The totalitarian mind does not observe and verify its impressions of reality; it dictates to reality how it shall behave, it compels reality to conform to its fantasies.

Joost A M Meerloo, Rape of the Mind: The Psychology of Thought Control
This statement explains much about the current thinking of academics and millennials — divorced from reality, credulous to the point of stupidity, and desperate to mold reality to their “world of ideas”, they are the perfect audience for the would-be aristocrats around the world.

I already did a review on the latest version of Space:1889which uses the Ubiquity engine from Hollow Earth Expedition by Exile Games. Since the review was done, Chronicle City apparently lost the rights to the English language version of the game. (I never got the hard copy of the game and conveniently CC didn’t tell me, but he sure as shit cashed that check, didn’t he..?)  However, the excellent folks (despite their umlaut fixation) over at Mödiphiüs have gotten the books in and are selling them now.

This publisher has brought us Sarah Newton’s massive Mindjammer game using Fate, as well as the Thunderbirds board game, the popular Achtung! Chthulu and recent Call of Chthulu lines. So give ’em a look if you are interested in the return of the original steampunk (gods, I hate that term!) game setting…but with rules that work.

I’m already out $50 for a book I never got, but I am considering dropping more coin on the faux leather edition for my favorite game setting ever.

Runeslinger brought up an excellent question while chatting about my Reusing Stories post. He remarked that it was nice to see some Hollow Earth in my Hollow Earth Expedition game. Like me, he had avoided that obvious bit of faux science that — while a popular theme at the time — is utter rot.

In this case, I’ve got some ideas for why the hollow earth exists in our game that doesn’t cause the obvious issues dealing with gravity. Or common sense. But more on that at another time.

It got me wondering, however, ow many people that play Exlie Game’s Hollow Earth Expedition actually set adventures in the interior of the planet? While I suspect we’re unlikely to get many folks opining in the comments section, I’ll open this up to any reader — if you’ve run the game, did it include that setting; for those who haven’t played HEX, if you were going to run a ’30s pulp game would you consider using the hollow earth as a setting or McGuffin?

“There’s nothing new under the sun”, the Bible says, but I think God was paraphrasing. Everyone steals, borrows, or repurposes stories — that’s just part and parcel of cultural capital. A good story is retold, revisited, rebooted, reskinned, or otherwise reprocessed. Some do it really well — Shakespeare’s whole damned catalogue, The Magnificent Seven’s Western-izing of The Seven Samurai, or the Nolan Batman movies take on Frank Miller’s work with the Dark Knight.

Don’t be afraid to borrow, tweak, file the serial numbers off, and repurpose. Yes, sometimes or often, the gamers will realize where you got the idea, but this can work to your advantage. If they expect that this plot, that seems ripped straight from [movie] will lead to a certain place, and you change it up, they will be surprised.

Borrowing from yourself is always a good idea, as well. If you’re like me, you’ve got years of plots and stories and characters on your hard drive, thumb drive, or in notebooks in your closet your wife and the fire marshal want you to get rid of. A few weeks ago, one of the gamers in my group left for a three week trip to the Orient, leaving the ret of us with either three weeks of no gaming, or the need to do something else. (His characters are kinda pivotal in the Battlestar Galactica game.)

So I thought about trying the new player out on Hollow Earth Expedition. I’ve wanted to fire up a new campaign since the end of the Shanghai Campaign, which had been delightfully fun and creative until half the gaming group moved away or had their work schedules change in dramatic and infuriating ways in the space of two weeks. Six gamers one week, a fortnight later, two players and a GM. Campaign: dead.

A few abortive attempts with the new group didn’t catch fire. The characters and the players just weren’t connecting. So, even though I thought it a longshot, I put together a “backdoor pilot” using the bones of a one-shot I ran for a Meetup RPG group. The basic plot remained — the characters were looking for an academic that is lost in Equatorial Guinea, and claims to have found the mythic white apes of the Congo. Evil corporate interests with the backing of the local peninsulares are looking to stop word of the apes from getting out because…what does it really matter? They’re the bad guys. Little hints, in this case in the form of one character’s fascination with American pulp novels, allowed me to do a bit of foreshadowing. The lost city and white apes sounded a lot like Opar of the Tarzan books (which the character is reading during the downtimes — Tarzan and the Ant-Men — according to the player) and the Lovecraft short story Facts Concerning the Late Arthur Jermyn and His Family.

