The Ubiquity proofs are in and it looks great! So without further ado, The Queen of the Orient, a sourcebook for 1930s Shanghai, is now live as an ebook and (for Ubiquity) print on demand book from DriveThruRPG! The physical book is $19.99 and includes the ebook and accompanying map downloads; the ebook and map are $9.99.

The Fate proofs should be here tomorrow, and unless there is a serious issue, we should see the Fate version up for print tomorrow night.

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A note on the map — there’s no print version right now because the size of the thing is not supported by DriveThruRPG’s POD service — it’s a whopping 86×55″! You could possibly find a local shop that could print the thing as a poster.

The Queen of the Orient features information on the history of the city and the three municipal entities — the International Settlement, the French Concession, and the native City Government of Greater Shanghai. There is information on the infamous Green Gang (Qing Bang) that ran much of the crime in “the most dangerous city in the world”, as well as their opponents: the yakuza, the Triads, and  the Shanghai Municipal Police.

Crime is a close cousin of espionage, and Shanghai was a hot-bed of that. Chinese communists and Soviet allies, the Nationalist government of the Republic of China, British intelligence, the Japanese kempaitai were all active in the city. Everything you need to create a living, breathing Shanghai for your 1903 pulp game is here.

Here are the links for the Fate version and the Ubiquity version.

 

 

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While I’m not especially interested in the pageantry and self-congratulatory nonsense of the Academy Awards, particularly as they’ve become a never-ending platform for vapid people’s political opinions, I do truly enjoy movies and the artistry and workmanship that go into them. The last year was a pretty good year, as well, for films and I’ve gotten to see a lot of the them.

So here’s the list, who I suspect will win and who should, and who should have been nominated but wasn’t.

Best Picture:

“Call Me by Your Name” (This is the one I suspect will win, without even seeing it. The subject matter will make it dear to the acting community’s hearts.)
“Darkest Hour”
“Dunkirk” (This was an excellent film for the strange way time was used and the exceptional sound design.)
“Get Out” (This is the one I want to win. It’s a great debut for Jordan Peele, with a solid script, and a nice creepy Hitchcock-flavored bit of suspense. It won’t win, but should.)
“Lady Bird” (Did anyone actually finish this movie..?)
“Phantom Thread” (Daniel Day Lewis in another period piece.)
“The Post” (Reporters courageously being creative in the face of Nixonian evil. If Call Me doesn’t win, this might just because of the political climate. Resist and all that…)
“The Shape of Water” (It’s pretty, the acting is good, but it’s Starman…but with carboard vilains. What, the ’50s weren’t a stellar time for civil rights? That’s a brave stance, Guillermo! I wanted to like it, but it’s overrated in the extreme.)
“Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” (Haven’t seen it. Supposedly the performances are tremendously good, and it’s Martin McDonagh writing.)

What should have been nominated (but not win) was Blade Runner 2049. It took the source material and used the themes better and more subtly, blended the look and music seamlessly to make it seem a natural extension of the original, had performances on par with anything in the list above, and was a good detective story on top of that.

Lead Actor:

Timothée Chalamet, “Call Me by Your Name”
Daniel Day-Lewis, “Phantom Thread” (Dan, seriously…leave someone else to win an Oscar.)
Daniel Kaluuya, “Get Out” (This guy should win. Period. His work in this movie is superb.)
Gary Oldman, “Darkest Hour” (If they don’t give it to Day-Lewis, this will probably be Oldman’s year, just on the strength of his long career of good work.)
Denzel Washington, “Roman J. Israel, Esq.” (It’s Denzel. He’s always solid. He’s no Kaluuya.)

Who should have been nominated (but not win): Hugh Jackman for Logan. If you haven’t seen it, you should. Jackman does some of his best work. The other good performance overlooked was James MacAvoy in Split — he’s playing multiple characters and his posture and the way he shifts he face, you know which character you’re looking at before he speaks. Brilliant.

