Tuesday, March 27, 2012

What is Pulp?

Every couple of years 'pulp' becomes the popular genre in the gaming community, and then is cycled out of favor to be replaced by something else (I think super heroes is the current popular genre). Now, some may call me an elitist or a snob, but I am a firm believer in using literary genre labels to describe RPGs of differing genres. To this end, I am afraid to tell you gentle readers that there is no such thing as a 'pulp' genre. Still, the tag seems to be used by nearly everyone in the industry to describe any game set in the 1920's and '30's. In a sense, it has become shorthand for high action adventure, often with some nod to a historical period, set before WWII yet after WWI. Sometimes the decades are expanded to include the latter part of the Victorian period, and often conflated with both that era and the following Edwardian era.
So, what does pulp actually mean? In short, it is a type of paper, a low grade and thus cheap paper that was used for popular fiction magazines from the 1890's to the 1950's. These magazines were themselves often genre specific; there were detective pulps, western pulps, horror pulps, fantasy and science fiction pulps, even romance or true crime pulps. These magazines were aimed at the working classes amongst whom there was a growing literacy rate, and prior to the advent of radio and TV, provided a much-needed form of entertainment. They were not something that 'proper' people read (though they did, like most things 'proper' people don’t do). The quality of the writing was generally poor, the illustrations pushed the limits of the decency laws of the time, and the stories themselves were lurid, sensationalist, often violent, nearly always fairly far-fetched, and in general considered at the time to be of little literary value. However, it is out of these pulps that some of the greatest writers of the age came, most notably Bradbury, Chandler, Heinlein, Howard, L'Amour, Leiber, London, Lovecraft, Wells, and even Vance. Notice any names on that list that had a large and positive influence on fantasy, sci-fi, horror, and RPG's? Yes, the literary critics of the day were shortsighted in their view of the pulps, neglecting to see that amongst the rough there were pearls. We should all learn a lesson, especially those of us who are elitists, that being a snob is the antithesis of elitism, for we must always strive for and seek the best, no matter what rags it may wear.
Thus, pulp is not a true genre, but a style of publishing and writing. How then is it a genre of RPG's? Ignorance would be my best guess, but partially through the means by which a language grows and changes. It is quite normal for words to take on different meanings, though it can be very annoying when one is speaking of technical terms, and those who use pulp as a means of defining a genre should not be chastised for it (at least not too much or too frequently).
A pulp game should be high on the action, short on the plot, and thoroughly done for the fun of it. It should tend towards sensationalist and over the top behavior by the PCs and NPCs, and most of all should keep the action flowing. Character development should follow a relatively shallow track, we're not doing Masterpiece Theatre here, and emotionally responses should be played up almost to ridiculous heights. The Rule of Cool needs to be in effect, and a large amount of suspension of disbelief on the part of all involved is not just expected, but required. In this way you are holding true to the pulp magazines of yore, and to the style they put forth. Sex was often a selling point of the pulps, at least on the magazine covers, and although your game needn't be explicit, it should have some titillation. Fur and chainmail bikinis are optional, but both genders should receive a fair amount of 'cake' if you know what I mean. Why, there was even a 'caged heat' genre aimed at heterosexuals and homosexuals of both sexes (though it should be noted that these and other highly sexual pulps were rare and sold under the counter).
By treating pulp as a style and not a genre, you can then apply it to any genre you desire, thus emulating the magazines (and the crappy paper) that yielded the name. Considering that the pulps were the birthplace of many of the genres we now enjoy, from Sword and Sorcery to Super Heroes, this is not just appropriate, but nearly a requirement. Looking at gaming this way, I can safely say my current Barbarians of Lemuria game is a pulp fantasy (and made more so by the introduction of the PC named Sexy Fat Man). Many of the games I have ran in the past are pulp styled, and that's fine, it’s a style I love and love to see more of. It's just not a genre per se.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Evil PCs

