There’s a great discussion of pulp to be found in the Spirit of the Century book. I definitely recommend that. Here’s what I’m thinking:
The term “pulp” comes from the cheap ‘pulp’ grade paper that stories of this kind were printed on. They weren’t considered worthy of quality paper, especially in wartime when paper was more rationed than it is now by a long shot. Pulp stories were not high literature about introspective characters whining to each other about the state of the world. No! Pulp heroes punch people like that in the face because they get in the way of saving the world from cackling, finger-steepling villains.
Pulp is a genre of action, heroes, villains, and if we’re honest, stereotypes. There’s a lot about square-jawed (white) heroes rescuing damsels from apes living in darkest Africa, or Martians, or whatever. The action is over-the-top. Being punched in the face isn’t a big deal – only villainous mooks get knocked out by a punch. The best example of pulp that we’re all familiar with is the Indiana Jones series.
In Eberron, you get a lot of the action, heroes, and villains without the troublesome stereotypes of the time period of pulp – around the two great World Wars to be exact, and a little after. You also get magic and goblins and creepy aberrations sleeping beneath the ground and undead and beholders and flying ships. So, really, Eberron wins.
Pulp heroes are larger than life. They are tougher, smarter, stronger and more resourceful than most people. They are courageous to the point of recklessness, and the story carries them forward anyway. Pulp heroes have to be larger than life – pulp villains are really villainous. They are powerful, sleek, ruthless, often insane, and are usually bent on nothing less than world domination.
Pulp is also about mysteries of a particular kind. These are not nuanced, complex, interwoven mysteries – these are Mysteries! They might be mysteries of the ancient world, or mysteries or lost Atlantis, or mysteries of Mars and its strange inhabitants, but they are mysteries that are more exciting than mysterious. They titillate without making you think all that hard. Why are Nazis after the Ark of the Covenant? Because Nazis were occult-obsessed and scary and the Ark of the Covenant is evocative and cool. Therefore, it made a good pulp Mystery.
Pulp heroes “fail forward”. When Indiana Jones fails a roll, he doesn’t fall to his death, his situation just gets more complicated. So you might get beaten up or socially out-classed, but the story doesn’t stop there. Ideally, it shouldn’t stop ever. This kind of game encourages risk-taking. You may very well be killed by someone who is bent on killing you if you don’t figure out how to stop them, but you probably won’t be killed by failing an Athletics roll in the rigging of an airship. That’s because one way of dying is cool and dramatic, and the other blows.
But don’t over-do it. Its easy to shout everything in a pulp game as if IT! ALL! HAD! EXCLAMAtION! POINTS! but that’ll get old for all of us. Sometimes, yeah, its “Science!” and not “science”, but the system will make things pulp-y without having to push it. Indiana Jones is interesting not because he is square-jawed and impossible to knock out with a punch, but in spite of those things. Indestructible heroes are harder to make interesting. Its harder to create an actual character in pulp who isn’t one-dimensional and gimmicky – but its more fun if you do.