Lead Actress:

Sally Hawkins, “The Shape of Water” (She won’t get it, but should.)
Frances McDormand, “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” (She’ll get it.)
Margot Robbie, “I, Tonya”
Saoirse Ronan, “Lady Bird”
Meryl Streep, “The Post”

Hawkins is simply amazing in Shape. She and Jenkins are the things that elevate this film, outside of Del Toro’s always-amazing eye. I think Sylvia Hoeks deserved a nomination (but not a win) for her work as Luv in Blade Runner 2049. BR was a movie with good performances by all of the female cast, but Hoeks really stood out. The other actress that got shafted because it was a genre film was Dafne Keen in Logan. A first timer knocking it out of the park while starring with Jackman and Stewart, both doing some of (if not the) best work of their careers? Come on…

Supporting Actor:

Willem Dafoe, “The Florida Project”
Woody Harrelson, “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri”
Richard Jenkins, “The Shape of Water” (Great performance. Probably won’t win.)
Christopher Plummer, “All the Money in the World” (He might, based on a fantastic performance turned in during last minute shoots and a lifetime of good work.)
Sam Rockwell, “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri”

Where the f*** is Patrick Stewart for Logan? I had a father with Alzheimers and he nailed it…he deserved a nomination but not a win. (“Hey, Scott, do you think Logan was one of the better movies of the year or something?” YES, and not because it was a superhero movie — it was a Western noir/road trip/family in crisis movie…that also had superheroes.) Between the contenders, I think Jenkins should probably win.

Supporting Actress:

Mary J. Blige, “Mudbound”
Allison Janney, “I, Tonya”
Lesley Manville, “Phantom Thread”
Laurie Metcalf, “Lady Bird”
Octavia Spencer, “The Shape of Water” (Probably going to win.)

Strangely, I can’t think of a female supporting role that really stood out this year. There were a lot of solid performances and roles, but nothing that made me say “Ooo!”, unlike the lead actresses (Hawkins and Hoeks, especially.)

Director:

“Dunkirk,” Christopher Nolan (It really should be between this and Get Out.)
“Get Out,” Jordan Peele (For a directorial debut to be this good, he deserves it.)
“Lady Bird,” Greta Gerwig
“Phantom Thread,” Paul Thomas Anderson
“The Shape of Water,” Guillermo del Toro (I think Del Toro wins this one, if only on the strength of the visuals and technical aspects of the film.)

Denis Villeneuve should have been up for Blade Runner 2049. Maybe not a win-worthy movie, but it’s a brilliant technical achievement that blends an original story to the iconic source material, and manages to do it better. That’s not nothing.

Animated Feature:

“The Boss Baby,” Tom McGrath, Ramsey Ann Naito (No. Read the book.)
“The Breadwinner,” Nora Twomey, Anthony Leo
“Coco,” Lee Unkrich, Darla K. Anderson
“Ferdinand,” Carlos Saldanha
“Loving Vincent,” Dorota Kobiela, Hugh Welchman, Sean Bobbitt, Ivan Mactaggart, Hugh Welchman (I suspect this one wins.)

Can we just start nominating the CGI-heavy Marvel movies for this category? They’re damned close…and what, no Monster Trucks!?! (Who thought that was even a good title, much less an idea?) The obvious one missing here is The Lego Batman Movie, which did all of the Batman themes better than the live action movies . It shouldn’t win, but it should have been nominated, especially over Boss Baby.

Animated Short:

“Dear Basketball,” Glen Keane, Kobe Bryant
“Garden Party,” Victor Caire, Gabriel Grapperon
“Lou,” Dave Mullins, Dana Murray
“Negative Space,” Max Porter, Ru Kuwahata
“Revolting Rhymes,” Jakob Schuh, Jan Lachauer

I have not seen any of these, so I can’t opine.

Adapted Screenplay:

“Call Me by Your Name,” James Ivory (Another win, just because of the material.)
“The Disaster Artist,” Scott Neustadter & Michael H. Weber
“Logan,” Scott Frank & James Mangold and Michael Green (This should win. It won’t.)
“Molly’s Game,” Aaron Sorkin
“Mudbound,” Virgil Williams and Dee Rees

What should have been nominated: Geof Johns and Allan Heinberg for Wonder Woman. That men wrote women that well — they should get a nomination but not a win.

Original Screenplay:

“The Big Sick,” Emily V. Gordon & Kumail Nanjiani
“Get Out,” Jordan Peele (He should win. Period.)
“Lady Bird,” Greta Gerwig
“The Shape of Water,” Guillermo del Toro, Vanessa Taylor (The story is awful, the villain is cliche, so no — he shouldn’t win.)
“Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri,” Martin McDonagh (McDonagh’s a great writer with a fantastic ear for language. It should probably be between him and Peele this year.)

