The Call of Pulp Cinematics

There’s an inherent tension in my tastes when it comes to adventure gaming. On the one hand, I am drawn to stories of high adventure and pulp action. My favourite novels are high-paced tales of action heroism and somewhat ridiculous feats of James Bond-like derring-do. On the other hand, I tend to gravitate towards low-powered ‘realism’ whenever I come to the gaming table as a Game Master.

This post is, I think, a cry for help. I am sitting on the edge of this tension right now.

Last night I ran the first session of a new fantasy game set within the very medievally-inspired Harn with the lowest powered characters that I can ever remember asking players to deploy. We gamed using GURPS at 50 character points and it was a good session, by all accounts. The heroes trudged through muddy roads and were genuinely spooked by finding a mauled deer carcass and bear tracks. Hardly the stuff of the pulps but it does feel immersive and engaging.

This afternoon, I am reading Savage Worlds and dreaming of playing with the Friday Night Roleplayers in the incredible world of Rifts, created by Palladium in 1992 and re-presented to the gaming fraternity last year in the updated Rifts for Savage Worlds setting. This is the antithesis of Harn: super-powered, high-tech, high-magical heroes who are fighting to save humanity from the threat of extinction. Heady stuff.

Is it that I just don’t know what I want? Sometimes I wonder if there is something wrong with me.

Savage Cyphers

When I read a game like Savage Worlds – or the equally tempting Cypher System – focused, as those games are, on offering an adventure drawing on epic action and high-jinks, I am smitten.

I dream of bringing to life the narratives I enjoy the most: Sven Hassel-esque World War II heroic raids mixed with Wolfenstein-style attacks on evil Nazi super-science bases; zombie-hunting in the post-apocalypse of a cyberpunk-inspired tech-noir near-now; daring espionage with highly-trained operatives in arctic climes, blowing up government experiments in human cloning.

Stuff like that. Crazy stuff. The most pulpy movie stuff that my father used to complain about being “so unrealistic” when I was a kid. It’s like an act of imaginative rebellion.

Yet when I sit down to prepare or run such a game, I panic. The colour drains from my face and I start to worry about what players will make of my over-the-top crazy mash-ups of ridiculous films and trashy novels. What am I revealing about myself? And I start to worry about the skill system being too broad or the powers being too powerful.

What’s an aging Game Master to do when his hobby exists at two extremes? Certainly, the middle bores me. The mainstream of generic fantasy sends me to sleep. Give me the zero-to-not-really-a-hero realism of my own interpretation of Harn over the Forgotten Realms any day.

But dare I enter the fantasy worlds of my fourteen-year-old teenaged imagination that wants to pit cyber-warriors against dragons and Nazi super-zombies against Soviet sleeper agents in the post-apocalypse of a 1946 that never was? Or other crazy stuff?

Like I said, I think I need help. One question is whether I am alone in this tension. Does anyone else out there wrestle with this conundrum? I can’t believe it’s just me. But what would it mean if it is?

Game on.

10 thoughts on “The Call of Pulp Cinematics

  1. Hey Che – it’s your friendly neighborhood Scanner here. I don’t think you’re alone in that you find such appeal in the bigger-than-life adventure stories. They’re some of the most celebrated and profitable intellectual properties out there. It is the heroism and ridiculous feats exactly that make such an impact; we’re living vicariously through the heroes in these stories and then we want the same experience at the table. And the contrasting need to put a framework around all that, to guide the chaotic action, I feel that same need. A wise person once said “We must have limits to be limitless!” It’s the constraints that breed creativity. If you could just wave your hand at everything and have your wishes granted, that would be far less interesting.

    It seems to be in conflict, but I don’t know about that. I would certainly agree that some systems are too rules-heavy to allow any measure of pulp cinematics, so you’re better off just avoiding those – but otherwise, I think it is mostly just a balancing act by the game master. It absolutely will require GM fiat and absolute trust by the players that you’re on their side. You want them to achieve ridiculous feats, but you also, simultaneously, need to provide challenge and that the challenge is coming from a good place.