Every couple of years this topic seems to come up in one of my games, namely someone wants to play a member of the party that is an evil PC. Most of the time I simply will not allow it, but occasionally a good concept comes my way and the evil PC enters the campaign. The question always is, what do you do with that character? Evil PCs have different motivations than good aligned heroes, and are not always moved by wealth or fame like other PCs. Usually when someone decides they want to play evil, its not just to be a money-grubbing villain or anti-hero, they want to do bad stuff, or at least work for an evil agency of some type.
Once you have allowed an evil PC into the campaign, the next question is what to do with it. You don’t have to do anything special, you can just let the evil PC develop and play out as any other character, however you would then be missing out on some great opportunities for storytelling, not to mention letting less than pleasant things into the game without some form of payback for the extra work and headache. Four good options are to play out a plot arc based on redemption, descent into madness, betrayal, or just retribution.
A redemptive storyline is the most positive option to play, but requires a good role-player to pull off. Basically, you should sit down with the player of the evil PC and determine why he is evil and what will turn him towards the light. This can either be a long process where the cause of the character's evil inclinations is slowly worked away, or possibly a face turn situation. In a face turn situation, the PC has a moment of revelation where he is forced to confront his evil and decides to turn away from it. However the decision to become one of the good guys happens, the road to redemption should be a long one fraught with temptation and peril. Eventually the PC faces his demons (possibly literally), makes good the damage he has done (or learns to live with the guilt and shame) and becomes a good guy in the campaign. Just keep in mind that one good act of redemption does not make, no matter how big that act (unless it is self-sacrificing, the redemption in death trope is a good one), a good aligned hero.
One of the most difficult story lines to play out, but one that can be a lot of fun, is to have the evil PC descend into madness. This is a classic in some genres; the bad deeds and horrible acts wear away at the character's sanity until the inevitable break with reality occurs. At this point the PC is thoroughly evil, but may not be entirely responsible for his actions as he is now insane. Be careful not to creep out the other people at the table, but make sure it is obvious to the other characters that one of their own is now bat-shit crazy. This sets up a couple of story lines, such as the other PCs having to put down their rapid-dog companion, seek out a cure, or possibly the evil PC finds redemption through madness.
Betrayal is a dangerous plot arc to follow, and can lead to bad feelings amongst the players. Basically, set it up before hand that the evil PC will at some point betray the party to their enemies. This should be something big, not a petty turning them over to the local tribe of orcs, but instead something along the lines of handing the artifact they have been questing for to the campaign's big bad guy. This should lead to the other PCs hunting down and brining the evil PC to justice, or if they fail some other force for good within the campaign will do the dirty work for them.
Finally, the evil PC can be allowed to run amok with the understanding that at some point law and order will catch up to him. This might be in the form of another PC, or it may be the local authorities, but some how, some way just retribution for his evil acts will come down upon him. Playing a character who it is predetermined will be taken down is not for everyone's liking, but it does set up a nice plot arc. Consider what the reaction of the other characters will be when one of their number is imprisoned, charged with a crime, or pursued by bounty hunters. Will they defend their companion, or turn him over? This sort of situation is one that good drama, and good role-playing, is made of.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012


I have begun experimenting with a little old school style gaming with my weekly Pathfinder game. First of all, the campaign is set in the Forgotten Realms in the year 1368 DR, basically the AD&D Second Edition era. Second, the factor that is a true experiment is that I am handing out experience points for gold pieces. That's right folks, I am putting my campaign into the way-back machine and giving one experience point for each gold point worth of loot the PCs manage to pick up. Extreme? Maybe, but we'll see how it goes.
I am doing this because I feel that one of the things lost in recent editions is the encouragement to explore and to find non-combat related means of resolving issues. True, the GM has some leeway in how XP is handed out, and can reward the type of game play the campaign encourages, but often this is a rather fuzzy metric and not clearly defined in the rules, or at the table. BY giving the PCs a definite bonus that they know ahead of time, they can calculate the risks and rewards better when deciding their character's actions.
There are a few issues that are apparent with this experimental XP award system. First, there is already a built in reward for finding treasure, and that ties directly into the magic item economy inherent in Pathfinder. Since we are playing in the Forgotten Realms, magic item shops are rare, but still present in a few cities. In effect, the characters are getting rewarded twice for loot, once as XP and a second time as what that loot can purchase (or in the case of found magical items, once for the GP/ XP value of the item and once for its utility). This is Ok, as what I am trying to do is encourage exploration and, for lack of a better word, 'lateral thinking'. Finding ways around the problems brought about by the plot that are not tied to the 'kill them and take their stuff' mentality. Another issue is that this increases the amount of XP a party receives, but this can be compensated for by using the slow progression column on the level table.
If you get more XP, and thus faster level progression and thus more cool powers by looting than by killing, it changes the game play. Caution becomes more important than simply charging in and attacking. Stealth and good planning replace amount of damage dealt per round as the primary means of success. Finally, since the set up for the campaign is work as caravan guards, and the PCs are allowed to do some trading of their own on the side, this double reward means that attention paid to the mercantile side of the campaign gains greater importance.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Who's Yer Con 2012 Wrap Up

