Notes for GMing Pulp Games
Copyright (c) 2002 by Warren Shultzaberger
Know the genre. While watching movies maybe a good enough way
to introduce the pulp genre to players, it is STRONGLY
recommended that the prospective GM READ pulp stories. There are
some good reasons for this:
Since the GM usually
uses verbal means to describe scenes and action to the players, it
is best to read the ways in which successful authors do the same
thing. The GM will find it best to copy the style of a particular
author, that they enjoy, while GMing the events of the game to the
players. I use Robert E. Howard (creator of Conan) mostly, with a
sprinkle of Edgar Rice Burroughs (Tarzan's creator) and Lester
Dent (Doc Savage's creator). It has been a smashing
Read for the ideas,
plots, and scenes. It makes for easy adventure creation. Steal and
They are, for the
most part, damn good escapism stories.
Read The Pulp
Avengers, by Brian Christopher Misiaszek, at least twice a month
(why re-invent the wheel?). You will ALWAYS find something new on
the re-read! ( http://www.columbia.edu/~mfs10/Brians_Pulp_File.html
Read and apply the methods of Lester Dent (creator of Doc
Savage) in his Pulp Paper Master Fiction Plot. If it
worked for him in writing 181 Doc Savage adventures, it would
work for you (especially the "Make the reader SEE the action!"
Many websites contain excellent pulp stories that are free for the
downloading and printing to read. To name a few:
Do not be afraid to fudge things along to keep the game moving at a
fast clip. Just learn to fudge in a consistent manner. For at least two
years now my chase scenes- automobile, airplane dogfights, boat
pursuits, etc, have come down to one thing- the driving/piloting/riding
skills of the characters involved plus 4dF. The better roll gets the
advantage; how good of an advantage depends, on how well the roll beats
the lower roll. All you have to do is add some nifty and fancy
maneuver/action descriptions to "Ooooo" and "Ahhhhh" your players.
Example of Dogfight dice rolls and their possible meanings:
|DIFFERENCE IN 4DF ROLL
||RESULTS (and orientation to each other)
||Neither is in a position to shoot the other.
|1 Point Difference
||Both can shoot (head-on)
|2-4 Points Difference
||Winner can shoot (side-on)
|5 or Greater Difference
||Winner can shoot and has a +1 on next roll (tailing)
Combat occurs in various
styles and for various reasons.
Gives the players a
chance to shine and show their heroic nature.
Provides action and
clues for the players.
Shows the characters
how deadly something really is.
Only in the climatic
battle with the major bad guy would the combat be slow and heavily
reasons will sometimes overlap.
the combat is simply a chance to make the characters look good, I
will roll the dice just for the sound they make (the players do not
know this). I already know that I want the players to win- to
show how much better they are than the average (or slightly above
average) Joe Schmoe walking down the street. All I do is roll the
dice, try my best to make the descriptions sound good and make the PC
look great, then down the grunt NPCs. I use the 3-part wound track
that is suggested in Fudge (section 4.57, last paragraph). I also let
the level of their skill be the target level for the player
character's 4dF dice rolls (assume minor NPCs always rolled a
zero on the dice). This helps speed up unimportant combats to a near
neck break pace. Lots of fun!
2. If the combat were to
provide action and/or clues, it would, most likely, still be fudged.
Whip up on the dastardly grunts and leave the clue. I might hurt or
have a character (or NPC) kidnapped at this stage and placed in a
Deathtrap. Escaping (or rescuing a NPC) out of the villain's
Deathtrap is a great way to make the characters shine and give a
vital clue to the villain's nefarious plans at the same time.
3. In every
episode/adventure of the campaign, I will add about 3 to 6 NPCs to
the character group. The purpose of these NPCs are multi-fold; like
guest stars in an old TV series, a NPC would be killed off to show
the deadliness of a situation and/or attack, to hide the villain(s)
amongst the players, to provide comic relief, or maybe a romantic
interest. NPCs are the GM's chance to play a character and have
fun acting the role. Enjoy them all.
