[Game Mastering Secrets]

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:

  1. 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 success!

  2. Read for the ideas, plots, and scenes. It makes for easy adventure creation. Steal and mix shamelessly.

  3. They are, for the most part, damn good escapism stories.

  4. 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

  5. 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!" quote). (http://dept.english.upenn.edu/~rbarrett/mc/dent.txt)

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)
Tied Roll 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.

  1. Gives the players a chance to shine and show their heroic nature.

  2. Provides action and clues for the players.

  3. Shows the characters how deadly something really is.

  4. Only in the climatic battle with the major bad guy would the combat be slow and heavily detail orientated.

These reasons will sometimes overlap.

1. If 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 Pulp stories!

Read The Pulp Avengers, by Brian Christopher Misiaszek.

Many 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 here).

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:

""Monsters 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.

"Monster encounters should always Serve A Purpose. Each encounter should advance the plot or give a character a chance to demonstrate his thinking or fighting ability".

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, etc.

Magic & Horror:

"Mummies? Voodoo Zombies? Vampires? Rubbish! I'm sure there is some logical explanation."

Be 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.

  1. Make the creature unobtainable to the PCs. Destroy that mummy in a fire that consumes the creature like a dried-up wicker basket.

  2. Have the creature only seen from a distance and by the one or two party members at one time.

  3. There truly IS a logical explanation. It is fake (think Scooby-Doo).

  4. 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).

  5. 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:

  1. Simplified digestive tract where only blood could be consumed and enjoyed.

  2. Muscle density 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 water.

  3. 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.

  4. Night vision.

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 weapons.

Scaring 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

In a heavily modified misquote:

"For 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 years.

Player: "Why isn't the damn thing dying?!?"

GM, with an evil grin: "How can you kill something which is already dead?"

Player: "ARRRGGGHHHH!!!!"

Easy to play, VERY effective! Thanks, John and Jonathan!

Added Tidbits:

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 adventure.

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/ & http://www.indygear.com/index.shtml 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 words alone.

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 medicine.

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 beer legally).

Non-Player Characters:

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 believable world.

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 think of.

This can help the campaign in a number of ways.

  1. Players can forget the specifics of an adventure. This way the GM or players can look it up.

  2. 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?

  3. Lets the GM look back over the old adventures for loose ends and adventure ideas.

  4. "Gee! They 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?

  5. This also gives the campaign a sense of history, which adds a subliminal sense of depth to the game.

  6. 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

My 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.

  1. The Pulp Avengers, by Brian Christopher Misiaszek http://www.columbia.edu/~mfs10/Brians_Pulp_File.html

  2. Pulp Paper Master Fiction Plot, by Lester Dent http://dept.english.upenn.edu/~rbarrett/mc/dent.txt

  3. John Ross' Big List of RPG Plots http://www.io.com/~sjohn/plots.htm

  4. An old Shardis Magazine plot generator article http://www.columbia.edu/~mfs10/PULPPLOT.htm

  5. Steve Jackson's Pyramid Magazine Deathtrap Construction Kit (You have to be a subscriber to get to this web page, sorry) http://www.sjgames.com/pyramid/login/article.cgi?738

  6. The Jazz Age Slang article http://home.earthlink.net/~dlarkins/slang-pg.htm

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!


Warren Shultzaberger


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Last modified: 2002-November-02
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