Friday, July 31, 2015

Pulp Adventure: Simulation vs. Spiritual Intent

Spiritual pulp -- the descendant which has fallen far from the tree but I think still counts

One thing I've learned in the last couple weeks of designing and running some pulp adventures is that there's an interesting schism in the market, that I am identifying as the "simulationist" vs. the "spiritual" style of pulp gaming. The distinction, I've realized now, is very important for a few reasons:

Simulationist pulp tends to reflect the genre as it was; a sort of mirror on the 30's era of fiction, comics and film that spawned practically everything that has come since. It's about emulating the feel, style and tropes of the pulps as they were.

Simulationist pulp is what most dedicated Pulp adventure game systems focus on: Amazing Adventures, Astounding Adventures, Pulp Hero, Thrilling Tales and Hollow Earth Expedition are all examples of this genre. The intent here is to emulate the pulp heroes of that era and their adventures, often even the tropes which include lots of bad science, a general disregard for the politics of the era in favor of comic-book level fantasy images of the era, and possibly even some variant on even the really archaic staples of that period such as helpless women and rampant racism that is only obvious in the lens of the modern viewer looking back.

Spiritual pulp is actually what most of us are thinking of when we use Indiana Jones as an analogy for the pulps. It's also Star Wars and a host of other modern takes; this is what pulp transmigrated into, in a sense: modern takes on the pulp genre, but also rife with the advances and tropes of modern gaming.

Spiritual pulp is really about extracting the most compelling elements of the genre in order to create a game that follows in the tradition of pulp adventuring, but with a modern attitude and the benefit of historical and scientific hindsight. It can and often does let you explore the 1930's but from the lens of the modern viewer, which often means you can't just drop wild native tribesemen with witch doctors into a setting without also figuring out who those tribesmen are and what their local mythology actually is. You can have strong female figures, something almost (but not entirely) nonexistent in the original fiction. You can build stories around modern concepts of science and fantasy that are distinctly pulp in the sense that they involve crazy, wild adventures and action, often with the two-fisted action at the fore. However, spiritual pulp doesn't have to be in the 30's, and rarely is in most cases. It maintains modern sensibilities in almost every case, eschewing the cultural moors and limits of 30's era pulp fiction such as sexism and racism in favor of modern reinterpretations....not merely "modern attitudes in the past" but often exploring the reality of what was going on back then instead....that the women in pulp fiction, to take an example, were often idealogical depictions of the young male fascination with women in the 30's and not actual depictions of how many women might have thought or behaved in the context the pulps placed them.

Anyway.....just some observations on the pulp genre I've run in to while messing with it. One thing I did learn is that I much prefer spiritual pulp gaming over simulationist....and I did start this exercise off looking at a simulationist approach. As it turns out, I think I may just be too "modern" to pull it off and feel comfortable with the result.

Simulationist Pulp

Spiritual Pulp that adheres as closely as it can to the traditional period
while inverting as many old school tropes as it embraces


  1. i like to call something that emulates spirit and acknowledges flaws and inverts them as homage. otherwise your just doing mere fanboy slashfiction clones.