The other screenplay should be here is Taylor Sheridan’s Wind River. Seriously, see it. And Hell or High Water, which is even better.

Cinematography:

“Blade Runner 2049,” Roger Deakins (This should win, hands down. It won’t.)
“Darkest Hour,” Bruno Delbonnel
“Dunkirk,” Hoyte van Hoytema
“Mudbound,” Rachel Morrison
“The Shape of Water,” Dan Laustsen (This is the winner.)

Best Documentary Feature:

Best Documentary Short Subject:

“Edith+Eddie,” Laura Checkoway, Thomas Lee Wright
“Heaven is a Traffic Jam on the 405,” Frank Stiefel
“Heroin(e),” Elaine McMillion Sheldon, Kerrin Sheldon
“Knife Skills,” Thomas Lennon
“Traffic Stop,” Kate Davis, David Heilbroner

Haven’t seen any of these, so no opinion.

Best Live Action Short Film:

“DeKalb Elementary,” Reed Van Dyk
“The Eleven O’Clock,” Derin Seale, Josh Lawson
“My Nephew Emmett,” Kevin Wilson, Jr.
“The Silent Child,” Chris Overton, Rachel Shenton
“Watu Wote/All of Us,” Katja Benrath, Tobias Rosen

Haven’t seen any, no opinion.

Best Foreign Language Film:

“A Fantastic Woman” (Chile)
“The Insult” (Lebanon)
“Loveless” (Russia)
“On Body and Soul (Hungary)
“The Square” (Sweden)

Haven’t seen any of these, no opinion. I have a friend who suggests Dunkirk should have been in this category for the impenetrable (to him) English and Scottish accents.

Film Editing:

“Baby Driver,” Jonathan Amos, Paul Machliss (This should win, but won’t.)
“Dunkirk,” Lee Smith (I think this is a possible win.)
“I, Tonya,” Tatiana S. Riegel
“The Shape of Water,” Sidney Wolinsky (I suspect this wins.)
“Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri,” Jon Gregory

Sound Editing:

“Baby Driver,” Julian Slater
“Blade Runner 2049,” Mark Mangini, Theo Green (It should be between this and Dunkrik.)
“Dunkirk,” Alex Gibson, Richard King (This should be the winner.)
“The Shape of Water,” Nathan Robitaille, Nelson Ferreira
“Star Wars: The Last Jedi,” Ren Klyce, Matthew Wood

This is actually one I have a strong opinion on. Dunkirk makes brilliant use of sound. The gunfire is piercingly loud and realistic (except for the scene in the boat, where it’s too loud; the gunshots would be muffled, with the sound of the bullets coming through the metal being more pronounced.) The music and sound all work together to continually ratchet up the tension. This movie is a masterpiece of how to use sound and music.

Sound Mixing:

“Baby Driver,” Mary H. Ellis, Julian Slater, Tim Cavagin
“Blade Runner 2049,” Mac Ruth, Ron Bartlett, Doug Hephill
“Dunkirk,” Mark Weingarten, Gregg Landaker, Gary A. Rizzo (I suspect this wins…and should.)
“The Shape of Water,” Glen Gauthier, Christian Cooke, Brad Zoern
“Star Wars: The Last Jedi,” Stuart Wilson, Ren Klyce, David Parker, Michael Semanick

Production Design:

“Beauty and the Beast,” Sarah Greenwood; Katie Spencer
“Blade Runner 2049,” Dennis Gassner, Alessandra Querzola (This should be far and away the winner. It won’t be.)
“Darkest Hour,” Sarah Greenwood, Katie Spencer
“Dunkirk,” Nathan Crowley, Gary Fettis
“The Shape of Water,” Paul D. Austerberry, Jeffrey A. Melvin, Shane Vieau (Wins.)

One that got shafted here was Ghost in the Shell, which might not have been a success, but had amazing design work on par with Blade Runner 2049.