In the original one shot, the players were the crew of a small smuggling steamer, and one player was the father of the man missing. In this reimagining, the missing fellow is Dr. Trevor Ansom — Oxford Classics lecturer who runs about the world looking for mythic stuff. He’s a WWI vet, a bit addled thanks to serious PTSD, but just because he’s a bit weird doesn’t mean he’s not often right… The plot hinged on someone that would have the emotional connection to want to rescue him. Our latest player got that role, making her the lead for the story — Margaret Ansom-Bose, recent divorcee and one-time companion of her uncle, who took her in after the death of her father in the War, and her mother from Spanish Influenza. She’s a “modern woman” who came of age as a flapper and an aviatrix in the ’20s, but after the Crash got married to an American oil tycoon to keep the family afloat.

The player leapt on this, but due to a series of crappy rolls over the course of two nights, this super competent woman kept coming up the damsel in distress for the other character to aid. Instead of decrying the situation, she’s added it to the flavor of Bose — she’s hyper-capable and useful until she needs to be a plot device. i would point out, this makes her exactly the sort of heroine that was standard for 1930s/40s pulp.

The next character was the problem one. The player in question just didn’t quite seem to jive with the pulp setting the two times we tried it. He had a big game hunter from Texas the first time around that just didn’t drop in well and the player didn’t connect with him. The second time he played a British occultist aristocrat…he liked the character but the notion didn’t sit well with me. I’ve found that unless magic or mind powers are common or ubiquitous, having a player with them sharply removes the feeling of danger and mystery from having powers loose in the game…it’s something bad guys have. The heroes have to overcome that. Look at almost every good horror/suspense piece — the good guys are usually outmatched and have to find some weakness that allows success. They don’t just hire a bigger sorcerer to take out the baddie.

The piece I was stealing from is set in Africa — big game territory. I took his original character of Gustav Hassenfeldt, and went to work with the editor’s scalpel. Background shifted from Texan of German descent to German who grew up in German East Africa until the British authorities tossed the family out in 1922. Didn’t connect with his dysfunctional homeland (and their actual family home is now in France and confiscated.) His parents moved to Texas to give me American adventure hooks, but he returned to hunting and being an  adventure guide for hire. There was my in to get the characters together. But the big reworking was to make him less arrogant and superb at his job (which he undeniably is — we’re talking Quigley Down Under levels of long shot goodness), less brash and impulsive, and made him a meticulous planner. Sensible and honest; a good man. This culminated nicely in a scene where he had the chance to take out a bunch of Spaniards at range and protect folks toward the end of night two, but quipped “This feels like murder…” This led to a non-violent solution to the scene — set up by the team’s combat bad-ass. It’s a great overturning of tropes. (He was also the guy referencing Tarzan.)

The first night started with getting the characters together through a mutual friend in Tangier. The necessary action scene to establish villains, get the characters to show their expertise and develop a connection, and set the stakes followed: goons hired by the Equatorial Lumber Company to get back the letter from Ansom, the map to his find, and (exposed) film wound up with a punch up and shootout on the harbor wall. Hassenfeldt character established himself as a guy that tried to talk his way out of big troubles, but is willing to throw a punch to be a gentleman and protect his employer (Bose.)

They travel by Bose’s old Sikorsky S-36 (stats are about the same as the S-38, here) over various points to Fernando Po, where they link up with the crew of Sylvia — the boat from the one shot, but now relegated to NPC status — who had been hired by the aforementioned contact in Tangier to get them upriver. The location they are going to will be inaccessible by airplane.

