Pulp Gaming

The Making Of a Hero


Before committing anything to paper, you should of course think about what kind of character you want to create, and the vital first step of this process is to find out what sort of characters are appropriate to the campaign the GM intends to run (and to adjust his plans as necessary to make your intended character viable).

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The typical pulp hero is a male of Northern European extraction, and the attitudes of the pulp era are not favorable toward any other sort of character being both action-oriented and good. On the other hand, there were certainly plenty of real people who overcame or disregarded those attitudes, so there is no reason your character cannot do the same. Probably the best way to handle this is to have some unsympathetic NPCs make an issue of a hero's race, sex, sexual orientation, religion, or whatever, to show how despicable they are, but otherwise to not worry about it. This is not overwhelmingly realistic, but is probably more fun than strict realism.

Character Definition

Once you know who your character is, you need to describe her capabilities in the terms of the pulp system, using Attributes, Proficiencies, Special Abilities, a Heroic Flaw, and Escapes. Although the full glory of your idea cannot be expressed in these mechanical terms, it is important for both you and the GM to have an objective definition of what your character can do, to avoid future disagreement about the meaning of the words 'very good'.


Pulp heroes are defined by certain qualities they all share:

The defining quality of a hero is the ability get knocked over the head, shot in the leg, drugged with obscure South American toxins, hypnotized by pyschic masterminds, and still go on doing the right thing. Although being big and strong is one way to have lots of Life, it is primarily a matter of attitude, and a 5'2", 100lb heroine can have as much vitality as the biggest of bruisers.
Heroic vitality also expresses itself as great personal presence: a hero might be commanding, intimidating, charming, or full of snide banter, but never ignorable by those around her.
The life of pulp hero is always fast-moving, and it is essential to be able to leap out of the way of oncoming trains, dodge blows, run after escaping villains, swing from chandaliers, cling to the wings of biplanes, or leap from spaceship to spaceship without a tether.

Although all heroes have these qualities, they do not all have them to the same degree. A world-reknowned archaeologist needs plenty of life to withstand the hardships of travel to darkest South America, but an ex-boxer from the slums of Chicago will probably have more; on the other hand, the archaeologist will almost certainly have more Reason. For game purposes, this variation is expressed numerically; all heroes (with very few exceptions) have a rating of at least 5 in each attribute, and one who excels in a particular attribute will have a rating of 8 or possibly even 10.

Other people have these qualities too, of course, but not in nearly as great quantity: the average person has a rating of 3 in all attributes (though any value from 1 to 5 can be plausibly found in the general population).


Special Abilities

Heroic Flaw

Every hero needs a flaw in her character, to create emotional tension and give her something to overcome. The stereotypical flaw is "Unable to resist a challenge", but "Sucker for a pretty (or handsome) face", "Unstoppably curious", and "An American (or English(wo)man) can overcome anything" are also common. Having a unique, individual flaw can help establish your character, but so can having a stereotypically heroic flaw.

Before going too far afield in your search for a uniquely individual flaw, keep in mind that a heroic flaw is part of the hero's personality; being diabetic or black or hunted by demon worshippers from Tibet can provide lots of opportunities to display your heroic nature by overcoming hardship, but none of them is a heroic flaw.

Escapes &c

The life of pulp hero is filled with hair-breadth escapes from such unpleasantness as punches, gunshots, oncoming trains, and beams of actinic energy. Often, your Proficiencies will get you out of these perils, but it would not be heroic to go down the first time you roll poorly. To maintain the heroic standard, you get four Escapes, which come in two varieties: Dodges, which let you nimbly evade your fate, and Soaks, which let you tough it out and keep going. Every hero should have one Escape of each type, but you can assign the other two to be one or the other, or split them evenly, as suits your personal approach to dealing with physical danger. There is no optimum solution here: some perils can't be evaded, but some others can't be toughed out.

Character Points


Success Unless Failure

The fundamental principle of the Pulp system is that if you attempt something, you succeed unless there's a good reasion why not. If you're attempting to do something to someone that she won't cooperate with, then she almost always gets a chance to resist; if you are doing something that doesn't directly affect another person you are more likely to just succeed without having to use the game mechanics, but inanimate factors such as deadlines, inadequate tools, and being suspended upside-down by your ankles in hard vacuum may conspire to defeat you.

If there is doubt as to whether you will succeed, your Action Value (typically the Proficiency appropriate to your action) is compared to the Resistance Value of the person, object, or phenomenon opposing you. For a person, the base RV is usually her appropriate Proficiency; inanimate opposition is assigned an RV based on how harsh it is (the GM knows how to derive this number). In either case, the base RV is modified by adding the roll of one six-sided die to it and then subtracting the roll of one six-sided die from that. (You can do this in one step if you have two dice of different colors and designate positive and negative ahead of time.) If the final RV is equal to or greater than the AV, then there is a good reason why you don't succeed, and you don't.

In some circumstances, if the final RV is only one or two points less than your AV, your success may come with complications: partial success, hidden problems that will crop up later, even an excess of success. The exact nature of the complications is up to the GM.

