Ages ago I ran a GURPs Cliffhangers game. Of my gaming group at the time I was the only one who knew much about pulp at all, and really I was the blind leading the blind. Our first problem to overcome was literally everyone had only one idea for a character: Indiana Jones. I threw a few suggestions out, and who we ended up with was:
- Joyce Ravencroft…archeologist. She was absent-minded and on a quest to find her missing dad.
- ‘Jersey’ Bob Eddings, pilot and adventurer. High Road to China helped with this one.
- Leo Franks, gangster. Because there were gangsters in the 30’s, we knew that much.
- Wang Chi, Shaolin outcast. We knew a lot more kung fu tropes than pulp tropes, and hey, China existed in the 30’s!
Lesson 1: Cool group, but coming up with them was insanely hard. The players just weren’t that familiar with the tropes, so when told they could play anything at all they were totally lost. It irritated me because by comparison DnD was easier (and I was anti-DnD at the time). How could the same player who would spend hours crafting a unique Paladin or a crazed healer in Rolemaster totally choke when offered a blank canvas? This is why concepts are a thing in Adventure Frameworks. If you already know the tropes, then you don’t need a class or a concept template. But when you are new they are your lifeline. They give you a starting point, and then you can get creative from there.
Since the players were pretty uncertain about their characters and the setting (and the system, I hadn’t really done GURPs before) I decided to do something totally different, and started a session totally dedicated to the characters meeting. Joyce had a good hook, so she became the central figure. She needed to leave the country to find her missing dad, and Leo was her fried and protector. Leo was hunted, so to add a little excitement the game starts with them bursting onto Jersey Bob’s airfield in a bullet ridden car, with gangsters in hot pursuit arrived yelling “It’s Leo, get him!” They fly off in the nick of time, but to Bob something to do I call out that the plane is losing fuel. Bob has some fuel aboard…but he’ll have to go out (in flight because they are over the ocean by this point…and I’d just watched “Never Cry Wolf”) to patch the hole and pour some fuel. He did so with hilarious non-chalance, which basically made the character from then on. They land in Hong Kong pursuing Joyce’s lead so I can introduce Wang. I want Wang to get a chance to fight too, so of course they need to be attacked so he can jump in and help. Stuck for a good excuse for a fight to break out, I have a random triad guy yell “It’s Leo…get him!”
The whole thing worked beyond my expectations. The story took on a momentum of its own, Joyce’s quest was more immediate and personal than getting missions from some random quest giver or fighting villains. Jersey Bob came into perfect focus, and Leo became hysterically infamous. Every scene we were all just waiting for some random thug to recognize him and yell that phrase. I stumbled into it by accident and necessity, but it changed how we played from then on.
Lesson 2: A game has to have a fitting story engine. We were used to Champions and DnD…each of which had a pretty specific story engine which we took for granted. If I had tried to run pulp like we ran superheroes or fantasy it would have failed.
Lesson 3: The difference between a great character and a pile of stats is one good scene. The earlier you find that scene, the faster the character gains a life of its own. You can’t force those moments, but look for them, fan them when you get an opportunity. Once a player loves that character your game will get easier and better.
Lesson 4: Cruelty in the right doses can be surprisingly entertaining. “It’s Leo, get him!” started out as a gag but the player absolutely loved it. It was a pain for the heroes, but he was delighted every time it happened. It made Leo very, very memorable.