-powered games reignited in me the desire to try again – to overcome my surrender […]

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