Thursday, 17 April 2014

Two Fists To Cure What Ails You (Part Two)

As genre pedants are eager to remind everyone who mentions the word "pulp", that word can mean all kinds of different types of stories. In the early days of publishing, "pulps" were cheaply-printed magazines that tended to have lurid and sensational subject matter. There were all kinds of different magazines that would properly be called "pulp fiction", including detective magazines, the exploits of proto-superheroes like The Shadow, cowboy magazines, romances, science fiction, horror, and on and on. The important thing that distinguishes the medium is its cheapness and the exciting content.

"Pulp" as it applies to roleplaying has pretty much always been understood to mean an adventure game set in the 1920s or 1930s, with two-fisted heroes in the Indiana Jones mode, weird science, lost cities, ray guns, zeppelins, mole people, martians, and intelligent apes. In short, a grab bag of the medium that jams all the most sensational parts into one strange hodgepodge and screws a fedora on its head.

I'm fine with all that, actually -- I don't need my pulp to be as realistic as Indiana Jones, he said, hoping the audience wouldn't think immediately of that episode where Indy somehow survives a nuclear blast inside a refrigerator. Damn, they made those things to last in the 50s.

Still, although my game will probably include a lot of outre elements that would probably make a pulp pedant tug at his soul patch in frustration, there's something to be said for having a focus to hang all the sensational bits on. One of the decisions I made early on was that I probably needed to focus on one of the pulp styles as a framework for the game. Although practically all the pulp games I've seen include options to play both a masked avenger and a globetrotting archaeologist, I'm not entirely convinced those characters need to exist in the same story.

I should say that I eliminated certain possibilities up-front, especially the more outlandish stuff like an SF-style alien invasion game or something in the mode of Flash Gordon or Buck Rogers that takes place on another world or in the distant future -- even if it's the future as imagined by the 1930s. That has its charm, but for me this game is all about the era -- I want my fedoras, dammit.

Let's start with the masked avengers. One kind of pulp adventure that is remembered in modern media is the pulp Mystery Man archetype -- here we're talking about early takes on what would later become the modern superhero, often clad in a trenchcoat or cloak, battling the forces of crime and corruption on the means streets of America's cities. For a while, heroes like The Shadow, The Green Hornet, The Spider, and many others with "the" in front of their names, seemed more relevant than the costumed heroes that succeeded them at the magazine stands. While Comics Code-bound superheroes punched out the baddies and dragged them to prison, every issue, the likes of The Shadow dispatched them with blazing .45's. Mystery Men had the same gritty appeal as characters like Batman or The Punisher, but without the burden of brightly-coloured longjohns.

It would be easy enough to play a Mystery Men themed pulp game, set in a sprawling American metropolis. Superhero games are one of my favourites, and it's been a while since I've had a full-on supers game (as opposed to an action/adventure game with characters so over-the-top that they may as well be wearing costumes). Collectively creating a city and populating it with gangsters, corrupt politicians, bent cops, mad scientists, and deranged killers with strange facial deformities (in the Dick Tracy mode) would be a simple enough exercise. This kind of game would likely take place in the 20s and 30s, the golden age of crooks with tommyguns running bootleg liquor. A latter-day Mystery Men game might deal with Ratzi saboteurs and spies in the 40s.

Pulp games are, as observed in one of my many pulp books (it may have been ADVENTURE!), not Noir, so that might be a distinction that needs to be made clear to the players. A game in this mode might also see some duplication of the kinds of action seen in Megan's faeries-in-Roaring-Twenties-Chicago game 'ROUND MIDNIGHT; I hate to tread over the same ground, whether it's in one of my games or someone else's.

Note the title of the top story - "A Corpse Grows In Brooklyn". Ha!
There are several virtues to the Mystery Men framework. Firstly, it would provide a stable (if large) setting to play out a series of adventures, with a set cast of characters and locations that can be developed in depth. Secondly, it provides the best opportunity to examine the world of the Jazz Era in any depth -- a globetrotting adventure would by necessity have little time for details. Thirdly, the superhero genre (which Mystery Men definitely fall into, in my mind, even if they tend to gun down the bad guys without much self-reflection) is something that a lot of players understand, even if they have little experience of characters like The Shadow or The Spider. Most people who've read a comic book in their lifetimes instinctively understand the concept of donning a weird outfit and taking to the streets to battle the forces of evil.

Stay tuned for an adventure that will take you to exotic ports-of-call around the world on a thrilling quest for lost treasures and the mysteries of the ages!

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