I’ve been plotting and planning, and possibly scheming over a pulp-inspired play-by-email (PBeM) that will use the Spirit of the Century (SotC) system. (In case you care to follow this reflection, here are Part 1 and Part 2.)
Now I’m pondering the types of overarching stories one can tell in a pulp game that will rely on an ensemble cast. It seems to me some of the main ones include stories about exploring places, defending a group or cause, or accomplishing a complex task. (I’m making this up as I go along, although I’m certain many people have already established much better categories.)
This type of story is based on the travelogue and exploration of exotic locations, including the Lost Worlds I was discussing in my previous post. Although there are subplots, the bulk of the story revolves around finding and /or exploring a strange world (and sometimes ruling it). The story will involve overcoming natural and supernatural threats, visiting grandiose settings, encountering baffling customs, earning the friendship of enigmatic strangers, and of course fighting a local evil power. Good examples of explorers include Allan Quatermain, Axel Lidenbrock, Captain Hatteras, Professor Challenger, etc. Examples of stories include a large number of novels by Jules Verne, H. Rider Haggard, Conan Doyle, Pierre Benoit, etc.
In this type of story, the main characters are championing a cause, defending a group, or opposing a peril or enemy. The story will generally involve a good amount of fighting the enemy, of course, but also setting and evading traps, pursuits, and sometimes investigation. Good examples of this type of story include the adventures of Zorro, Batman (who was created in the pulp era), or the Scarlet Pimpernel.
Although the other categories could be called subsets of this more generic type, I’m using this to describe a lot of stories that don’t fall in the other two types. The main characters have to accomplish a multi-step task in order to succeed in obtaining or creating something, or in evading or defeating an opposing force. Step A has to be completed before Step B can be accomplished, and so on; often in a race against an opposing force; most detective stories belong here. Scenes include investigation, traps, verbal confrontations, capture of the heroes, and fights. Maurice Leblanc’s Arsène Lupin series falls in this group, as would Jules Verne’s Mysterious Island and Tolkien’s The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings (though the latter aren’t considered pulp and also contain Defender elements).
Naturally, most series contain stories that mix these types. In Tarzan, Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon stories, Explorer and Defender overlap; the Scarlet Pimpernel adventures are often complex Missions as well as Defender stories; etc. It’s common to alternate themes from one story arc to another.