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In Genre

Modern Pulp Adventure

by RJ Grady
Aug 28,2003

 

In Genre: MODERN PULP ADVENTURE

by RJ Grady

What Genre Are We In?

Once upon a time, popular entertainment could be found in cheap novels and comic books found on every newsstand. They were printed on cheap, pulp paper. The term "pulp" came to be associated with a sensational form of popular literature. Some pulp styles evolved beyond the medium, becoming comic book superheroes, supernatural horror, science-fiction, dime romance, crime thrillers and erotic fiction. Other forms died out, as the younger audience's interests shifted. The heydeys of pulp adventure were from the late 20s, when the magazines multiplied on the stands, through the Golden Age of the Great Depression, to the sunset of the genre in the mid-50s. Because of the Comics Code and the resulting crackdown on horror comics, horror lived on in magazine format well into the 70s, surviving mainly on reprints. During the Golden Age of pulp adventure, fans eagerly followed the chronicles of detectives, explorers, playboys, and scientists on their adventures into peril. While pirate romances and swords & sorcery were prominent in the literature, in this installment, we examine stories of the modern. The modern era begins in the 1920s, when the industrialized world stopped looking back into the past and starting looking forward. Sometime in the 1950s, the glamour of the newer and better began to sag with over-use, and we begin the post-modern, an era of doubt, skepticism, and division. In between we had the Noble Experiment, jazz, World War, and most of all, zeppelins.

Modern pulp adventure is characterized by high action, medium to very high PC competence, and dynamism. Tone can range from the grim to the light-hearted to the comic. It is set in a modern, pre-digital Earth. The moral scale varies tremendously, but is usually based on a clear sympathy for the heroes and a clear antipathy towards their rivals (the villains). Whether the heroes themselves are sterling in character depends on the medium. Pulp adventure is episodic, with some elements of continuity (in the form of sequels). We are discussing pulp adventure as it derived from adventure romance novels (of the late 19th century to mid 20th century, such as The Invisible Man, The Time Machine, or A Princess of Mars), serial pulp fiction (especially newsstand magazines), adventure comic strips, movie serials, and radio shows, as well as modern homages or descendents (neo-pulp). Closely related genres include whodunnits, adventure science-fiction (especially space opera), western romance, supernatural horror, thrillers, and hard-boiled detective stories. In fact, it's hard to draw a defining boundary, so I will aim to be inclusive.

World of Adventure

Modern pulp adventure takes place on our Earth. The world of pulp adventure is principally the 1930s, still echoing with the roar of the 1920s, but disillusioned of the glitter of wealth alone. Science was beginning to make great strides in the fields of atomic physics, organic chemistry, and electronics. Africa was still largely unmapped by Europeans. The discovery of King Tut's tomb had filled the public's imagination with wonder at a half-forgotten age. Socialism was in the streets of Europe. The Great Depression threw workers worldwide into unemployment, just as the power of technology offered to make poverty obsolete.

Prior to the 1920s, pulp magazines lived in the gaslight era, a blend of Victoria, industrialism, nationalism, and new social awareness. The train yielded reluctantly to the automobile, the minuet to the strains of jazz. The late 20s were a time of decadent wealth, optimism, and apathy for America and Europe. Later, during the 1930s, reality came crashing in. 1938 brought the shadows of war, and 1945 brought a semblance of peace. During all these eras, popular entertainment offered escape from the rigors of reality, as it has in all times. During the 1920s, readers could identify with wealthy exploreres. In the 1930s, tales of G-Men battling mobsters offered an alternative to a hard working life or a harder non-working one. In the 1940s, heroes battled the Nazi Menace and the Yellow Peril. By the time of 1950s, the Cold War was well underway.

Because the world of the 1920s was a geographic and social mystery, exploration was a common theme. Ancient ruins, faraway lands, and extreme climes provided the backdrop for many adventures. The world of the 1930s was better known, but the tropes remained. Another kind of eploration was occult exploration. The 1920s birthed the horror genre, which by the 1930s could stand on its own feet. Lovecraft was a writer of this era. Then there was scientific exploration. Science-fiction would not become an established genre in its own right until Hugo Gernsback's Amazing Stories saw print. The solar system was a mystery, possibly populated by green Martians or even tribes of humans. Because pulp fiction was marketed to a broad audience, it included generous doses of humor, adventure, sexual suggestion, and reader identification characters. Most of the era falls within Prohibition, the Noble Experiment, an American project in banning the sale of liquor and spirits. It failed, but did succeed in making millionaires of crime lords, and heroes of tommy gun wielding federal agents.