4. The climatic battle
with the main villain is always done using the full combat rules,
Fudge points, and dice rolls. Although I may still sometimes fudge
the rules a little bit, the attention to detail makes the players
nervous, hence makes the combat more tense. It is in a combat like
this that some characters may become seriously wounded- but
still showing their true mettle and hero stuff by prevailing anyway.
Like above- read
Read The Pulp
Avengers, by Brian Christopher Misiaszek.
of my adventures are just a string of scenes in my head that I
somehow tie together. I know what scene I want to have occur so I
arrange to have it happen at an appropriate part of the adventure.
This does not necessarily mean I "railroad" the players
in any way, quite the opposite. By knowing what I want to have happen
I allow the players to go where they will and do what they want-
I just modify the event I want to have it happen to work wherever the
players go. They have freewill while I get to run my adventure with
minimal fuss. I also will shape the adventure to fit my player's
characters skills and backgrounds (diversity is a welcome blessing
Terra Incognita has an excellent suggestion of reading the spine of
any National Geographic magazine and forming an adventure out of the
scenes the words inspire. I guarantee that, if you use this method, you
will never run out of exotic places, creatures, and treasures. Check out
their web site ( http://www.fudgerpg.com/nags/)
for additional pulpish tidbits (plan on spending a couple of hours
there- great stuff).
For every exotic location
you have an adventure in, lookup some of the language on the web. I
am not saying you should try to become a fluent speaker, just learn
the names of some important features/creatures that you plan on using
at some time in the adventure- along with a greeting, curse
word, and goodbye. This would add a lot of flavor and "realism"
to your campaign.
This also applies to
learning some of the 20's and 30's slang terms to pepper
the talk of some of the individuals the characters would meet. Soon
your players will be speaking Jazz Age slang like a true native.
Creatures: I have
found the best way to use creatures is as explained in a direct quote
from Aaron Allston's Lands of Mystery:
affect the hero in many ways: They endanger his life by trying to
bite his head off, they delay him by try to bite his head off while
the bad guy is getting away with the Princess, they give him heart
failure by trying to bite the Princess' head off, they make him
a friend by giving him the opportunity to rescue a native from having
his head bitten off. Monsters add color, excitement, and an element
of variety to these tales.
should always Serve A Purpose. Each encounter should advance the plot
or give a character a chance to demonstrate his thinking or fighting
Keep their stats in a
simple shorthand method (Fudge section 6.5) that will give enough
information to run the creature. Flesh out the creature even more by
using your descriptive style of verbage.
In truth, this may (and
should) be applied to ANY encounter in the game. Creature, bad guys,
Magic & Horror:
Voodoo Zombies? Vampires? Rubbish! I'm sure there is some
careful with magical creatures. It is like opening a can of worms! If
you introduce these creatures into your game you MIGHT be admitting
to the fact that does magic exist. Players will want their characters
to learn it and become a wizard or worse. Some of the ways I have
avoided this pitfall is by following one (or more) of suggestions.
Make the creature
unobtainable to the PCs. Destroy that mummy in a fire that consumes
the creature like a dried-up wicker basket.
Have the creature
only seen from a distance and by the one or two party members at one
There truly IS a
logical explanation. It is fake (think Scooby-Doo).
There truly IS a
logical explanation. It is scientific (The drug slows the body's
functions down to a state where decay begins. There is little brain
function. Plus it makes if VERY resistant to feeling damage).
If you have to have
it, keep magic low key because it could monopolize the game, making
it very non-pulpish. Make it hard and expensive to learn (tomes,
books, finding a trainer, etc), have the ingredients compromise the
PC morals (the heart of a freshly killed VIRGIN?!?!), make the
spells impossible to cast quickly (stars have to be in the right
alignment, or need hours, even days, of prep and casting time), and
dangerous to know (think Lovecraft's Cthulhu Mythos).
Example: In our game, vampirism was discovered to be
caused by a virus that altered the DNA of the cells to these effects:
tract where only blood could be consumed and enjoyed.
increased. Stronger and heavier while looking normal sized. Because
of the weight vampires would sink like a rock (swimming is useless),
giving rise to the legend that a vampire could not cross running
Vampires also fed off
ultraviolet light. An overdose will cause the creature to burst into
flames and be consumed. Night time starlight is okay. Full exposure
to good ol' Sol was bad news.