Original Score:

“Dunkirk,” Hans Zimmer (This should win, if you take it in context with how it propels the movie. Removed from that, it won’t win.)
“Phantom Thread,” Jonny Greenwood
“The Shape of Water,” Alexandre Desplat (I think this wins.)
“Star Wars: The Last Jedi,” John Williams (This is a good contender for obvious reasons.)
“Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri,” Carter Burwell

Original Song:

“Mighty River” from “Mudbound,” Mary J. Blige
“Mystery of Love” from “Call Me by Your Name,” Sufjan Stevens
“Remember Me” from “Coco,” Kristen Anderson-Lopez, Robert Lopez
“Stand Up for Something” from “Marshall,” Diane Warren, Common
“This Is Me” from “The Greatest Showman,” Benj Pasek, Justin Paul

Don’t actually care on this one.

Makeup and Hair:

“Darkest Hour,” Kazuhiro Tsuji, David Malinowski, Lucy Sibbick
“Victoria and Abdul,” Daniel Phillips and Lou Sheppard
“Wonder,” Arjen Tuiten

Again…

Costume Design:

“Beauty and the Beast,” Jacqueline Durran
“Darkest Hour,” Jacqueline Durran
“Phantom Thread,” Mark Bridges (It’s a movie about a fashion designer. Win.)
“The Shape of Water,” Luis Sequeira
“Victoria and Abdul,” Consolata Boyle (Win if they don’t give it to Phantom Thread.)

Visual Effects:

I was remiss in posting a play report from last week, so I’m going to combine that and this week… The game group picked up a new member the past two weeks, bringing us to seven. This is the largest group I’ve had in the last seven year, and managing pace and crosstalk always becomes a problem once you get over the 4 players and a GM. The new guy is new to gaming, and I needed a fast way to bring him into the action. This was going to be difficult, since they group had just been transported via the Eye of Shambala, an ancient Atlantean device, to said location in the Kunlun Mountains.

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The group found themselves surrounded by blue gi-clad monks in a fantastical valley surrounded by snow-capped mountains. A few minutes later, another set of monks brought a palanquin to the site. From this dismounted a tall woman, dressed neck to ground in a leather dress and cape. On her chest, the eight pointed star with Tibetan swastika — the symbol of Atlantis. She welcomed them to Shianking, and introduced herself as Queen Morana. Zelansky immediately realized that this was the empress consort of Mot, the Emperor of Atlantis. (More below…) Her attention is primarily on Veitch, the mechanic for the group, who has Atlantean blood and can activate their technology.

They are escorted to the massive building, the royal residence, they are told. They also notice a giant airplane, stopped just at the lip of the valley over a ravine into which the waterfalls of the place fall. It’s big and utilitarian, with the red star of the Soviet Union on it. Under the wings, it carried two small fighters. Morana will tell them the Soviets had come calling and were dealt with. (Zelansky knows Morana has a long history with the Soviets from OSI reports.) Inside the residence, they pass dozens of people; she’s got hundreds of people here, they estimate. Most are Chinese, but there are the Western/Oriental faces of Central Asians: Kazaks, Kyrgiz, a few Russians, she will tell them. There’s also dozens of Vril, residents of the former Hollow Earth. These people were left on Earth, as she was, when the “Interior World” phased through Earth and eventually settled into the same orbit as Earth.

One person stands out. He is obviously a Westerner, dressed much like the others. He has a slight limp and his left eye has a weird cast to it. He immediately tried to interact with them. This was the new guy, and I needed a reason for him to be here, but for him to have a “normal” enough background that the player could jump into the 1930s, but fantasy, setting of the game. I decided to use a real-life figure, an aviator that had been brought down and rescued by the monks. (A classic pulp fiction trope.) After some research, I wrote the new guy up the famed aviator, Wiley Post. (See the Wiley Post…post.)

He has been stuck in Shianking, as the Chinese call it, or Shambala, as the Central Asian call it for three years, ever since the “Ghost World” phased out of the Earth right in front of his Lockheed Vega. He had been on a solo circumnavigation, the first in history, testing the next autopilot and radio direction finding system Sperry Gyroscope Company was developing when the plane was crippled and he crashed. Days later he came to in Shambala, badly injured but miraculously still alive. He healed at an extraordinary rate. Something about the place encouraged life. The monks had taken in the many others that were suddenly left in the mountains by the Ghost World, including Morana. The queen quickly won over the men and Post later relates to them she has an uncanny ability to know what people want and helps them achieve it. Over the last three years, she took control of the monastery from the masters, then led expeditions into the surrounding areas to gain more adherents. She instigated the Soviet expedition to the valley — two Tupolev TB-3s, one with the fighters, but the other was loaded with paratroopers. They were quickly cut down by her people, and she forced the pilots of the second plane to land.

