Thrilling Tales of Adventure
Thrilling Tales of Adventure
Welcome to a Savage World of Pulp Action!
Before we get started, let’s establish some of the ground rules of the game, and of the Pulp (actually Hard-Boiled Neo-Pulp Action, if you want to get technical) genre.
By bland definition, the pulps were roughhewn all-fiction periodicals costing from five cents to a quarter[.] Thriving on unconstrained creativity, held accountable to few standards of logic, believability, or “good taste,” the pulps were literary dream machines, offering regular entry to intensive worlds of excitement, danger, glory, romance. Each brittle page held the promise of escape from mundane reality, a promise gaudily fulfilled.
—Lee Server, Danger Is My Business
Action, Action, Action
[T]he ultimate crystallization of character is likely to lie in physical rather than psychological action. —Arthur Sullivant Hoffman, Adventure, November 1935
First and foremost, Pulp stories are about action. In most cases, this literally means what the word implies: fast-paced stories involving a lot of danger, excitement, and adventure. Pulp “plots” were often little more than a series of events, one piled on another, each more intense than the last, until the story abruptly reached its conclusion. To put it another way, pacing often took the place of true plot development. In some subgenres, such as romance, more sedate events replace the violence and suspense that fi ll most Pulp stories, but the emphasis on driving the plot forward remains.
Part of keeping Pulp stories fast-paced is having characters who are “proactive” — who boldly initiate action rather than just reacting to what happens. Pulp characters may be shallow (see below), but “patient,” “submissive,” and “hesitant” are not terms that describe them.
In most of this published work, there’s no such thing as a developed character. Instead, there are… individuals of curious traits and odd personal characteristics. They are bizarre and fascinating. Each possesses one large peculiarity and at least a couple of minor ones. This fixes them in the reader’s eye and instantly identifies them whenever they appear in the story. Such tags are most useful to an author, particularly one whose characters do not so much generate the action, as ride upon it, like kites in the wind. —Robert Sampson, Deadly Excitements
Hand-in-hand with the “action” convention is the fact that Pulp characters are shallow, clichéd, and poorly developed. In an action-oriented story, there’s little (if any) time for the hero to ruminate about how he feels, or what the events in the tale mean to him; he’s got things to do! Even the best known Pulp heroes — characters like the Shadow and Doc Savage about whom hundreds of stories were written — aren’t much more than collections of easily-identifi able personality traits, quirks, mannerisms, and habits, possibly coupled with one or more distinctive elements of appearance that makes them easy to write and read about.
Melodrama (n.): a sensational dramatic piece with crude appeals to the emotions and usually a happy ending —_The Illustrated Oxford Dictionary_ (Revised and Updated)
Since Pulp stories are filled with action and involve shallow characters, it’s not surprising that they tend to be written in a melodramatic, purple prose sort of style — as Robert Sampson puts it, “scenes and emotions overplayed, exaggerated, overblown, spuriously heightened.” Th e adjective and the adverb become the author’s friends, and he ladles them on good and thick. If characters display signifi cant emotion, they tend to do so strongly, so no reader can miss it and the writer doesn’t have to work too hard to get the subtleties across.
Black and White Morality
“I’m certain I’m all right, old man. Very certain! Because we’re in the right. We’re
bq). fighting a grim menace of dictatorship, death, and ruin. With right on your side you can’t lose, if you’ve the courage to back up your convictions.” —Jeff “the Eagle” Shannon explaining the way the world works in Storm Over The Americas, by Capt. Kerry McRoberts, Thrilling Spy Stories, Fall 1939
Another way the pulps keep the action going and don’t have to worry too much about character development is that the moral tone of the stories tends to be very black and white. The heroes are clearly The Heroes, fighting for that which is Right, Just, Pure, and True; the villains are clearly the Villains, and there’s no doubt they’re Evil and must be opposed with every fiber of the hero’s being. There’s little, if any, moral ambiguity… and any that exists gets resolved by the end of the story.
Hand in hand with the black and white morality is the optimistic outlook of Pulp stories. Pulp heroes know they can get things to turn out right, and can make a real difference in the world. They never get mired in despair or self-pity for very long.