This past weekend, Con Team Alpha attended Who's Yer Con in Indianapolis, a free local convention put on by Who's Yer Gamers. We ran games to promote Northlands Saga and Interplanetary, and although we had poor attendance on Friday; Saturday and Sunday picked up and we got to show off our games to several people, and meet some great gamers at the same time. In short, a good time was had by all.
Who's Yer Con is small, I don’t have the attendance figures for this year but would guess at less than five hundred attendees. The Pathfinder Society games were packed, and some of the other venues saw a fair number of people at tables. The exhibitors' hall was tiny, but had five exhibitors plus the convention's raffle table. This is one feature I really liked, as they raffled off hundreds of prizes throughout the con. I won a copy of Atlas Games' Cults of Cthulhu, but as I am not a boardgamer I traded it at the Arsenal Game Room and Café booth for some old Forgotten Realms titles. The convention had several other nice features, a large open play area, a game library, and several ongoing free demo events (in addition to ours). There was a film hall, LARPs, and costume contest, the usual things one expects at any decent gaming convention. The convention staff was generally friendly and helpful, and even the ones who were less than helpful were still friendly. We will be back next year, but most likely only for Saturday, the cost in time and dollars is too much to warrant a full weekend.

Games at Who's Yer Con

We ran three sessions of two events, Spring Rites for Northlands Saga and Terror on New Cumberland for Interplanetary. Sadly, Spring Rites ended up being at bad times, Friday (a day of low attendance) and early Saturday (again, few people at the con at 9am). At a larger con the numbers would have been better, but there simply was not enough people to be able to attract a decent table size. We did have better luck Sunday morning, and had a full table for Spring Rites. This group did very well, rescuing the three daughters of Jarl Olaf without loss of any PC. I was introduced by one of the participants to the Viking themed metal band Amon Amaruth, and will have to check these guys out. The session ended with everyone having a good time, and lots of interest in Northlands Saga.
Of our three Interplanetary events, we had full tables at two and a half table at one. In all cases it was a fun time as the marines of the USSN corvette Ira Hayes dropped on the tiny mining colony of New Cumberland and proceeded to investigate the causes behind a garbled distress call. Aliens were met and vanquished, mysteries were (sometimes) resolved, and colonists were rescued to varying degrees (one session only took away two survivors of the hundred and fifty trapped on the colony). This led one player to rename the site of the colony "The Valley of Bad Decisions". In nearly every event the dam was blown and the colony flooded, putting an end (hopefully) to the alien menace.
A few new contacts were made, especially with the Arsenal Game Room and Café and the IUPUI Gamers' Guild. Con Team Alpha will have a presence at their events in April, more on that in the weeks to come. If you missed Spring Rites and Terror on New Cumberland at Who's Yer Con, both events, as well as the Northlands Saga event Spears in the Ice and The Archangel Incident for Interplanetary will be ran at Gen Con 2012. Don’t forget, this year we are introducing Con Team Alpha Character Upgrade Tokens. Attend one Con Team Alpha event and get a wooden token you can keep. Bring it back to another event, and get an upgrade to your character. Your tokens carry over from convention to convention, so hoard them up and show them to your friends!

What is Con Team Alpha?

Con Team Alpha is a group of genetically engineered elite gamemasters who escaped from a federal penitentiary for crimes they wanted to commit. They escaped to the RPG underground and now travel the Midwest promoting games written by their dark master, Ken Spencer.
OK, maybe not, but we are highly experienced gamers who love to run games at conventions and promote Ken Spencer Freelancing. Currently, Con Team Alpha consists of Ken Spencer, Matt Carlson, Jeremy Hedge, and Ted Snider.