I recently ran a Hollow Earth Expedition one shot for the local Meetup group here in Albuquerque. I found the initial ideas a bit difficult to work up, as I’m used to trying to do lengthier campaigns…a five hour one-shot is not my usual fare. Key to it, I realized, was keep it simple and make sure the game highlighted the rules of the game.
The White Apes of the Congo!
The adventure was designed for six players, but could be easily expanded to handle more. We wound up with five players, so one of the pregenerated NPCs was not used. The main thrust: Dr. Michael Thornton, a biologist specializing in primates, was in Africa looking for the mythic white apes of that continent, and has subsequently gone missing. you could easily put together your own version from that seed, but here’s the specifics:
Thornton’s research took him to Spanish Guinea in 1937. I used the setting because this was originally going to be an adventure for my main game group, and they were in Spain during the Civil War. Word that Thornton is alive, but in trouble has been wired to his alma mater, University of Southern California, and they have asked his father — eminent Mesoamerican archeologist Richard Thornton of UT Austin (should be a PC, if possible) to try and find him.
We opened with Thornton arriving in the backwater town of Bata in Spanish Guinea — a hole in the wall with a port, a small Nationalist garrison, a hotel, and a few small consulates. The American one is open for only a few days more, as the Consul, Frank Geary, is about to cycle out and back to Casablanca. Everything should have a hot, damn, run-down quality to it. corrugated aluminum roofs rusting, warped wooden decks, etc. etc. They even only have one bar in town, right next to the wharf.
Geary has a letter and a map that one of his bearers managed to get to the embassy. The man has gone missing since. the letter:
Dear Father —
I have succeeded! The ape is not mythical, and it is no longer lost to science. The natives refer to them as “mangani” — the man-like ape, and they revere the creatures.
Unfortunately, there are things afoot here [illegible] If you are reading this, I am unable to return from my studies here in Spanish Guinea, but I require aid that I cannot get locally. I have found myself [illegible] rebellion against the local gold mines [illegible] and fear that the conflict could lead to the loss of this incredible discovery [illegible — mud or blood?] if I cannot.
Time is of the essence!
Your loving son,
The map has glyphs and other notations in the elder Dr. Thornton’s secret code from when he was a spy in Mexico during the Great War. (A common thing for a lot of the archeologists — enough so that their national society decried this sullying of the profession in one of their annual meetings.) He can tell his son is up the Benito river near the turn to San Carlos — where a large Belgian mining concern is operating with the aid of the Nationalist (ho get a cut for security presence.) Geary will tell them there’s a native uprising that has the company fighting for its life upriver. There’s all sorts of crazy stories, but it seems as if one of the tribes has goten its back up and is fighting the Spanish.
Geary takes him over to the bar to get a team of folks together and hence introduce the other PCs. We had Tom Myner, a big game hunter who has escaped an unfortunate love affair with a lord’s daughter and has been ruined in England; Paolo DellaVera, an Italian tramp steamer captain out for his own survival; his deck hand “Lefty” Baines, a pistolero from Texas with an incredible rep for both villainy and heroism for the Mexican people against United Fruit, the Mexican government, and whatever other stories he can devise. He just happens to also be deadly as sin with his nickel-plated, ivory handled .38 Super 1911s. There was the engineer, Roberto Zitti — a whiz with any kind of machinery but illiterate. We also had room for a Hemingway-esque reporter out to make a name for himself, but he wasn’t played and subsequently dropped.
They get the boat, make a run for the Benito river, but a French gunboat that recognizes DellaVera’s ship as one of the more active smugglers in the area tries to take them despite being in Spanish territory. Originally, it was an excuse to show chase and vehicle combat rules, but the players decided to take the French ship and strip the cannon and machineguns from her. They succeeded!
They make their way up river and hide the boat then tramp into the jungled hills to find Thornton’s son, only to run into Spanish soldiers led by a Belgian company executive. In the game, the company folks are out looking for rebels, and think they might be connected. At the mention of Thornton’s name, all hell breaks loose. Firefights and possibly fisticuffs ensue and things went badly for them (they should be horribly outgunned so they can escape or win, but can survive.) Eventually, spending a few style points will bring rescue — the missing Thornton and his squad of white apes!
They’re brought to the city of the intelligent and compassionate creatures (when they’re not horribly murdering folks.) The city is strange — a combination of architectures that seem to be warped in their proportions and geometry. It’s as if the entire city is somehow twisted, but not in a way that they can understand. In the center, a pyramid with a single glowing opening, through which they occasionally receive messages from their gods. The mine’s security have withered their number to only a hundred or so, and they are going through “the eye” to join their gods. Thronton is going, as well. In the game, his father stayed behind because he couldn’t leave his wife, but was justifiably proud of his son. After the tribe disappear into the pyramid, curiosity got the better of him and he found a strange glowing pool that looks like water in the middle of the floor…but where does it lead?
They left that unresolved, picked the place clean of valuables and run for it.
Ultimately, it played very Heart of Darkness — a long buildup for a not so great payoff, but that was the point, if you aren’t going through to the Hollow Earth. You can also modify this to be more of a riff on The Late Arthur Jermyn and His Family by HP Lovecraft or Burroughs’ Tarzan — both were mentioned by characters during play to heighten how unbelievable the story was before they set out.