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From time to time, I see people describe either campaigns or systems (not necessarily at the same time) as 'pulp' or 'pulpy'.

At first I thought it referred to pulp fiction (the literature, not the film!), which, one one hand, seems to be defined as being low quality and having 'lurid, exploitative, and sensational' content, and on the hand tends to be associated with such great classics as Mark Twain, Howard Phillips Lovecraft, Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, Agatha Christie, Arthur C. Clarke, and Philip K. Dick.

But I have to conclude that the word has to mean something else than those two things, as none of the campaign and systems described by it seem to exhibit any of the two groups of characteristics: they seemed neither any more lurid, nor sensationalist, nor exploitative than 'usual' campaigns and systems, and they didn't seem to exhibit anything that would make me think 'Oh, this is Twain/Howard/Bradbury/etc.!' upon reading or playing them. (There's also the complication that the writing styles of those authors are quite different: Bradbury is unlike Twain is unlike Lovecraft is unlike Clarke.)

For example, Cypher- and FATE-based games are typically described as innately pulpy due to the game engine they use, but I wouldn't say that Numenéra, Transhumanity's Fate, Mecha vs. Kaiju, Tianxia, Crisp Line, or even the Core itself shares much, if anything, with Lovecraft, Bradbury or Twain; they also don't seem particularly more lurid or exploitative compared to RPGs in general. Similarly, I once joined a campaign that was pitched as pulpy, curious how that should feel, and after many years of play I'd say that it felt more like a cross between Dishonoured and X-Com (the two computer games) than with the writings of pulp authors as either described or experienced.

Thus I want to ask: if 'pulpy RPGs' are not characterised by any of the above, then by what are they characterised? What sets them apart from other styles or similar groupings of RPGs? Is there a difference between the things that define a pulpy system (rules and mechanics) and a pulpy campaign (plot, drama etc.)?

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    \$\begingroup\$ What pulp RPGs specifically seem to not line up with the normal pulp fiction definition? Most certainly do... \$\endgroup\$ – mxyzplk Feb 17 at 17:37
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    \$\begingroup\$ You cite zero RPG examples, which is a bad place to start from. I would say “pulp RPGs do line up with normal pulp fiction.” Spirit of the Century, Cliffhangers, and so on. That leaves us with nowhere to go, as whatever counterexamples you may have in mind are going completely unsaid. \$\endgroup\$ – mxyzplk Feb 17 at 17:43
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    \$\begingroup\$ Mxyzplk didn’t ask what elements don’t line up, he asked which specific examples of named games have you noticed don’t line up. You mention that “none of the campaign and systems described [as pulp]” are pulp, but you’re leaving those campaigns and systems anonymous. Could you please de-anonymise a few of the best examples so everyone can start near the same page? \$\endgroup\$ – SevenSidedDie Feb 17 at 18:05
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    \$\begingroup\$ Going to place this on hold till we get more examples, until then it's "somebody said something wasn't pulp once why?" \$\endgroup\$ – mxyzplk Feb 17 at 18:24
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    \$\begingroup\$ Your pulp fiction examples are a little skewed toward authors whose writing appeared in pulp magazines, but were not particularly representative of what is now considered the pulp genre. Check out Lester Dent. \$\endgroup\$ – Terry Wilcox Feb 17 at 23:46
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Pulp is about larger than life games. You can substitute phrases like "rip-roaring" or "swashbuckling" for "pulp".

Pulp literature tropes and movie logic applies to the type of plots used and to NPC characters. Grim-dark themes are absent. Heroes will fight against impossible odds and prevail. Lost kingdoms, ancient prophecies and evil masterminds with secret bases are ten a penny. You defeat the evil mastermind by punching him in the jaw or fighting a duel, not by targeting him with your sniper rifle or nuking the whole site from orbit.

Compare some styles of pirate RPG campaigns:

In a 'historical' pirate game you're all at dice penalties because you're suffering from scurvy, and One-Eyed Bob can't hit a barn door at 10 paces because having an eyepatch messes up his depth perception. If you swing from a chandelier it'll probably break and plummet to the floor, injuring you. When you break into the governor's mansion you steal the lace tablecloth, because your characters' knowledge of the economy means they realise it took a year to make and is therefore worth more than a year's wages. You steal the Maltese falcon because it is a jewel-encrusted statue worth a fortune. If you are shot, you are more worried about your character dying of gangrene than from the bullet wound itself. El Dorado is a myth - but you might find an indigenous village with enough gold to buy the whole party a round in the local pub. If a volcano erupts, you all die.

