Snap, Crackle, and Pulp

Last week I took a step away from my pulp projects to catch up on book-keeping in my other games. This week, I have a clearer sense of what I want to do with my part of our shared HEX campaign, and how I want to accomplish it.

As a player in Pulp Action games – particularly those geared more toward explorers and investigators than vigilantes, I find the parts that I enjoy most are those where decisive action is called for, and each decision comes with some sort of price or sacrifice.

We come to a chasm with flaming lava searing its way upward from below and just two methods of crossing: a flimsy rope-bridge, or a narrow footpath that works its way down the length of the chasm for a considerable distance before coming to a sturdier stone bridge. Both are perilous. The perils of each are different, but no less deadly.

In a scene like this we have two real choices, and one omnipresent but self-defeating and invisible third option. We can cross the rope bridge and take the consequences associated with that, or we can try to traverse the narrow ledge to the safer bridge and take the consequences associated with that. It’s a dilemma, and good heroes will have to choose which route to take for the sake of those on whose behalf they are facing such dangers; the faster and more dangerous one, or the slower and safer one.

The third option? We can just quit and go home. I think about as much of this option as I do of trying to hit a target number of 8 on 1D4. If one is not going to play a hero, one ought not play in a genre devoted to heroic action. In a real sense, I do not see it as a choice at all. This idea drew my attention back toward pulp all week long.

My enjoyment is not about portraying a struggle to make the sacrifice; it is about portraying the sort of person for whom such sacrifices can be made without selfish concern. It is about having a chance to step into a world where justice is more than just what you can get away with, and where expertise is both valued, and earned. What those thoughts ultimately coalesced to form was a sense that I very much want to run and play these games. The effort it will take to make the skills the genre requires my own is worth making. The stories are worth the effort, and the possible effect those stories can have on our real world lives is most definitely worth it.

To that end, I have decided to expand my gaming circle by incorporating new players.  One way I have pursued to bring that about is to register on Obsidian Portal.* By bringing people in who want to play this style of game from the outset, rather than trying to play this style of game with people who formed a group to pursue other lines of gaming, I expect to mitigate or resolve all issues of player buy-in. Although the pool of prospective gamers in Seoul is somewhat limited, and those looking to play a genre within a genre more so – the other option is just to give up. Not really an option.

Snap and Crackle

More entertainingly, I have begun to codify my thoughts on how I will approach telling Heroic Action stories. Where Odin has Huginn and Muninn, I find myself now accompanied by Snap and Crackle (a true step up from Heckle and Jeckle) and with their aid I am looking forward to assaying my next adventure in gaming.


To aid in focusing myself and the narrative aspects of play toward assertive and confident decision-making, I have to run counter to the hard-won knowledge that serves me in such good stead in horror games. Instead of facilitating the process of having my players scare themselves through suggestion and implication, I now will have to provide certainty. Details will need to be stark and not open to interpretation. Players must not have any doubt about what seems possible to do, and must know when it must be done (now!) Choices must be clear, and must be urgent.

The players, in turn, must respond to that urgency, raising the level of energy, and rising to the challenge of the circumstances.

To use an example with a good chance for recognition, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade presents Indy with a battery of decisions from start to finish. As we near the climax, these come in many forms, including a veritable leap of faith. This is perhaps the most important choice in the film from an academic point of view, but turned on its head and imagined as having been a part of tabletop play, can you imagine the excitement and sense of risk being challenged for reward by this scene? Imagine choosing to walk your favorite character off a ledge just to see if the law of gravity will be suspended… just this once, cause your Dad is dying, and the Nazis are going to shoot your friends next, and then you, and then move on to snuff out the very light of the world. Imagine choosing to step in those shoes as they walk off a precipice to unimagined depths below. Imagine – not falling.


All things must be tempered, however, and this is no different. To really make the game pop, and to make it less an exercise in guessing the lesser of evils and more of a rollercoaster ride of awesome heroics, choices and actions need to be electric. Players need to be able to work with the world, and bring their choices to life. Description will need to flow forward from a solid foundation, and move outward toward hooks and triggers for player modification and interaction. As I set the scene, I must not limit the players to simply doing what it seems possible to do, but encourage them to expand on what seems possible, or create alternate options altogether.

They, in turn, must do so collaboratively and decisively.

An example of this, drawn from the same film, is the boat chase in Venice where the choice is simply to go around or between two freighters being pushed together by tug boats. Ilsa, the German spy, hears Indy’s sage advice to “Don’t go between them,” as “Go between them” and even though she thinks he’s mad, she opts to follow that highly dangerous course.

Again, imagine this occurring around a table where the GM establishes the scene, the option to go around or between, and resolves the difficulty of hearing each other. The player running the motor launch doesn’t have to do what the other player wants, and even though the characters are having trouble hearing each other, the players are not. Everyone in the room will know what sort of risk is being taken by going between the freighters, but you and I both know that only the killjoy in the room would go around. Where the real fun comes in though, is not making the decision, but the players going off on a wild spate of hilarious in-character arguing about the decision right there…and for months afterward… if they survive. 😉

*Obsidian Portal is an impressive game resource and networking tool, with very responsive members. If you haven’t taken a look yet, you might be surprised by what you find.

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