Here I was now back in the framework of the original one shot: a nighttime run past Spanish patrol boats, upriver until they are trapped by the Spanish in a tight section of the Benito River, rescue from the Spanish by the “lost” Professor Ansom and a platoon of gorillas led by a few white apes — gigantic, intelligent creatures that Ansom has befriended. They return to the city of the apes, called Mangani by the locals, and it is a place of strangeness: the color is all wrong, everything ooks like it is viewed through a funhouse mirror — geometry is peculiar, and the architecture looks almost Minoan. Ansom thinks it is an Atlantean outpost…and the piece de resistance is the temple, coplete with a strange metal eye (with the iris being an open space big enough for a few people to go through.)

They try to figure out some of the mysteries of the place, but the cameras down work — everything must be drawn and annotated. The apes can communicate, and Hassenfeldt helps Ansom train the apes to use the rifles they’ve taken from the Spanish. When Spaniards from the company show up, including a highly educated Jewish doctor, they manage to defuse the situation. While showing the Spaniards the importance of the place and why they should cease their attempts to destroy the apes, they discover the doctor — when in proximity to the Eye — causes it to light up with a strange blue energy field. (Yeah — it’s a Stargate. Steal, people, steal!) While investigating, Hassenfeldt trips through the gate, and knocks Bose with him.

On the other side, it almost looks like they are in the Yucatan. The ground curves away for some distance…a massive valley? and they spot some kind of huge creature circling them in the air. A single shot from Hassenfeldt’s .375 magnum brings the creature down: it’s a pterodactyl!

Realizing how alone and possibly endangered they are, Bose convinces him to go back through to the ape city and the gate shuts down.

That was where we left, with two possible PCs for the vacationing player — Ansom or the Jewish doctor with Atlantean blood that allows the gate to work. The play was swift and the players quickly learned that sometimes “taking the average” was much more efficacious than rolling dice, and it was decided by the players there that the system was one that “did not get in the way” (about the best you can usually hope for with RPGs; they rarely enhance play, I find.) So now we have a great opportunity for ’30s pulp that seems to appeal to the entire group…

All because I needed to slap together a quick two-night adventure and chose to steal from an old piece none had played through.

[This post is aimed at role playing games, but could just as easily apply to any kind of storytelling effort — books, TV, movies, whatever… SCR]

There’s a kind of GM that I tend to be wary of, and that’s the guy that — when you decide to join up with his/her game — that, during character creation, slaps down the campaign bible for you to read. It’s rarely concise, I’ve found. The worst case was the 80 page tome that we were assaulted with in a D&D game in the early ’80s. (This same game saw the GM give the sole female character a female cleric who was also mute…you can make a lot of assumptions about his personality from this, and you would be correct.) There are plenty of other examples of this that readers could comment on (especially if they’re amusing anecdotes — please do!)

In some ways, the background chapters of a game’s rulebook serve this purpose. Some of them are a few pages; some of them are 80 pages of material…hopefully split between some appropriate rules to give you a break from the faux history lesson. And there in lies the rub — how much about your game world do you need to know from the get-go? Say you are playing D&D and your characters are 1st level whatevers meeting to slay a [monster] that is harassing the town of [town.] Do you need to know that much about the politics and history of the place? Or can this be revealed as needed? Or if you are running a cyberpunk/dystopian future set in some nameless (or not) American city, do you need to know about the politics and companies of deepest Russia..? Probably not.

As with everything, especially when starting out, KISS (Keep It Simple Stupid). Don’t overdo the exposition, or even the setting depth until you have an idea of what will interest them. (An exception to this rule might be the city-building rules in the Dresden Files RPG, in which the players and GM collaborate to make their setting.)

Here’s a good example of creating an interesting setting without too much exposition — better known as “show, don’t tell” — Blade Runner. Why does it rain all the time? The assumption of viewers is some kind of climactic event. Reality: Ridley Scott thought rain and steamy street grates was romantic and noir, and allowed them to hide subtle redresses of the street set. Why are so many animals artificial? Again — seems to suggest some kind of issue of climate or ecological collapse. Develop the setting through description, not “in the year XXXX, something happened which created…”

