“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.