In contrast to our era, the "Modern" age was a time of the train, the family car, the radio, and airships. Charles Lindbergh crossed the Atlantic in 1927 in an airplane, a remarkable feat. Airships remained the main means of speedy air travel. The ascendent Nazi party made Americans and many other Europeans nervous of a German air fleet. As a consequence, helium was scarce to German industry; other countries nervously refused to sell it to them. Zeppelins were forced to rely on hydrogen, contributing to the 1937 Hindenburg disaster, ending the age of elegant airships and heralding the future sovereignty of the airplane. Hitler showcased early efforts in video television, on which English journalist C.P. Scott remarked, "Television? The word is half Greek and half Latin. No good will come of this device." It was a worlf halfway between gaslights and locomotives, and armored tanks and atomic bombs.

Fictional explorers digging in ruins were more likely to discover alien artifacts, cursed undead, or Europeans posing as gods to primitives than they were to find broken pottery or murals. The incredible find of King Tut, and the frenzied hunts along the Nile that followed, left the public with a miraculous impression of archaeology. Science-fictional writing pondered the possibility of underground or underwater variants of humanity. The discovery of the the gorilla and orang-utan, both believed fictional at one time, led to a permanent fascination with apes and ape-men, cemented by the imaginative landmark film, King Kong. Edgar Rice Burrough's John Carter battled green Martians with a sword. Orwell's Martians invaded Earth in war machines.

Magazine titles of the era include Weird Tales, Science Wonder Stories, Spicy Detective Stories, and Zeppelin Stories.

Characters include explorers, frequently arrogant but always brave; aristocrats, also generally brave, but frequently less capable; detectives, clean and dirty, always brave; scientists, sometimes rugged, sometimes absent-minded and advanced in age, often foreign, but sometimes one of the finest American university minds; damosels, sometimes brainless frails, but just as often, a tough modern women patterned after the flappers of 1920s, secretarial "working girls," or proto-feminists; military men, usually aggressive and judgmental but competent; diletanttes, generally comic but with surprising talents; exotic sidekicks, especially Hindus, Chinese, or African; tough and deadly hunters; archaeologist explorers, with or without bullwhips; pilots, airship or boat pilots at first, then later, airmen in dashing leathers; gamblers and scoundrels; masked "mystery detectives," and flatfoots, tough policemen doing a tough job. Characters in some stories had robots or unusual animals as sidekicks. Villains include Oriental masterminds; European con men living as primitive kings; criminal kingpins; mad scientists; disgruntled heirs; femme fatales; giant apes; subhuman monsters; undead; disembodied brains; unscrupulous pilots and racers; serial killers; wild beasts; space aliens; and the elements themselves.

The focus of the campaign depends on your requirements. As a GM, decide whether you want to tell detective stories, science wonder stories, or stories of Dark Africa. Similarly, pick an era, or a pseudo-era. Earlier time periods are generally more optimistic, while later eras are generally wilder in terms of science-fictional or supernatural elements. It's perfectly acceptable for adventurers to engage in all sorts of adventures. While some series of novels or comics are known for particularly competent protagonists, many pulp stories feature a crew of adventurers rather than one do-it-all hero, which makes them readily adaptatable to role-playing.

In contrast to real-world history, pulp history tends to go like this: 1890s, first successful exploration of the Earth's core and its strange inhabitants; 1910s, evil scientist meets doom at the hands of his own creation; 1920s, eccentric millionaire disappears, apes attack zeppelins; 1930s, several hundred criminal masterminds apprehended; 1940s, Nazis defeated several times, Hitler punched in the face; 1950s, robot monsters attack, repelled by ten year old boys with the help of an atomic scientist and his super-intelligent monkey.