Action Scenes


To alleviate confusion, time during an action scene is broken down into rounds of about five seconds apiece, during which each character involved gets to do one round's of action (as determined by the allotment of Action Points); only when everyone is done does the next round begin.

Action Points

At the beginning of each round, each person involved in the action scene gets a certain number of Action Points, depending primarily on how important she is: 1 AP for faceless minions, 2 for sidekicks and minor but named villains, and 3 for heroes and major villains. This allotment can be modified by some factors that will be discussed below, but for the most part you, as a hero, can expect 3 Action Points per round (unless you have the Signature Action special ability, in which case you will normally get 4 AP, one of which can only be used for your signature action).

Each action you wish to perform during a round requires one Action Point. The definition of an action is necessarily fuzzy, but as a rule of thumb, if describing your action requires an 'and' ("I swing on the chandelier AND kick the goon in passing!", "I open the door AND step through!") it's really two actions and requires two AP.

You can also use an additional Action Point to improve an action in one of four ways.

Increase Action Value
Many actions can have their AV increased by 2 if you spend an additional AP, representing time spent aiming, feinting, concentrating, formulating a plan, or otherwise preparing for the action.
Pre-empt Another Action
If you really need to do something before someone else can act, like kick the gun out of someone's hand before she can shoot you, you need to spend an additional AP on your pre-emptive action. Your action will definitely be resisted, and if you don't succeed (or if you succeed with complications), your opponent may get to perform her action anyway.
Affect A Group
Some actions can be expanded in scope to affect an entire group, at least under some circumstances. For example, if you have a machinegun, you can shoot at an entire gang of goons as a single (albeit 2 AP) action, while your sidekick with an automatic pistol can only shoot at one per AP. This is not restricted to attacks: Style-based actions such as Leadership and Intimidation can be used to affect groups.
You can spend an extra AP on an action to make it more stylish and impressive: to not just shoot the goon, but shoot him over your shoulder without looking. This does not change your AV, but might reduce the RV resisting your action, and will probably aid future Style actions.
The Spotlight

During an action scene, everyone gets a turn to show off how heroic she is; when it's your turn, you are said to have the Spotlight. The Spotlight is represented by a physical token (a small flashlight works well) which passes to each player in turn. During a round on which you have the Spotlight, you can use it to get three extra Action Points, but at the end of the round you must pass it to the player on your left. You may declare that you are using the Spotlight at any point during the round, even after everyone else has used all their Action Points.

The GM is included in this rotation, and when he has the spotlight, any one of the villains can use it. In a large group (six or more people), the GM may declare a 'Virtual Villain' half-way around the circle from himself.

If you have the Spotlight for three rounds and don't use it, it passes to the next player anyway. If you had a good reason (eg, you were chained to the master villain's bed and no one spared an AP to let you loose), the GM may give you a Spotlight IOU; if you lost the Spotlight through waffling, that's too bad.

If you have a Spotlight IOU, you can redeem it at any time, and this takes precedence over the person who has the token; she is considered to not have the Spotlight that round, so it doesn't count against the three-round limit. If you have an IOU and the person with the token attempts to use the Spotlight, you have the option of using your IOU at that instant, which negates her Spotlight for the round, but this is bad form.

When the action scene ends, the Spotlight remains with the person who had it last, and she will still have it at the beginning of the next action scene (unless she uses it during a legwork scene; see below). This should be enough to ensure that everyone gets equal Spotlight time, but if someone is shorted for whatever reason, the GM can change seating order or issue IOUs for the next session to even things out.

Tide Of Battle


Attacking someone is much like any other action, with the exception that an attack has two Action Values, Accuracy and Damage. Accuracy is based on your Proficiency with that form of attack; Damage is based on your Strength Proficiency if you're using a muscle-powered weapon like your fist or a sword, or on the weapon type for a self-powered weapon like a gun or a blaster.

Being Attacked

When you are attacked, you may either attempt to dodge it, or attempt to soak it. There is no cost or penalty for trying to resist, so there's no point in forgoing the resistance roll. If you choose to dodge, then you use your best combat Proficiency as the RV for the attack's Accuracy; if you choose to soak, you use your Toughness Proficiency (usually) as the RV for the attack's Damage. If you successfully resist, the attack has no significant effect on you (for the duration of the fight, at least) and you carry on.

If you fail to resist, on the other hand, you lose a Dodge or a Soak, according to which form of resistance you used. If you don't have to lose, then you are Down, and out of the fight. If you do, then you still lose one Action Point as you dive frantically for cover, stagger under the impact of the mighty, or whatever. If you have no AP remaining for the current round, you lose one from next round; if you have already lost one from next round, then never mind; you've suffered enough.

Irresistable Attacks


Just to make it clear: defending against an attack, or against all attacks, is not an action; you are assumed to always be doing what you can to not get clobbered. You only spend an Action Point on defending yourself when you have to use an Escape.


Other Actions

Legwork Scenes

The Spotlight

Social Skills

Pulp Gaming

The Pulp Era

Expanding the World

Worlds Beyond

This file was last modified at 1025 on 22Aug00 by trip@idiom.com.