Acting Bad Is Bad
The heroes of our adventures are Heroes and should be played that way. Anytime one commits an evil or morally ambiguous act, he loses a benny immediately. This benny counts as reducing his permanent pool for the rest of the session. If he has run out of bennies, he can’t earn any more from any source for the remainder of the session.
The GM should always ward a player about to take a step onto the anti-hero road. If the player is in doubt about an action, he should ask himself whether Indiana Jones, Doc Savage, the Rocketeer, or Rick O’Connell would ever perform such an act in the movies. If the answer is “no,” then it’s a bad act.
Pulp has two shades of morality—black and white. Heroes are good and villains are evil, though both parties can waver at times, especially at dramatic moments. The stalwart hero may be tempted to perform some diabolical act for the greater good or betray his friends to rescue a kidnapped loved one, but in the end he does the right thing.
Acting in a “grey” moral manner is acceptable on rare occasions, but it shouldn’t be considered the normal attitude. Heroes may lie to save friends, but they do not lie to their friends; they might threaten to rough up a prisoner during interrogation, but they never actually use
torture; and they may agree to go along with a villain’s plans, only to sabotage them at the first opportunity.
Can you enforce this style of behavior on your group? Of course you can. The easiest way is to explain the code of morality to your players at the start of the campaign, and perhaps at the start of the first few sessions. If they’re good players, they’ll adjust their behavior to the
mind set of the game.
Pulp heroes are the good guys, the white hats, the cavalry coming to the rescue. Pulp heroes aren’t as pure as the driven snow, but they’re not regular characters either.
Hindrances such as Bloodthirsty, Greedy, and Vengeful should be reserved for villains.
In Raiders of the Lost Ark, Indy gets in contact with his old friend Salah, who in turn leads him to the astrologer. In The Mummy, Rick O’Connell uses his friendship with Winston to find an airplane. In a movie, it’s very easy for the writer to insert these allies and create a backstory of how the hero knows the person. In an RPG, having the GM create such characters takes a lot of creativity away from the players.
Although the Connections Edge could be used to represent such individuals, the pulp rules introduce a new concept just for these sorts of characters – Contacts.
Contacts, unlike Connections, are a unique individual who exists in a fixed location. Players who want allies with greater resources or who can be contacted anywhere should invest in the Connections Edge.
Once per session, one player may spend a Benny to invent a Contact. An individual player may invent a new Contact for his hero only once per character Rank. Thus, each player gets a chance to create a friend at each Rank. The player should first seek his fellow players’ approval, since they might have ideas for a Contact they wish to use as well. He must then come up with a name, a reason the hero knows the Contact, and why the Contact is in the area. The GM has final approval and may tweak a few facts to better fit the story.
For instance, let’s imagine the heroes are lost in the jungle and suffering from a lack of rations. Lady Amelia’s player decides to use a Contact to get them out of trouble. She invents a missionary, Father Matthew, whose mission was funded by her father. She remembers he is currently working with a native tribe in the area.
As individuals, Contacts are not as resourceful as the Connections Edge. In general, they can provide small items (a few magazines for a gun, digging equipment, a vehicle), or aid (information, medical treatment). What they never supply is an army of Extras. Pulp adventures are all about the heroes. The player can ask his contact for whatever he wants, but the GM makes the final decision on what is available.
Continuing the example above, the heroes stumble into Father Matthew’s mission. He provides the party with food. Since the adventurers are lost, the GM wants to get them back on track, so Father Matthew also knows the route to the ruined temple the group seeks. He might even provide a non-combatant guide.
In short, Contacts exist to provide a useful piece of gear or information, and to help parties who are struggling to solve clues.
Pulp characters are expected to risk life and limb. Whenever a player character Wild Card soaks all the damage from an attack, his Benny is instantly returned. While there are no guarantees in life, this rule helps encourage the heroes to remove single wounds as quickly as possible before they accumulate into bigger penalties and without worrying too much about Benny expenditure.