An 'action movie' pirate game scurvy is flavour text for NPCs, and One-Eyed Bob has a dice penalty to ranged attacks. If you swing from a chandelier there will be an Acrobatics check and the other players will wonder why you are wasting time instead of skewering a bad guy with your cutlass. When you break into the governor's mansion you steal the silver candlesticks and his wife's diamond necklace, because all treasure looks like bling. You steal the Maltese falcon because it is a jewel-encrusted statue worth a fortune and it's important the bad guys don't get it. If you get shot, you don't care about gangrene, but do care about the dice penalties, and taking a couple of sessions to get better. El Dorado may exist. If a volcano erupts, it's a scary thing you need to make dice rolls to escape from.

In a 'pulp' pirate game scurvy doesn't exist, and an eyepatch makes you dashing and heroic.If you swing from a chandelier it makes you look cool and looking cool (and making witty one liners) gives you dice bonuses to skewer a bad guy with your cutlass. When you break into the governor's mansion you steal the bling. You steal the Maltese falcon because it contains one of 7 secret clues to the location of El Dorado. If you get shot you'll be back to normal in a scene or two. El Dorado exists and is a magical city in a hidden valley behind a mighty waterfal. It has pavements of gold, is filled with dinosaurs and there's a sacred pool which grants you immortality. If a volcano erupts, it's to provide a race against time to get to the next clue before it is smothered in molten lava.

Game mechanics would promote the latter style of play. Story points to spend to avoid injury penalties or to re-roll failed dice. Bonuses for doing larger than life stunts. Non-granular skills, so that you have Science, not Biology + Geology + Astronomy + Physics + Chemistry. Characters have skills outside their 'profession', and are competent at those 'non professional' skills. So Professor Challenger is a scientist, but he also has Brawling, Firearms and Survival. If the Professor lacks a skill, such as Streetwise, it is hopefully because the system is encouraging you to play him as a bumbling academic, not simply because you ran out of points during character gen.

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    \$\begingroup\$ I really like the fact that you added the contrast both against the historical games and against 'action movie' (sometimes used interchangeably with 'cinematic') playstyles/systems. I'll need to think whether the answer as a whole expanded my understanding sufficiently for being an Accepted Answer, but it's certainly a candidate. \$\endgroup\$ – vicky_molokh Feb 18 at 16:30
  • \$\begingroup\$ In an interesting twist, I think QUadratic Wizard's answer has a better definition of Pulp, but this is the one that made me get it. \$\endgroup\$ – 3C273 Feb 19 at 2:54
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Pulp RPGs evoke the tone and themes of pulp literature and film.

The D&D 3e Eberron Campaign Setting (2003) describes the following as specific factors of its "pulp" influences:

  • "The features that most set Eberron apart are its tone and attitude. The setting combines traditional medieval fantasy with pulp action and dark adventure."
  • "Eberron supports two styles of play—swashbuckling pulp adventure and dark intrigue."
  • "...an expedition to Xen'drik to find a fabled artifact has more of an inherently pulp feel..."
  • "Pulp is a genre of extremes. The heroes are exceptional individuals, and they should face epic threats. As the heroes gain experience, the stakes become higher. But even at low levels, there should always be something on the line and a reason why the heroes are the only ones who can get the job done."
  • "Recurring villains play an important role in the swashbuckling pulp tradition that drives an Eberron campaign."
  • "A scavenger hunt is part exploration, part intrigue, and part mystery, with a focus on travel. This is a classic staple of pulp literature and film."

Eberron creator Keith Baker goes into more detail about these influences in his online Dragonshard articles. A search for "pulp" in the Wizards of the Coast archives brings up several genre-defining concepts by Keith Baker and others:

  • "Eberron draws on pulp adventure for inspiration. In pulp tales, the heroes are remarkable people with skills and abilities that set them apart from the common populace. "
  • " One neat thing about [city locations] is that if the heroes get in serious trouble, they can escape by breaking out an exterior wall (assuming the fall to the ground doesn't kill them). It's also possible to make classically pulp, heroic rescues by breaking into these dungeons."
  • "When setting up a battle, imagine that it's a scene in a movie. If other people were actually watching, would they enjoy it? Would they hold their breath or fall asleep in their popcorn? In pulp action movies, there's much more to combat than: "I move ten feet and swing at the troll. I rolled an 18.""
  • "I love both pulp and film noir, and I tried to instill the flavor of both genres into the one-pager. As for specific inspirations, well, the one-sentence description was "Indiana Jones and The Maltese Falcon meets Lord of the Rings," and that holds true today."
  • "A fundamental part of the pulp genre is the ability of the hero to beat the odds--either because of remarkable skill and ability, or just dumb luck."
  • "I want a campaign with a different twist, a pulp lost-city feel like Conan or Kull or a D&D-era Indiana Jones . . . steaming jungles, ancient ruins, something strange and exotic that really immerses them in the feel of it, like some of those Al-Qadim jungle scenarios I never got to run."

