East of Constantinople, West of Shanghai

The wisdom of the hack


81sjDZU2pxLI’ve been asked by a friend a few suggestions about setting up a pulp-themed scenario for a roleplaying game.
And who am I to deny the masses my wisdom?
Especially when the masses acknowledge me as a pulp guru?
So here’s what I wrote him…

Writing pulp means pleasing your audience by giving them what they do not expect while promising them what they expect.
In roleplaying, your players are your audience, so the first thing is to know your players, their tastes and expectations. And then surprise them.
Easy, right?

The balance between familiarity and surprise is mainly achieved through the manipulation of clichés and tropes, with a few gimmicks to put the pressure on.

51Dv1fsVQJLClichés, Tropes, and Subversion thereof

  • Go against cliché – shoot the swordsman, your old spinster aunt really is the Russian spy, the bad guy’s minions have a conscience, it’s not the red wire you should cut to defuse the bomb, the damsel in distress is actually having fun, the sabretooth tiger wants to catch the red dot…
  • Don’t subvert them all, and always – sometimes sabretooth tigers just want a quick meal of adventurer, sometimes the guy that looks like a backstabbing weasel is actually a backstabbing weasel.
  • Something borrowed, something new – use an idea, tool or character from a previous scenario to achieve continuity, and add a new idea, tool or character to provide variety.

Slipstream1-e1334699283606Simple gimmicks to put the pressure on

  • Limit the action to a single location – a country mansion, a hotel, a village.
  • Possibly set that location in motion – why a country mansion when it could be a steamboat down the Ganges?
  • Get the clock running – have a set of things ready, that will happen at certain times, no matter what the characters do, to up the ante.
  • Outnumber and outgun the heroes – make them spend those bennies, and learn to use those group actions
    (Note: yes, we were talking Savage Worlds).
  • Take away their toys – it’s all fun and games until the cannibal zombie pygmies are coming at you and all you have is a dessert fork. Force the adventurers to think on their feet and find creative solutions.

… and just as Ray Chandler said

When in doubt, have a man come through a door with a  gun in his hand.

Or a sabretooth tiger. Even if it’s not carrying a gun.

And I must say these suggestions are so neat, I think I’ll put them in the Hope & Glory handbook.
Any further suggestion or addition?
The comments are open.

Author: Davide Mana

Paleontologist. By day, researcher, teacher and ecological statistics guru. By night, pulp fantasy author-publisher, translator and blogger. In the spare time, Orientalist Anonymous, guerilla cook.

6 thoughts on “The wisdom of the hack

  1. a practical suggestion I use when GMing: have at least TWO things happen at once. Also, anything that forces characters to make Dexterity/Agility rolls WHILE they are doing something else usually creates tension. Yes te bad guy challenges you to a chess game BUT it’s on the roooftop of a speeding train. And the train is on fire.


  2. False endings. I used this trick a lot, back in the days. Lead your party to an apparent conclusion, then kick them in the ass at full force with something unexpected.


  3. Wow, I sure miss roleplaying.


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