Rise of the Apocalypse, Fall of the Pulps

Not for lack of trying, and not without a certain amount of success, we have decided to shelve Hollow Earth Expedition in favor of Desolation. The cause, more than anything else, was the double-tap of period plus genre familiarity. The players adapted to the system rapidly, and our sessions were fast-paced, not prone to wish-fulfillment decision-making, and quite fun. To my eyes, however, they also seemed like a lot of work for the players. Had I just wanted to run an action game in the 30s I suspect everything would have been fine, but I want to run a Heroic Pulp Action game set in the Orient in the 30s, and that is an awful lot to ingest for what amounts to casual gaming on the far side of the world. People can get into Call of Cthulhu run in any of its approaches with much more ease it seems than people can get into pulp.

So be it!

Rather than investing part of each session exploring the themes and tropes of pulp as I would do for any potentially long-term group, I decided after a few sessions that the best course of action was to cut my losses, keep the momentum of this small group, retain my focus on Ubiquity, but shift the genre to fantasy. The relief in the room was palpable: work was over, fun could begin. Everyone knows what’s what in a fantasy setting, even if the whole world just died and went to Hell 18 months ago.

Frankly, the penetration of the fantasy genre into the average gamer’s consciousness compared to other genres is baffling. In the last few years my partners in game have uttered some version of the phrase, “I am not sure how to act in a Western / Mystery / Pulp / Superhero / SciFi / Modern Fantasy setting” exactly that many times. This left me wondering what it was they had been doing their whole lives…  Now I know! Fantasy absorption~

Little Sponge of Horrors

I grew up watching westerns and Star Trek, reading Batman comics, and the novel reprints of the Lone Ranger, the Shadow, The Avenger, and Doc Savage. I read the Lord of the Rings over and over and over again, which is still fewer times than I have read the Silmarillion, and have lost count of my readings of the Hobbit. However, during that same childhood I read Card, and Drake, and Doyle, and mysteries by the bus load. It was actually a literal bus load as for a long while I lived in a town where the library was a bus that visited weekly. I thrilled to the dark style of Donaldson and I suffered through some Discworld, as well as groaned my way through Xanth. I laughed my “no relation” off to the adventures of Aahz and Skeeve, while simultaneously exploring the convoluted tales and streets of Sanctuary. I read Eddings, and I rebelled against the “work” of Brooks. In my world, writing requires more than changing names. I of course poured over Lovecraft, Bloch, and Derleth with intensity and grim satisfaction. Christie and Dumas were no strangers, and when I could, I would wander Niven’s way, for luck. Until recently, I never once considered this sort of broad, multi-genre reading to be unusual. Now I am starting to think back over all my game experiences and realizing that I must have been playing characters on a very superficial level, because my broad absorption of genre must surely preclude depth of genre comprehension and familiarity, right? Hmmm.   😉

I wonder if Louis Woo infected any of those Thief/Assassins I played, or if my Boot Hill characters were actually re-skinned vigilantes looking for the right kind of mask? Did I spill any Raistlin on my Top Secret character sheet? Hey! Maybe that is why he was able to jump his rocket cycle over the Grand Canyon!

Mea Culpa

Although this no doubt sounds and looks exactly like a complaint, it is just an observation.

Anyway, long lists of stuff aside (not soon enough for most, I’ll wager) it occurs to me now that this is another reason for why fantasy RPGs are the defacto norm in gaming, despite the ongoing publication of games from the very beginning dedicated to other far more mainstream genres, not the least of which is Science Fiction. Isn’t it odd, and I know that this has been asked many times before, that despite the prevalence of SciFi on TV, in film, in fiction, and in our cultural identity, and despite the conspicuous absence of fantasy in most of those outlets, the number one tabletop RPG has been and continues to be D&D or D&D by another name?

Questions Abound

So taking it as a given for now that Fantasy is the ‘norm’ for RPG games, what I really find interesting is that the notion of heroism and the role of villainy in a Pulp setting even when identical to that used in someone’s fantasy tale, can be so incomprehensible to so many. It is as though the idea of nobility without the outward trappings of knighthood is an impossibility. It is as though self-sacrifice for a principle is inconceivable without the so-called straight-jacket of alignment or religious orders. It is as though the thirst for discovery and conquest over the perils of nature’s extremes has become as alien to us as the dark side of the moon. Where have all the explorers gone? Where have the true heroes gone? Why do all tales have to start with an origin story defining the protagonist’s reason for being heroic? Is it so hard to fathom a hero being heroic simply because it is right?

Is Solomon Kane’s single-minded dedication to fighting evil only comprehensible because he does it with brutal violence? Does his willingness to sacrifice himself so that others do not have to face these things go unnoticed, lost in the slice of sword and splash of ichor? What of vanHelsing? Does his stalwart act of hacking off Lucy’s Westenra’s head to save her soul get interpreted as hatred of vampires, or as a sensible act of self-preservation? Questions swirl about me like the cloak of the Shadow, revealing nothing but mocking laughter and the sense that someone wants to shoot me with huge automatics.

It is a wonder to me that our perspective on character has shifted so far in such a short time, that a character like the Shadow, who is built on altruism, a sense of justice, and a willingness to place himself in harm’s way protecting those who cannot protect themselves is essentially forgotten; while his replacement, Batman, evolved into a growling avatar for vengeance, despite his rich investigative history and still-present taglines offering praise for his prowess as a detective.

I have room in my heart for both extremes. Why is it that so many others do not?

Desolation

So, with a great deal of enthusiasm on both sides of the screen we will be turning to Greymalkin’s excellently conceived high fantasy post-apocalyptic setting in just a few short weeks. We had always planned to transition the group to this game once we got established, so the change is not as drastic as it might at first appear, despite my barrage of questions above. Planning sessions for a jointly-run campaign are under way, and players are already plotting out characters and buying PDFs. While I am disappointed to not be able to travel through a complete story arc in HEX, I am having a blast with Ubiquity and still hoping that someone in the group will be willing to shoulder the standard of the King’s Musketeers and start an All for One campaign.

Stay tuned for more on life after the end of the world~

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