Using the pulp genre for RPG adventures


Pulp magazines (”the pulps”) were inexpensive fiction magazines published from the last years of the 19th century to the late 1950s. They were printed on cheap wood pulp paper, hence the name. (Magazines printed on more expensive paper were known as ”glossies” or ”slicks”.) The typical pulp magazine would be 25 cm high, 18 cm wide and have 120-130 pages with ragged, untrimmed edges. Eventually, these pulp magazines gave rise to the term pulp fiction, which is still sometimes used to denote run-of-the-mill literature with sensational subject matters.

Below, I will share some tips and suggestions for RPG enthusiasts who are interested in exploring the fanciful world of pulp fiction for their adventures.


Be inspired

Of course, reading plenty of pulp novels is a big plus and will give you plenty of inspiration. I also suggest you read newspapers from the era you are trying to re-create, e.g. Great Depression-era New York City. You could even turn on some suitable music to get your creative juices flowing.

Another venue is to watch old back-and-white pulp movies from the era you are aiming for. It will give you ideas about cliffhangers, how to build dramatic crescendos, etcetera. The same is true for the old hair-raising radio adventures of the ”stay tuned for next week´s episode” variety.

Examples of pulp magazines from the Golden Age of the Pulps

Air Trails, Black Mask, Crack Shot, Dime Mystery, Excitement, Foreign Legion Stories, G-Men, Hollywood Detective, Imaginary Worlds, Jungle Stories, Ka-Zar, Nickel Western, Oriental Stories, Planet Stories, Quick Trigger, Rapid Fire Action Stories, Spicy Mystery, The Thrill Book, Underworld Romance, Weird Tales, Youth

Examples of popular genres for pulp

  • Detective-mystery
  • Horror
  • Science fiction
  • War
  • Spy
  • Adventures in exotic (and exoticised) locations, e.g. the jungle or the Far East
  • The Wild West
  • Romance
  • Fantasy

It was common to combine genres, e.g. a horror novel set in space. That gave rise to subcategories such as Jungle-Detective novels and Space-Westerns.

Examples of pulp heroes and pulp hero magazines

Early on, pulp magazines typically consisted of one or more captivating by unrelated stories. Eventually, publishers realized that the public liked reoccurring characters, and there was a boom in pulp heroes that would be featured in numerous adventures. Examples of characters that become very popular and were featured in numerous issues are Sam Space (Black Mask), Philip Marlowe, and the occult detective Jules de Grandin. After the immense success of The Shadow Magazine, the market was flooded with pulp heroes and pulp hero magazines throughout the Great Depression and World War II. Some notable examples are Buck Rogers, The Lone Ranger, The Phantom Detective, Hopalong Cassidy, The Masked Detective, G-8 and his Battle Aces, The Green Lama, Secret Agent X, and The Secret Six.

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Examples of villains

Some pulp villains were popular enough to have their own magazines, e.g. Captain Satan, Doctor Death, The Octopus, and The Mysterious Wu Fang.

Get some props

Second-hand stores sometimes offer old books and issues of old magazines for cheap. Maps, including old school atlases, can also be great props for your heroes to stumble over. An old book from the 1930s can for instance be used as a part of a cipher.

Creating the right ambience for the adventure

In order to get the right pulp feeling, you need to maximize the pulp ingredients of the adventure. The pulp genre was notoriously over-the-top, so don´t hold back. Also, a bulk of the pulp writers followed a formula approach for their writing, so don´t be afraid to do the same.

Examples of good pulp ingredients

  • Larger-than-life heroes
  • Heroes that are exceedingly good at surviving (but not outright immortal)
  • Flamboyant villains
  • Fanciful settings, such as space, a fantasy version of the Amazon jungle, or a distorted New York City
  • Gadgets and weird science
  • Complex crime plots meticulously planned by the villain and unravelled by the hero
  • Cliffhangers
  • Advanced death-traps

A villain vs. hero adventure

Many pulp novels revolved around a nasty villain, and this is a good starting point for a pulp RPG adventure. Select what general type of pulp villain you want to create, and then gradually flesh out the character to make it stand out.

Then, you need a hero or group of heroes that will work against the villain Having them work through a mystery is nice – it gives you a lot of freedom to set up interesting scenes for them. The work that goes into dropping the just-difficult-enough clues in various situations is really rewarding.

pulp sci fi

In medias res

Pulp novels often started in medias res, with the hero or heroes already in a very sticky and dangerous situation. This drew readers in, and served to hook them right away. You can do the same for your RPG adventure. Preferably, foreshadowing and maybe some clues regarding the main villain should be present already in the first scene.

Buck Rogers

If you want a ready-made game setting (or be inspired by one), it is worth knowing that back in 1988 TSR created a game setting based on the pulp hero Buck Rogers. It is called Buck Rogers XXVC and TSR released a lot of products for this universe, including role-playing game materials and novels. In the role-playing game, the player characters are all on the side of Buck Rogers and the New Earth Organisation, fighting against RAM (a Russian-American corporation based on Mars) and ”gennies” (genetically enhances organisms). It all takes place in the 25th century.

In 1995, TSR released a new Buck Rogers role-playing game called High-Adventure Cliffhangers. Instead of space war, this game focused on events taking place on planet Earth, and was more aligned with old Buck Rogers comic strips of the 1930s. Only a few expansion modules were created for High-Adventure Cliffhangers, and the only two published products were the box set itself and ”War Against the Han”.

Other examples of RPG systems for pulp-genre adventures

  • Mercenaries, Spies & Private Eyes
  • Justice Inc.
  • GURPS: Cliffhangers
  • Top Secret S.I Agent 13 Sourcebook
  • West End Game´s Torg (including the Nile Empire and Terra source books)

Chaosium’s Basic Role Playing System, as provided in their RPG Call of Cthulu, can be fairly easily tweaked to work for other pulp adventures. The same is true for Atlas Games modern-surreal RPG Over the Edge.

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