Most players crack jokes at the table; it’s human nature. Pulp humor comprises witty lines, quick comebacks, and even a small amount of slapstick. Don’t go overboard, however, or the game may devolve into a comedy. A truly witty line delivered in character should be rewarded with a benny. Silliness and out-of-character jokes are not rewarded and should be kept to a minimum.
Anytime a hero draws a Joker for his Action Card in combat, he immediately receives a Benny in addition to the normal bonuses associated with Jokers. Also, a character drawing a Joker for his action card in combat gets a “ssecond wind.” If he happens to be Shaken, he’s automatically and instantly un-Shaken.
It doesn’t really matter whether it’s the Sahara desert, the Amazonian rainforests, or the frozen mountains of the Himalayas – Pulp stories usually involve travel to exotic places. And in foreign lands, people speak foreign languages. First, all player characters speak their native language. Characters who want to be able to speak or read obscure or ancient dialects, such as Tibetan, ancient Egyptian (reading hieroglyphs), Ancient Greek, Hebrew, or Latin, should buy a Knowledge Skill. It’s probably part of their character background anyway.
Second, every character is fluent in a number of languages equal to half his Smarts die. This can include ancient or obscure languages if it fits the characters background story. If the character increases his Smarts later, he learns a new language as well.
No matter how much gunplay is involved, the cops never turn up. OK, that’s not entirely true. So long as the characters aren’t murdering innocent bystanders and strive to stop the villains, the cops leave them alone. Pulp heroes rarely have to explain themselves to the police.
Pulp heroes often take on sword-wielding cultists or knife carrying thugs with their bare hands and win. To simulate this, Wild Card characters using their bare hands never count as Unarmed Defenders.
Pulp villains have a habit of coming back (though rarely more than once). In order to ensure a villain survives, the GM can use a few tricks.
First, all Wild Card villains the GM wants to return for a sequel are treated as having the Harder To Kill Edge with 100% chance of survival. Even a villain seen to fall into lava may survive and return, albeit with hideous scars and a terrible thirst for revenge.
Second, by spending a Benny, the villain may guarantee his escape. He doesn’t suddenly vanish into thin air, but he ignores all die rolls and action limits. What he can’t do during this time is perform actions he was normally incapable of taking or make any attacks. It’s escape or nothing. For example, Doctor Destructo might sprint his full Pace plus running die maximum, start his rocket-powered airplane, and blast off into the sky before the heroes can react. Heroes on Hold cannot interrupt this escape.
This second technique is especially useful during the early stages of a story, when the villain might make a brief appearance, but must escape to fight the heroes in the climax.
Bennies are a useful part of Savage Worlds play, giving players the ability to reroll in dramatic situations. Any character who attempts a Stunt should be rewarded with a Benny.
What is a Stunt action? A Stunt is any action which is performed in a flashier manner than is required or expected. Getting on board an airship before it lifts off from its platform is an action. Leaping from the sidecar of a speeding motorcycle onto an airship at the last second before it lifts off from the platform is a Stunt, and should be rewarded.
In game terms, a Stunt is an action where the player purposefully makes the action more difficult for themselves. In the above example, the player would have had the option to get on board the airship, but instead announced that the character arrived too late, and instead described the Stunt. In a way, the player is taking on the role of the GM for a moment, changing the situation for his or her character in such a way that a more difficult solution is required.
A Stunt should always require a roll, at a minimum -2 penalty. The GM is the final arbiter of the roll penalty of a particular Stunt. Pulling off nearly impossible Stunts (-6 or more to the roll) may even result in the hero earning multiple Bennies, as the GM’s discretion.
To some gamers, surrendering is a form of defeat. In Pulp games, it’s often a vital part of the plot and leads the story forward.
As such, anytime the heroes surrender at the dramatically appropriate spot and go along with the villains’ demands (it’s usually obvious because of the number of hostile Extras or Henchmen present, or the villain holding a gun to someone’s head and shouting, “Drop your weapons!”), they earn a Benny.
Because rocket boots and jet packs are a staple of the Pulp genre, the Fly power is now a Seasoned power instead of a Veteran power.