The Feel of Pulp FictionEdit
The adventures of Indiana Jones™ are the modern classics of the pulp fiction genre. The challenges he faces are typical. In our first meeting with Indy we see him overcoming ancient traps in a jungle temple, escaping blowpipe-wielding natives in a small floatplane, and we discover his big Disadvantage – Ophidiophobia.
His adventures in the first film then take him through a burning tavern in Tibet, an illicit archaeological dig in Egypt, fist-and gun-fights with Nazi soldiers and native hirelings, being locked in a death-trap with more snakes, sneaking around on a pirated ship, and an encounter with occult forces which could easily blast him to dust.
That’s the feeling a good GM will get from a pulp fiction genre campaign setting. Globe-trotting travel, hazards from primitive to the most modern available – and with occult forces thrown in – all combine to make being quick with both your wits and your feet essential.
Pulp fiction is so named because the genre really started in the cheap magazines (printed on ‘pulp’ paper) between the First and Second World Wars. They were episodic: each issue had to be a self-contained story to attract readers, but they needed a hook to persuade them to buy the next issue – usually to find out what happened at the end of the cliffhanger.
In the 1950s and ‘60s, the same format (and some of the same stories!) translated to ‘Saturday matinees’ where cinemas would run serialised adventures of such heroes as Flash Gordon™ to bring the audiences back next week. Although the vast majority of the audiences were children (probably from about 8 years upwards), no effort was made to make them ‘children’s films’ – they featured adult protagonists and the themes were as adult as the censors would let them get away with at the time.
Like Indy’s adventures, most pulp fiction tales are set in the 1920s and ‘30s. This is not an accident. It’s a time when heroes can travel the world fairly quickly. They have access to ‘modern’ weaponry which gives them an edge over primitive tribesmen, but they are simple technologies. The Thompson submachine gun is about as advanced as they get. It’s a tech that players can understand on a visceral level.
By contrast, a modern-day campaign features tech that is often ‘black boxes’. Players roll the dice to see whether their character succeeds in hacking into computers or penetrating security firewalls, but unless the players are also top hackers they have little real understanding of what they are actually doing. Keeping the tech level down to the 1930s makes it easier to imagine yourself actually doing your character’s actions. Stealing a 21st-century car involves overcoming engine management software and disabling a steering lock and an immobiliser. To steal a 1930s car you just twist the right two wires together under the steering column and off you go! (I’ve no idea if that really works, by the way, but it does in all the films so it’s true as far as my campaigns go!)
Another option is to set the campaign in the Victorian era, when the tech is just about getting advanced enough for the kind of adventure you expect from a pulp fiction setting. In that case it’s often combined with steampunk – see ‘Lord Beresford's Travellers’ for a campaign setting which combines a steampunk setting with adventures as close to pulp fiction as I can take them.
What makes a Pulp Fiction campaign?Edit
Pulp adventurers get around! Any scenario may take them across continents and into exotic cities. There will be some encounter at each locale which leads the party to the next place.
No long surveillances are necessary. Despite the frequent appearance of archaeologist characters, there is no chance of a slow, methodical approach. Pulp adventures move fast – one afternoon’s research in any library is all it takes to find enough information to take the party on to the next stage of the adventure. No matter how long they spend thereafter, they will not find answers to further questions until the time is right.
When the party needs to travel to the next locale, they get there – unless their rivals interfere with their transport. Trains, boats, even the comparatively unreliable aeroplanes of the time are reliable when carrying pulp adventurers. Except when the GM decides that it would add to the tension to have their transport break down so that they need to find/steal something else – but that will only happen towards the climax of the adventure, when the heroes are racing to interfere with the bad guys’ plans. Never when they are merely travelling.
Many pulp fiction scenarios pit the heroes against rivals seeking the same goal for nefarious purposes. The Nazis want the Ark of the Covenant to make their armies irresistible. The devotees intend to raise the Mummy from the dead to rule the world, with them in high positions under him. Other rivals are just treasure-hunters, but it is important that there are people working in direct opposition to the PCs’ goals. They also extend the adventure – the PCs’ may find the McGuffin in the ancient tomb, but then it can be stolen by their modern rivals and the chase is on…
Another vital element of the rivals is that they should have far superior resources to the adventurers. Indy isn’t opposed by one French archaeologist: he’s one French archaeologist backed by the might of the Third Reich. The opposition in The Mummy™ is a cult with hundreds of worshippers, who can call ancient statues to life to pursue the heroes when they have the McGuffin.
A good GM never has ‘random encounters’ in a pulp fiction setting. Any encounter will advance the plot. In the Lost World, a party may be attacked once by a Tyrannosaur so that the PCs can experience how powerful they are, but thereafter they will not be attacked again unless the ‘monster’ is being controlled by the villains’ experimental mind-control ray or something similar.
Differences in tech levelEdit
Pulp adventures often feature European or US adventurer travelling to less-developed areas. They are usually there to acquire artifacts – either for museums, like Indy, or for their own gain. Or occasionally they are just there for the exploration – to find the Source of the Nile or the Elephants’ Graveyard. In these more primitive areas, the PCs’ tech gives them a big advantage over hostile natives – but it should be used to get around problems, not slaughter all opposition.
Good Pulp Fiction films to check out:Edit
The Indiana Jones series: Raiders of the Lost Ark, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.
The Mummy series: The Mummy, the Mummy Returns, The Mummy – Tomb of the Dragon Emperor
Romancing the Stone and The Jewel of the Nile (though set in modern times, they are definitely pulp in flavour).
GURPS Cliffhangers is the RPG resource which captures the pulp fiction flavour. It’s a 3rd edition product which is now out of print, but available as a PDF from e23.