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Bag o' Nifties: Tricks for GMs

Great Men - A Narrative Structure for Modern Pulp Action!

by Dan Bayn
Feb 05,2003


Great Men - A Narrative Structure for Modern Pulp Action!

The Problem

This month's problem isn't so much yours as it is mine: I have an interesting idea and nowhere to use it. (Not by any means a rare occurrence.) So, I decided to wrap it in an article and share it with you good folks. Don't worry, you can thank me later.

This interesting idea of mine is a way to take ordinary, modern characters and let them do extraordinary things, all without resorting to super-powers or magic. It would work great in a game where the players played themselves, just with a little extra kick. It even includes a powerful-but-elusive enemy that drives them to action and motivates secrecy. Best of all, it encourages exactly the kind of seat-of-your-pants action and crazy no-way-that'll-work plans that you usually find only in pulp-era settings. Oh yeah, you know I like that!

The Solution: Great Men

(Note: I'm going to use the term "Men" a lot, not in an attempt to exclude female characters or players, but because it's a figure of speech. The theory outlined below was born a long time ago, in much more patriarchal age, so wadaya gonna do?)

In the field of history, there is a debate akin to the Nature/Nurture debates of biology and psychology. One camp claims that historical trends and events are driven by large-scale, societal forces that sweep up the ordinary people who become their leaders. The other camp claims that it is the leaders themselves, so-called "Great Men," who shape historical events and trends in their own image. In other words, did Hitler cause WWII, or did the economic and social forces that caused WWII also cause Hitler? And what the holy hell does this have to do with pulp action role-playing?

Simmer down, and I'll tell ya! If they existed, these Great Men would have many traits in common with pulp heroes: They're larger than life, almost archetypal examples of one ideal or another. They get things done where normal people would get bogged down in details or crushed by opposing forces. They're eccentric, to say the least, proving that the line between genius and madness is razor thin. They are heroes and villains of epic proportions.

Bringing this idea into the realm of modern role-playing requires a little help from one of the great staples of the genre: a Shadowy Conspiracy (tm). After the devastation of WWII, many people grew fearful of their own leaders. They wanted stability, not heroics, in their brave new world. They wanted sane, rational, normal leaders with their fingers on the button. Most of all, they didn't want to meet their ends in a radioactive fireball or under a choking cloud of atomic ash.

Some of these normal people, people in positions of power, banded together to keep the world safe from the Great Men who arose every few generations to devastate it. They established watchtowers across the globe, searching for signs of rising power. They screen school children, monitor cultural movements, and spy on celebrities. When they determine that someone is a danger to "historical security," they take 'em out. An assassin's bullet, fired at point blank range, will kill a Great Man just as dead as anyone else. Thus have they crafted for humanity an era of unparalleled mediocrity.

But they've grown complacent, and a few nascent Great Ones have escaped the assassin's bullet. Now, they're banding together for mutual protection, seeking to unmask the conspiracy that seems desperate to spill their blood. Possibly, just possibly, they'll also bring change and progress back into the world, or destroy it just as the Conspirators fear.

Crunchy Bits, Assorted Flavors

Fortunately, their talents give Great Men a powerful advantage over their "average" adversaries. Just what that advantage is can be hard to quantify. The universe just seems to... accommodate them. Things just work for them in ways they'd never work for normal folks. You can model this kind of vague "charm" in a number of different ways, depending on what kind of game system you use:

  • Percentile Systems: Players get to decide which die is the 10s place after they roll.
  • Single Die Systems: Players roll two dice and choose which result to keep.
  • Other Misc. Systems: Give each player 1-2 poker chips at the beginning of each session. Each can be cashed in to automatically succeed on a single task.

But don't just let your players use these mechanics... well, mechanically. Great Men do Great Things, so dust off that imagination of yours and embellish your larger than life actions! I want to see dramatic flourishes, slapstick comedy, and obscenely good luck. Fight scenes should involve as much property damage and as many improvised weapons as possible. Lucky shots and narrow escapes are the order of the day. Social interactions should highlight the Great Man's almost supernatural charisma (and an ego to match). If you feel like a ham, you're on the right track.

A Note on Splats

If plugging PCs into nifty little groups is your thing, here are three that benefit from tons of examples in TV, movies, and books.

Men of Action - Your Indiana Jones types are as quick on their feet as they are with their guns. They never hesitate, relying on their instincts and inspiration to see them through. They rarely have to worry about the mundane consequences of their actions. Let them use their advantage whenever doing something that's risky or rash.

Men of Fortune - Your Ferris Bueller types are clever, good looking tricksters with wit and will to spare. They are far too fond of overly elaborate deceptions and half-assed disguises. Still, few people can stay mad at them for long. Let them use their advantage to trick people and catch lucky breaks.

Men of Vision - These are the Great Men most feared by the Conspirators. They usually have a personal quest of some kind, and an uncanny ability to draw other people into it. Let them use their advantage whenever fighting for their cause... or inspiring others to do so.

Next Time: Fun with Target Number Systems!

Bayn.org - Loath Your Fellow Man

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What do you think?

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Bag o' Nifties by Dan Pond