Now, with the setting established, it’s time for characters. Again, do only what you need. If you’ve ever seen a series bible for a TV show, it’s usually somewhere between six to 12 pages and identifies the important elements and characters of a show for that first few episodes or first season. Basic stuff like Steve Brannon [Lead] is a 30s something adventurer from New York City who has been all around the world. World weary, he is quick with his sharp wit and his fists, but he tries to eschew the gun. He is a war veteran who doesn’t talk much about his experiences, but it is obvious that they wear on him…

That’s a quick, simple thumbnail that gives the actor his initial “in” to the character. War vet, smart and witty, but maybe with a bitter edge. His propensity for punching out bad guys and assholes means he’s tough guy, but his reticence to use a gun means he’s suffering from guilt over his action in the war(?) You have enough to know how to play him (in an RPG, this is the player), and the writers have enough to flesh out (in an RPG, this is a collaboration between the GM and player as the game goes on.)

In our games, we usually like enough of an established backstory to give the players hooks and ideas of how they got where they are. This act like a series bible entry and can be as simple as the above, or this example of a character background from one of our pulp games:

Born 23 May, 1904 in Hoboken, New Jersey to the curator of the New York Museum of Natural History, Thomas Drake, and schoolteacher Margaret (nee Singer) Drake, Hannibal is the oldest of two boys.  He was raised in suburban New Jersey, with a view of Manhattan from their family home.  He would frequently travel into the city with his father to the museum, or to see shows.  He was an athletic child, with a fantastic ear for accents and languages — he quickly picked up some of the local languages from the immigrant families in the neighbor, and was fluent in Italian by his teen years.

The museum trips and his fascination with dime novels and comics books as a lad, honed a sense of adventure in the young Hannibal, and he was eager to get out into the world and make his mark as an explorer.  As a teen, he took an interest in motorcycles — cheap transportation that didn’t require him to ride the train or bus.  He helped Mr. Pritchard, the local mechanic with his motorcycle shop, eventually buying himself a 1921 Indian Scout that he only recently replaced with a 1930 Indian 101 Scout.

He attended Columbia University — his father’s alma mater as a legacy admission and studied foreign languages, where earned a doctorate in languages, and while pursuing that degree, took a course in archeology that led him to take a second degree in that field, as well (the two have many of the same course requirements, allowing him to finish faster.)  He is a specialist in ancient Central Asia — ancient Chinese, Aryan, and Turkic civilizations.  His graduate advisor was Dr. Sydney Lowell — himself an expert in Middle Eastern and Central Asian cultures and histories.

His father lost quite a bit of money in the stock market in 1929, leaving the family fortunes — slim as they were — destroyed.  Hannibal had to finish his doctoral work by getting positions as a graduate assistant on digs in Egypt and in China until his graduation, and along the way picked up a few friends in the antiquities market.  He made extra money selling valuable trinkets to these people, enough to finish school and gain a reputation with some of the archeological community as a grave robber and scoundrel.  Dr. Lowell — himself old school when it came to having some of his finds make their way to museum and personal collections by shady avenues — stood by the young man. In 1934, Dr. Drake started traveling extensively on a grant from his new home as an adjunct professor of archeology at Columbia, a position he wouldn’t have gotten without the aid of Dr. Lowell.

His father is now dead of emphysema, and his mother is working away as a school teacher in Hoboken.

Just shy of 500 words — about a page of background in the right 10 point font. (And almost a third of this article…) In this case, the backstory is probably a bit too much, but this was the “lead” in a pulp campaign, and the player wanted him fairly fleshed out. How much of it came to light in play..? Only that he’s a bit disreputable, is an adjunct professor at Columbia, and that he mom is still around. In play, we saw his love of motorcycles, and his dodgy connections in the antiquities markets.

A good rule of thumb is, if some bit of background hasn’t been revealed, change it as needed to fit the way the character and story is developing. Maybe his parents never came up and the GM forgot the father was dead…if the player is amenable, he’s not. Run with it. (I’m also a fan of letting the players adjust their charaters’ stats after the first adventure or two, to reflect how they are played, kind of like how characters or TV shows change from pilot to first season.)

As with everything, keeping it as simple as needed to run quick and clean is an excellent rule of thumb.

Neatly done.


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