Neo-pulp often features cameos by famous pulp and historical figures, such as Indy's run-in with Hitler in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.

Earnest Exposition

The style of pulp fiction was plain, designed to appeal to children and the working class. Many writers were self-taught. Even writers of literature were often turning away from the Victorian worship of classics to a love of the modern, perhaps embodied best by the pessimistic naturalism of Earnest Hemingway. Popular literature, never an eurdite art, absorbed an endless amount of slang and natural grammar. Plots were straight-forward and action-oriented. During the Depression and war eras, they often contained violent and sexual themes that even now would be considered edgy, including homocidal mania, BDSM, and adultery. Pulp adventures stories are primarily Melodramatic, Sensational, and Episodic.

Melodrama refers to extremes of drama. Action, adventure, and moral conflicts dominate over introspection, subtlety, or characterization. The stories themselves range from moralistic detective stories to tales of amoral explorers or adventurers. Dualism dominates: stories emphasize good vs. evil, nature vs. science, American vs. German, man vs. the elements, or crime vs. virtue, as a few examples. The stories don't sit still. Revelations, should they be necessary to the plot, occur as epiphanies. Fights should ideally involve fists, and occur hanging off the edge of a zeppelin with a briefcase dangling from the hero's foot.

Sensational means the elements of the story must have inherent interest. Gruesome murders, unsolvable crimes, scientific wonders, bomb threats and deadly curses qualify.

Episodic means most stories are wrapped up pretty neatly, with the loose thread here and there to allow for sequels. Villains often recur endlessly, even cheating death.

The Modern world was characterized by nationalism, and the stories reflect this. Besides your basic American chauvinism (or the equivalent, for non-American media), stories often featured exotic and hostile opponents, or conversely, exotic and uniquely talented allies. Racism was a fact of our previous decades; some stories perpetuate the worst stereotypes, while others were startlingly progressive. Sexism follows a similar pattern. Sometimes, not particularly self-aware writers included fascinating contradictions between sympathetic characters, who broke with stereotype on a number of levels, and unsympathetic ones, treated with bigotry and contempt. Bigotry can be ignored, satirized, or unblinkingly included, depending on the goals and comfort level of the gaming group.

There are some problems in adapting pulp to RPGs that deserve special attention from the GMs standpoint. First, pulp often hinges on surprises and reversals. It's a simple fact that in an RPG, things rarely go according to plan, and leading to a particular moment of surprise can involve unacceptable railroading, and may fail, besides. It's a better plan to have several alternatives to important plot developments. Second, villains tend to escape, meet grisy ends, or face arrest. PCs may choose to simply execute fallen foes. It's not genre, but you may have to simply allow it, as any cure for such behavior is likely to seem heavy-handed or contrived. Third, it can be difficult to motivate some players in high-action mode. Players thrive on encouragement, though, and if you exmplify the wild action style, they are likely to go along. If the players are reluctant to try wild stunts, bold plans, or engage in melodramatic posturing, it might not hurt to talk with them. However, the best cure is probably a good villain. Pulp villains are themselves heroic characters, morally reversed. Challenge the players to try and keep up with your daring NPCs. Fourth, your or your players may not know the era that well. Don't sweat heavy research, though; instead, use available media sources as your model. Why read about Hitler's obsession with the occult, when you can just watch Raiders of the Lost Ark? Fifth, the danger level is typially high. Therefore, it's a good idea to avoid anticlimax by pacing the adventure carefully. Don't place yourself in the position of having to kill a PC who wasn't doing anything monumentally stupid. Even poor judgment should be rewarded with humiliation rather then the grave, when plausible. Save the death-defying danger when the death means something.