They became carriers of the virus. Transmitted by drinking a
vampire's blood. No changing into a bat or wolf. Garlic repulsed because
of odor to sensitive sense of smell.
The "8 or more
damage" rule (see next Paragraph) did not apply with wooden
the players AND the characters. I stole this idea from another
Fudge setting called Force 9, by John Harper and
Jonathan Elliot. http://www.shootingiron.com/force9/index.html
heavily modified misquote:
easy of play, undead creatures don't take wounds. They are
either still fighting/moving, or dead. When an undead is hit in
combat, if a damage total of eight or more is done, the creature
dies. Anything less and it keeps fighting. Don't forget to
describe the hits the undead takes, even if it has no effect. A PC
might blow off a leg/arm or shoot out an eye before the creature
finally keels over. The more grisly the wounds, the more relentless
and unstoppable the creature will seem."
This technique has kept my players scared and guessing for over two
Player: "Why isn't the damn thing dying?!?"
GM, with an evil grin: "How can you kill something which is already
Easy to play, VERY effective! Thanks, John and Jonathan!
Think of your Pulp Adventure Campaign as a series on TV. Do you think
the director yells, "CUT!" and rolls some dice to determine the outcome
of a particular action on the show? Of course not. Try the same
techniques with your campaign- Think to yourself, "What would be the
best result to increase the tension and suspense of my audience (the
players)?" Then find a way to apply that result. Soon you will notice
that your brain will be multi-tasking; processing the player's actions,
the NPCs reactions and thoughts, the best way to describe those actions,
the best possible results and how to apply them.
When conducting a mystery adventure; pay close attention to the
deductive guesswork of the players, their ideas might be better that
your original one. If so, go ahead and use them, it would just prove
that the PCs are some damn smart detectives.
Try to make adventures that are tailor made for your PCs skills,
talents, and backgrounds. If you have a Tarzan-clone character in your
troop, then run an adventure in a jungle setting. The archeologist
character will be the first to decipher the glyphic markings on the
walls of the ruins. The collage professor would understand the language
of the descendants of the lost Roman Legion. The back-alley brawler will
have the opportunity to beat the bad guys(or creatures) in hand-to-hand.
Everyone should have the chance to shine in the course of the
While it is best to give every character a chance to be in the
limelight in every adventure, this could be hard to do in each gaming
session. Another good way to move the campaign along is to focus on one
individual character's background for that particular session. Have the
group encounter a mystery/adventure visiting one of the character's
family during Christmas. Allow, even encourage, vacations for the
characters, then slam them into an adventure. Have the action seek them
out at every turn in their lives. This gives the players a feeling of a
more complete campaign world.
Character backgrounds: Try to have your players come up with a
good background for why the character knows these unusual skills, became
"fighters of evil-doers" and "righters of wrongs done to the innocent."
It will help you develop the campaign along by adapting this background
into your game history (or vise versa).
If the player balks at this stage of character development or runs
dry of ideas, hang your head, shake it from side to side, mutter
something about unprepared players under your breath, then secretly
wring your hand together and chuckle for glee! The player just gave you
a clean slate to develop histories, twists, and plots for your entire
campaign! Maybe the character has NO IDEA where they are from or how
they became what they are. Have they lost their memory perhaps? Brain
washed, maybe? Are they a graduate of the Doc Savage Crime Collage?
Flashbacks make for great foreshadowing tools. Are those, seemingly
random, attacks against the character perhaps tied together? If so, who
would be trying to kill them- and why? The sky is the limit!
Try to develop a long range campaign plot for each character. Then
explore these plots VERY slowly. The plots are all there, you just have
to look to see them.
Use highly descriptive terms in actions and combat. Make the players
SEE, HEAR, SMELL, FEEL the action! The players will catch on (hopefully)
and start adding their own descriptive terms, making the campaign an
ongoing adventure in mutual story telling. This, in my humble opinion,
is the best way for a campaign to run.
Use props when you can. http://www.miskatonic.net/pickman/mythos/
are excellent sites to visit for this. They add an element of feel and
sight into the game that just could not be properly described by the GMs
NEVER RUIN your game by having an established Pulp hero (i.e. Doc
Savage, The Shadow, etc) steal the thunder of your player's characters.