The term "pulp" ultimately encompasses a great variety of genres of fiction published cheaply in the first half of the 20th century, and the later works (especially movies) inspired by those works. It may include crime, romance, horror, fantasy or a range of other stories, and it's difficult to treat pulp as a singular genre. It's like describing "anime" as a genre; the cultural, technical and and economical factors inherent in the medium significantly affect the works it produces, but you should not be surprised to find two different works tell entirely different types of stories in different genres.

Ultimately you have to look at each individual RPG and see what the author describes its influences and tone to be. I get the general sense that "pulp" is used to refer to early 20th century exciting action stories, which tend to make an excellent setting for roleplaying game.

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    \$\begingroup\$ +1 Great answer. I am struck by the word construction "pulpy" in the OP rather than in phrases like "a classic pulp hero" etc. I humbly submit that when a third party reviews a published quest and says "it's pulpy" that this statement is likely a put-down. Many words are like this, e.g "chat" (no negative connotation) but "she's chatty" (negative connotation). \$\endgroup\$ – Valley Lad Feb 17 at 17:57
  • \$\begingroup\$ In the vein of earlier Eberron content, the Wayfinder's Guide to Eberron also describes the "pulp adventure" aspect of the setting, and describes how it's balanced out by the "neo-noir" intrigue aspects of the setting. \$\endgroup\$ – V2Blast Feb 17 at 21:58
  • \$\begingroup\$ Cool, glad I spotted it ... very much like this answer. \$\endgroup\$ – KorvinStarmast Feb 18 at 0:14
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    \$\begingroup\$ @QuadraticWizard This answer does provide some distinguishing criteria (travel, luck, possibility of an escape), though I find that others seem rather common in RPGs and fiction in general across many genres, thus being not very distinguishing (remarkable protagonists, overcoming odds, combats being more than roll 18 etc.). It's certainly a good answer, but I can't say I'm fully confident in my understanding of the meaning of pulp/pulpy as applied to RPGs. \$\endgroup\$ – vicky_molokh Feb 18 at 8:49
  • \$\begingroup\$ @vicky_molokh Perhaps the reason "pulp" elements seem generic in RPGs is that they were a massive inspiration to Dungeons & Dragons initially. Of the 28 writers appearing in the list of works which inspired AD&D, no fewer than 20 are described on Wikipedia as pulp authors or contributors to pulp publications. \$\endgroup\$ – Quadratic Wizard Feb 18 at 20:24
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"Pulp" can have different senses in context, and "pulpy" can be negative

"Pulp" of course can mean something like "influenced by some great pulp fiction" as in the very good answer by Quadratic Wizard. This is probably what it means for a lot of people who are fans of both RPGs and pulp fiction, and for game designers and quest authors too.

But words can have different senses. I have heard "pulpy" used as an insult relative to RPGs (example below), and it is not hard to find basis for that sense of the word.

First, there is a pejorative sense of "pulp" that does relate to "pulp fiction" or "pulp magazines". In this sense, note that it does not necessarily have to be lurid, sensational or exploitative (even though the "sensational" part is deemed prototypical). From the OED:

pulp, n.

  1. fig. and in extended use.

    d. orig. U.S.

... popular or sensational writing that is regarded as being of poor quality

Note the "or," indicating it can be any popular genre, sensational or not. Historically the term stems from when many novels, novellas and magazines were printed with the cheapest paper and inks possible, and writers were paid dirt cheap by the word, and thus motivated to fill pages with fluff, thereby emphasizing quantity over quality. So even though such literature was most often "sensational,' the term "pulp" can just mean "high volume, low quality literature."

In addition, "pulp" in English usage can be used figuratively to mean (from the same entry in the OED):

fig.

a. Something resembling or likened to pulp in nature or form.

...anything having... formless shape or character; something that lacks stability, strength, or firmness

In this sense, "pulp" can be applied to just about anything: people, political elections, ideas, or any sort of literature. As for RPG's this would overlap with the first sense above.

It's not hard to find RPG discussions where "pulpy" is a negative. For example, from an RPG Reddit:

"Pulpy is taking the setting to an exaggerated some what trashy form."

Bottom line: While an RPG's being "pulp" is generally meant as a good thing, and hearkens to the work of Robert E. Howard or H. P. Lovecraft, on the other hand, sometimes "pulpy" as applied to RPG's can mean "lacking quality" and/or "lacking substance."

When a published quest, for example, fills up a lot of pages but lacks a clear theme, has an under-developed plot, shows little creativity and neglects to explain motivations of NPC's, etc., then it would fit the latter sense here. So like a lot of words in English, one has to use context, each and every time, to disambiguate "pulpy."

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