Pulp RPGs are cursed.
I’m not an RPG historian, but I’m fairly positive that is a 100% true statement, at least for me. Every pulp RPG I excitedly purchased had an ill-fated ending. I was crushed when I realize the TSR Indiana Jones game only let you pick between seven characters to play. You better hope you weren’t stuck ordering the pizza when your friends picked characters, else you’d end up with… Jock Lindsey?
Then West End made a hero’s try, adapting the Torg rules to pulp action. A few decent adventure books later, they wobbled and changed game systems, and then ended the line altogether. White Wolf followed suit with Adventure!, but that game was woefully unsupported and (weirdly) tied into their whole sci-fi shared universe.
Even though pulp game system crash and burn faster than Launchpad McQuack, I find that writing fun, cliffhanging adventures is actually pretty easy. In fact, when newer GMs ask me what genre they should try when their group is getting bored of their standby, I usually recommend pulp action as a perfect intermission.
Here’s my secrets to a great pulp adventure:
- Begin with the ending. The best pulp adventures start at the finale of what feels like the last adventure. Give the PCs a priceless artifact, a villain hot on their heals, and a danger-filled set piece to overcome. Don’t bother explaining the background too much — I guarantee your players will fill in the blanks as they propel forward.
- Research and use real-world locations. While other genres like fantasy steal a lot from pulp serials (artifact hunts, trap-filled temples), actual pulp adventures can use something that fantasy adventures can’t — the real world. Google search terms like “world’s unsolved mysteries” or “earth’s strangest locations” and you’ll find dozens of stories and sites you’ve never heard of before.
- Remember that your villains are in their own pulp adventure. The over-the-top villains in pulp adventures need to be memorable. Give them signature moves and quirky shortcomings. Even when you use minor villains, every scene they are in should feel like the climax to their own adventure.
- Embrace vehicles. This is another pulp staple that other popular RPG genres rarely get to use. Every adventure should feature a plane, train, automobile, tank, or better yet — something unusual like a zeppelin, U-boat, or even a Panzerkampfwagen VIII Maus.
- Timers are key to the genre. Pulp heroes are often racing against the clock. Whether it’s a literal time bomb, an escaping villain, or a loved one in danger of being kidnapped, add time elements to all of your big scenes.
- Be liberal with your hidden treasures. A good pulp adventure gives players an interesting McGuffin to hunt. A great pulp adventure gives players many McGuffins to find as they push on the edges of the main plot. Sprinkle secrets, hidden treasures, and cool discoveries just off the beaten path of your narrative. Let the players see those treasures and decide whether they are worth their time. If the heroes are forced to escape Shanghai through the sewers… place a heavy door off a side passage with an ancient inscription that mentions a long-lost sword. This technique gives players additional agency, rewards daredevils (especially if the clock is ticking already), and gives GMs more flexibility to use their villains in a creative way. “While you were playing with that sword, my friend, I sent my bodyguard to kidnap your daughter!”
I wrote The Lost of Jewels of Éire with the above tips in mind. To get started, I pretended like it was 1937 and wrote cheesy “ad copy” for the “back of the book.” My adventure outline looked like this:
- Race from the clutches of a furious crime boss, a priceless sword in your possession!
- Explore the dangers of the Predjama Castle, the mysteries of Doonagore, and the opulence of the Golden Hall!
- Stop the nefarious plot of Ludo Bocchi, his Gestapo agents, and a deadly U-boat monitoring your every move!
- Discover priceless treasures along the way, including the Alexandrite Gem, the Lost Diadem of Catherine Howard, and the top-secret plans to a deadly Nazi weapon!
With that written, I felt like I had checked all my boxes: Real-world places I was excited to learn about, timers, vehicles, and hidden treasures along the way.
Download The Lost of Jewels of Éire for GURPS, Pulp Cthulhu, and D6 Adventure here:
If you run The Lost Jewels of Éire or play in it, all that I ask is that you let me know what you thought and how it went! Comment below or tweet me @SageThalcos
Related: More pulp adventure in The Uncanny Curse of Sekhmet!