After all, this IS the player's characters adventure series. Have the
character always be the best at whatever skill in which they
specialize. It is okay to have the character assist the Pulp hero or be
better than them in one particular field.
Example: Nel's character shot the gun out of the hand of The Spider
to prevent him from killing an innocent NPC then defeated him in
hand-to-hand combat using her Jujitsu. The Spider was impressed to no
end. Another example; Doc Savage would never had come up with the
antidote without Tracy's character's expertise in chemistry and
Never have a character die uselessly or needlessly. It is ALWAYS a
momentous event- ALWAYS! If you, the GM, are going to kill the
character, allow them perform one last, exasperating, action that would
turn the tables of the battle. Maybe the dying character drags their
bleeding, broken body over to the control panel (taking many turns to
cover that distance, "My God! What willpower!") and then manages to
pull the lever of the Ultra-Power-Ray, there by weakening the Villain,
allowing the other player characters to defeat him. The character dies,
the player is grinning ear to ear, and the action will be talked about
over pizza and beer for years to come (if you are old enough to drink
Make notes of the particulars of each recurring or major NPC in the
adventure and campaign. What movie star do they look like? How do they
sound when they talk? Do they have an accent? What kind? What
hair/eye/skin color do they have? What is their name? Etc. Make each
one unique and enjoyable!
Keeping even unimportant recurring NPCs constant helps the game more
than you can ever imagine. Bob, the doorman (who NEVER forgets any dames
shapely pair of legs), John, the hackdriver (can get you anywhere in the
city in record time, but your hair might turn white from the
experience), Billy, the corner newsboy (who knows some the most amazing
information and going-ons in the city)- they all add up stable and
I advise putting the major or recurring NPCs, and villains, of the
campaign on a character sheet.
Remember, NPCs can get experience too. They will evolve over the
course of time.
I STRONGLY recommend finding and buying a copy of AD&D,
2nd Edition, The Complete Book of Villains. Although
written for a fantasy game genre, the book is the best in the creation,
care, and handling of NPCs.
Keep an account of the adventures the PCs have. Make a form, using
any word processor, to keep track of the; Name of the adventure or
episode, when played (real time), date of adventure (game time), names
of PCs and NPCs involved, location, type of adventure (mystery, horror,
action, etc), highlights of the adventure, and whatever else you can
can help the campaign in a number of ways.
Players can forget
the specifics of an adventure. This way the GM or players can look
Helps the GM in
answering, "What type of adventure do I run tonight?"
The GM can look back on prior episodes and see if their in a rut.
Maybe a different type adventure in needed?
Lets the GM look back
over the old adventures for loose ends and adventure ideas.
never did find the body of Professor Skrag way back in the second
adventure!" Maybe it is time to blow the dust off an old
villainous NPC for a rematch?
This also gives the
campaign a sense of history, which adds a subliminal sense of depth
to the game.
Gives good recap
reading incase the session turns out to be shorter than planned. GM
and players alike can sit around, reminisce and laugh over past
escapades and socialize.
If the GM finds keeping this paper work up and running a campaign too
much for their limited time, they can ask a player to do it for
them. Award the player an extra Fudge Point for their troubles. Rotate
the responsibility from player to player with each game session
Pulp Game Toolbox:
This is a list of articles, web sites, and gaming aids that I have
copied and printed out to use in helping me along when the creative gray
brain matter seems to be at low tide. I have even gone so far as to
place them in sheet protectors and inside a 3-ring binder.
The Pulp Avengers,
by Brian Christopher Misiaszek
Pulp Paper Master
Fiction Plot, by Lester Dent
John Ross' Big
List of RPG Plots
An old Shardis
Magazine plot generator article
Pyramid Magazine Deathtrap Construction Kit (You have to be
a subscriber to get to this web page, sorry)
The Jazz Age Slang
While the Shardis and Pyramid articles do use dice to generate random
variables I seldom do the die rolls. I would rather choose and shape the
plot, villain's method, what they are after, etc. I read the articles
for ideas and inspiration.
I hope some of you find ideas here to help you with your pulp
game. The genre is a blast to run and play!