From a player standpoint, the primarily goal is to play the part. Be confident, be imaginative, and be accepting. By confident, I mean engage in daring actions, use a distinctive manner of speaking for the character, and move beyond a two-dimensional cut-out to playing a character with dramatic weight. Rather than subtlety, think of each character as embodying one or two admirable traits. It's their job to be brave, compassionate, inventive, or whatever, just as its own person's job to the pilot, another the shootist, another the detective, and so forth. It's very important for the characters to be disinct from each other, as well as balance each other out. Pulp characters can be bombastic, nearly to the point of insanity in some cases. By imaginative, I mean, open yourself to different ideas, actions, and situations. Consider outrageous plans. Speak spontaneously. Interpret the environment, by asking the GM questions or offering suggestions of your own: Are there pictures on the walls? Is there a stable in the back? By accepting, I mean, trust the GM and be willing to lose now and then. It's okay to get captured every so often, as long as the GM uses the opportunity to tell a story. Sometimes NPCs will turn out to be turncoats, or a valuable prize will turn out to be a red herring. It's okay. Just remember your character's motivations, and never consider yourself defeated. Nevertheless, remember, characters in pulp stories have script immunity. PCs do not. It's possible to die of a little too much derring-do. Pulp RPGs are pulp simulations, not novels or movie serials. RPGs don't have to worry about circulation or advertising; enjoy the opportunity to tell a story with a begining, middle, and end.

A good sysem for pulp should be able to handle high character competence, medium lethality (perhaps with special protection for PCs and other important characters), modern technology, and high action. Most generic systems should handle pulp pretty well just by giving the PCs pretty high starting stats. There are not too many RPGs especially tailored to this genre.

Game-Ography

Adventure! (White Wolf)
Top shelf entry in the pulp RPG market. Uses the revised Storyteller system. Inspired heroes, stalwarts, and mesmerists battle evil. Good zeppelin content. Some plot hooks to the latter-era Aberrant and Trinity games. Neither overly complex nor simple, this is a contender for best pulp RPG of all time, with or without the house setting. One rulebook.

Torg (West End Games)
Out of print cross-genre weirdness. Aliens have invaded Earth, bringing with them their own realities. The Nile Empire realm is a conscious homage to the pulp adventure stories and movie serials, a two-fisted fusion of African adventure, detective story, lost Egypt, and Golden Age science-fiction. To buy in, you'll need the Torg boxed set. The Nile Empire and Terra sourcebooks are both entertaining. The Land Below adds Verne-like adventure romance.

GURPS Cliffhangers (Steve Jackson Games)
Serviceable, if not inspiring, treatment of cliffhanger stories. Lacking in era info, but not in plot hooks. The GURPS system is perhaps a little too realistic for pulp in many ways, but many optional rules are included that will help things along. To buy in, you'll need the GURPS rulebook or GURPS Lite. Cliffhangers comes in handy, of course. Useful companion volumes include High-Tech, Atomic Horror, Horror, Planet of Adventure, Cops, Martial Arts, Psionics, Bestiary, Dinosaurs, and many others.

HERO System (HERO Games/DOJ)
HERO has no current entry in the pulp genre, but the rules are well-suited for this style of play. To buy in you'll need the 5th edition rules. Useful sourcebooks include Ultimate Vehicle, Ultimate Martial Artist, and various 4th edition rulebooks, such as Western Hero, Horror Hero, and so forth.

Gear Krieg: The Role-Playing Game (Dream Pod 9)
Not specifically modern pulp, but a weird pulp sci-fi alternate WWII.

Bibliography

Burroughs, Edgar Rice. Tarzan of the Apes.
Tale of an English noblemen, lost to the jungle, who became a hero.

Burroughs, Edgar Rice. A Princess of Mars.
The immortal Earth-man John Carter has an amazing Martian adventure.

Smith, R.T.M. The Spider Strikes.
The Spider, vigilante alter ego of Richard Wentworth, slays criminals.

Stockbridge, Grant. Wings of the Black Death.
In this evolution of the Spider character, the Spider becomes a full-on masked, cape-wearing hero, and goes up against villain infecting NY with the Bubonic Plague.

Ralston, Henry. The Man of Bronze.
Doc Savage's first appearance. Author Dent and others told his stories in close to 200 novels about the brilliant, athletic, nearly-superhuman adventurer and crime-fighter.

Wells, H.G. The Invisible Man.
Famous tale of science gone wrong. Wells is often considered the first modern science-fiction writer.

The Shadow.
Pulp magazine that spawned many imitators. The original two-pistol-wielding cackling vigilante.

The Hardy Boys Mysteries.
Published under many pen-names in a number of formats. The Hardy Boys are junior-age mystery detectives.