    And when you get into crazy genre mashups, you’re speaking my language. I think it’s the “exploration” aspect of such bizarre concepts that attract me. I’ve found that exploration is the primary element of role-playing that I’m looking for. The need to find something new – not the usual boring, already-seen-that stuff. Occasionally, there will be something in the familiar old systems and settings that provide comfort and demand little of you, creatively, but that’s okay too. My suggestion is to seek out more people who see the world similarly and dive in head-first. You only get one life, and all that.

    1. Thanks, John – this was a very much appreciated reply! I think I might be coming to the conclusion that I need two game engines: currently, GURPS provides the tools for the immersive realism that I crave for longer-term play; what I seek is a set of generic tools for what I am starting to call (in my head) short-shots, games that won’t have long legs but will go longer than one session. These short-shot games needs to be super-quick to pick-up and deliver the cinematic punch. My initial candidates are Savage Worlds and Cypher System.

  2. It’s funny you seem to be going a similar path as myself.

    Long ago I was just playing specific games: Call of Cthulhu, Cyberpunk 2020, Vampire: The Masquerade, etc. As I developed my GMing skills I started doing more custom stuff (custom setting, or “known” setting with custom rules), and I fell into the rabbit hole of generic system toolkits. I quickly became a fan of GURPS for most of my gritty, low-to-mid-power-level, and/or “realistic” games. I settled on Savage Worlds for most one-shots or games with newbies or high-powered/cinematic games.

    Now however I’m past that and back into a “just play specific games” groove again: I want to play Tales from the Loop or Alien RPG or the new RuneQuest edition or the new Warhammer edition or Blades in the Dark or Mongoose Traveller or whatever. There are so many cool games these days!

    But *if* I was to go back to playing in custom settings, or published settings using custom game rules for some reason, I would most probably re-use a similar dual system arrangement where GURPS takes care of the low-to-mid gritty stuff. I would however replace Savage Worlds as the high-powered/cinematic/one-shot system… instead I think I would either go with FATE or, more probably, the HeroQuest rules (recently available in an SRD/OGL under the “QuestWorld” name)… with maybe some occasional experiment with a micro-system for some specific games.

    But yes, I do find it trickier to figure out which is the right cinematic/high-powered system for me, compared to figuring out the right gritty/realistic system for me. I think it’s because the latter is about finding rules that model reality as you understand it, and that’s something we’ve been used to since pretty much the first RPG we played. The former however is about finding rules that model *narrative tropes* (as in : Batman and Superman need to be narratively equivalent, even though “realistically” one is a God and the other is just a rich white dude playing dress-up). This is why these days I’m leaning towards “narrative” systems like HeroQuest because their free-form aspect and reliance on a single mechanic for everything makes these weird situations so much easier to handle.

    I hope this helps!

    1. Thanks, yes, that does help. Thinking more on this, I believe there are two “pulls” for me at each end. On the cinematic end, I am pulled towards two modes of play: one is combat and action orientated, “step on up” style; the other is more narrative and thematic. I suspect that Savage Worlds will scratch the format itch, while Cypher System will scratch the latter. GURPS covers the other extreme for me pretty well.

      1. Ah yes. For me, the action-oriented “high octane” cinematic stuff could actually be done either with a crunchy system like GURPS, or with a higher-level system like 7th Sea or Feng-Shui or whatever. The reason is that sometimes the crunch *is* part of the cinematic action stuff… it really depends on the genre and “feel” you’re looking for. Generally speaking, being familiar with many different systems will help you pick what’s best for your table for a given adventure. Good luck!

    2. Oh and btw I think Cypher System can handle more narrative gameplay than Savage Worlds so that might work nicely for you… Personally I’m just not fond of the GM never rolling (I like rolling dice!), and it has a bunch of cruft for all the tier stuff and character advancement that I don’t need for one-shots.

  3. Did you considered using GURPS Action with Monster Hunters? I think that would scratch your high octane itch. Also, I feel your pain, sometimes it is hard to get the insanity going the way we want. Like, we are afraid of falling of the tracks, if going to fast. I’m learning to just let it go faster and faster.

    1. I did consider Action and I tried Monster Hunters at 200 points. My GURPS players, like me, prefer lower points games. It’s probably a different, non-GURPS crowd who might join me for higher-octane action. Weird dynamics, I guess.

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