Most people glorify the long running D&D campaign. We all love the Lord of the Rings, right? The default mode of play seems to be the vast world spanning quest of epic proportions, saving the universe from an antagonist with unimaginable power. Every game just serves to move along a huge overarching plot. Personally, I love this.
It’s not the only way, however. Fantasy stories come in various shapes and sizes. One of my personal favorites is pulp fiction, and I don’t mean the movie. These stories (and those modeled after them) are traditionally short with a focus on action and adventure at a break neck pace. They appeared on the pages of pulp magazines, so called because of their cheap production quality that allowed them to be sold for a dime. This provided a whole generation with larger than life heroes and escapist stories of daring.
Conan the Barbarian found a home in these pages, bringing the genre of sword and sorcery to life. Here we had a story not focused on world destroying bad guys, but something more personal. Conan might have saved the world a few times, but it was purely by accident. He fought for himself. His battles were smaller, though no less threatening.
What does this mean for your game? Think short stories with reoccurring characters as opposed to three part novel trilogy. Cut out anything that isn’t essential to moving along the plot or action. Think of each game lasting between 2-4 sessions before it reaches its conclusion. Sure, you might start another one up right afterwards with the same characters, but its a new thing.
Many Conan stories started right in the thick of the action. There wasn’t a slow build. The story started and he was already fighting for his life against impossible odds. Why don’t you start your player characters off that way? No explanation, just have them roll initiative and fill them in as you go. They’ll get engaged super quick.
The one thing I’ve found that makes pulp games work is that the Gm has a bit more “between session” control. Telling the players their characters are starting in combat takes away a little bit of player agency. Maybe they would have ran or tried to talk their way out of it. This is one of those things you should talk about before starting this type of game. Players might find it a little jarring at first, but once everyone is on the same page, they’ll get into the excitement just as much as you.
If there are big decisions to be made, those might be best left for between sessions. When my group last played Modiphius’s Conan: Adventures in an Age Undreamed of RPG, we had a group message where we planned the next game between sessions. They gave me an idea of what the group wanted to do, eliminating the need to slow down game play with discussion. It let me jump right to the exciting parts.
Another element to pay attention to is pace. Something should always be happening or about to happen. You never want things to get too slow. Time is often a factor in pulp stories, more dangerous than any monster. If the players are taking too long to act, remind them that time is running out. Keep them moving along. If they are lingering, perhaps some guards find them…
Finally, you want it to be episodic. In a perfect world, every session has a satisfying conclusion, like you made it to the end of a chapter or story. Something gets resolved and perhaps something is set up for next time. There should at least be some feeling of closure involved in it.
This isn’t the only way to run a game, obviously. Like I said above, I do love the epic world spanning adventure. I also love the adventure that never leaves the city or is finished after the characters explore the forgotten isle. Variety is fun. Next time you’re planning a new game, give pulp a try. By Crom, it can be fun.
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