Davidson, Lawrence and Robinson, Frank. Pulp Culture.
Essential visual reference. Features quintessential "Gorilla of the Gas Bags" cover from Zeppelin Stories.

Filmography

Tarzan the Ape Man (1932)
Slightly nonsensical, pre-censorship telling of the Burroughs tale of a boy raised by apes. Features midgets in blackface.

King Kong (1933)
Landmark film of the giant gorilla who climbs the Empire state building. Fascinating unintentional racial overtones.

King Solomon's Mines (1937)
African adventure featuring prototypical Indiana Jones type Allan Quartermain.

20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954)
Based on the classic Jules Verne tale which imagines a submarine with a super energy source. A giant squid attacks.

At the Earth's Core (1976)
B-grade movie based on the Verne novel. Two scientists drill into the Earth, and meet humans under the dominion of, um, telepathic pterodactyls. Rubber monster effects abound.

Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)
Essential neo-pulp. Middle-Eastern adventures of fighting archeologist Indiana Jones during the Nazi era. The immediate sequel, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, is a mindless roller-coast ride, but the third entry, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, is almost as essential.

Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension (1984)
Confused action-parody-impressionist homage to Doc Savage-style pulp adventure and B-grade science-fiction. The protagonist is a Buddhist surgeon rock star test pilot. Earth has been infiltrated by a race of alien criminals, all named John. Somewhat short on action, possibly due to budgetary limitations.

Dick Tracy (1990)
Art deco adventure of the eponymous pulp detective. Features Madonna as love interest.

The Shadow (1994)
1930's sort of period adventure story featuring a psychic hypnotist battling a direct descendent of Genghis Khan over a super weapon.

The Phantom (1996)
African superhero, the latest in a long line of Phantoms, dons purple tights to fight evil. Pretty silly.

Flash Gordon
Classic swashbuckling sci-fi starring Buster Crabbe against Charles Middleton. Three series have made it to video: the original, Flash Gordon's Trip to Mars, and Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe. When people say two-fisted, these are the fists they are talking about. Flash punches everybody, even guys with guns.

The Lone Ranger (TV) (1949-1957)
Western adventure featuring a masked hero and his Native American sidekick. Lots of square fun.

Links

ThePulp.Net
http://thepulp.net/
Valuable starting point for novices to the genre.

Lynx's Pulp Cover Gallery
http://pulpcovers.itgo.com/
A full appreciation of the pulp genre is not possible without seeing the visual style. A collection of old pulp covers.

The Bits Box

Twin pistols, gorillas, zeppelins, air aces, tough-minded detectives, rugged scientists, mad scientists, death traps, criminal masterminds, blackmail, hidden civilizations nestled in the remotest corners of the Earth, rockets, vampires, curses, mummies, native guides, clever pets, robot monsters, fast cars, fencing, two-fisted brawling, gymnastics, masked crime-fighters, safaris, wonder science, millionaires, psychopaths, revenge, adultery, heirs, adventurer children, hair-raising battles in the air, train robberies, mysterious messengers, ancient ruins, "We don't have much time left to stop him!", geniuses driven to evil against the world that would not give them their due, stolen and twice-stolen money, forged artwork, burglary capers, the Himalayas, European resorts, beautiful daughters (good and evil), double-crosses, suspension bridges, mysterious briefcases, G-men, secret formulae, global blackmail, deadly diseases, murderous vigilantes, spies, eccentric playboys, monkeys and apes, daring air robberies, hidden fortresses, "I've trained since birth to be the best," family legacies, secret identities, sudden captures, smuggling, piracy, rum-running, cigarette holders, bolers, fedoras, airmen jackets, red dresses, ocean liners, "the biggest, fastest ever," one of a kind inventions, stolen blueprints, finger-printing, the mysterious East, good-hearted widows and widowers being duped out of their fortunes, domino masks, "a mysterious insignia... it looks like a skull!," secret societies of do-gooders (or assassins), "There's no way he could have survived that," tommy guns, electro-ray guns, stilettos, bowie knives, dark suits, martinis, sarsparilla, and the World Crime League (only rumored to exist).

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