Some say she’s a sorceress, and Post would have thought that ridiculous, except he’s seen it. She can bend people’s will, make them see things. She can heal people with a touch, but he’s heard she can also take that life away. She wins her followers over with ease, and even he has been tempted to join her. The only thing that helped him resist is the desire to get back to his wife and child.. His escape attempts were hampered by the mountains. The altitude is too high, and it is too cold, to venture over; the valley, for some reason, has sea level pressure. He knows there is a tunnel out of the valley, but he has been unable to discover it.

Morana appeals to their desires: Veitch wants to feel important, and is insanely curious about the Atlanteans and the ability to use these gates to get to other worlds. That’s why she wants him:  to get back to Atlantis, her empire, and her son. For Zelansky, she tempts him with the massive library of ancient tomes, scrolls, and maps. For Cointreau, with a touch, she gives him the greatest pleasure he has ever felt. She knows this is what he wants — an escape from the world, his memories of the Great War, and his own cowardice. Pin-Lee and “Irish” O’Bannon, however, are not so easily swayed. For the next few days, they explore the valley and the various buildings, while Veitch and Zelansky pour through the library. There are hundreds of loyal followers, and they hope that some day the queen will lead them out of the city to spread their bounties to the world.

Finally, realizing the trap the place it, O’Bannon and Pin-Lee push for the group to attempt escape. Post has been unable to get to the airplane due to the well-trained monk warriors watching it. He’s only one man, but with six of them, they just might be able to do it. O’Bannon and Veitch act as a distraction, allowing Post, Contreau, and Pin-Lee to slip past and sound out the TB-3. It still has bladders full of fuel and appears to be functional. the machine guns are even still in place! The next day, they make good their escape, slipping onto the Tupolev and risking a dangerous launch with not enough runway. They just manage to take off, even with Morana using her enchantments to try and prevent them, and just clear the mountains around the valley.

That was the end of one night’s play…

We picked up this week with the TB-3 flying through the night sky toward Lhasa. The plane has no heat, they are flying at about 14,000 feet, and the cockpit on the Tupolev is open to the sky. Post and O’Bannon are trading pilot duties every 30 minutes to avoid frostbite and to keep each other sharp. Zelansky wired their findings in code to the OSI, and informed the British legation in Lhasa they were on route. (It wouldn’t do to just show up in a Soviet bomber, would it?) Five hours of flying, with Cointreau trying to cope with the idea that he would never feel that kind of pleasure again, and Pin-Lee trying to get his friend to snap out of it.

They land in Lhasa in the middle of the night and are met by one of the British. Yet again, there is another plane on the field outside of Lhasa — the TB-3 parked next to the Boeing they brought, parked next to the abandoned S-38 from the last campaign, next to the hulk of the Nazi Fokker Trimotor from the last campaign. Once they are back in the British legation, the characters got warm, drunk, and learned that the Brits had been searching for them for the last couple of days, as they hadn’t returned from their trip to the Gardong Monastery. According to the monks, they had been shown the artifact, then left (not actually a lie.) They assumed bandits had gotten them. Post took advantage of their hospitality to fire off a telegram to inform his family he was still alive. (Fortunately, at this time, US law was that without a body, a person was not officially dead for seven years.)

The next day, they were called to General Yama, the head of the Tibetan army. The old warrior knows about the Eye, their interest, and that they had an altercation with the monks before going through it. He wants to know where they went. While the others tried to shine him on, Pin-Lee immediately pointed out the location of Shianking and informed them about the danger of Morana and her followers. Yama points out the Eye is Tibetan property and gives them 24 hours to get out of the country. On returning to the legation building, Post got a telegram from his wife — she and his daughter were alive and well in Oklahoma, and doing well thanks to the generosity of his friend Will Rogers, and his sponsors, the US Mail Service and Texaco. They were waiting for him to come home!

The group them hatched a plan to try and find the Eye and perhaps abscond with it. Zelansky was worried about the international implications; this could be considered an act of war! Veitch took parts from the S-38’s Wasp radial engine to maintain the motors on the Beoing, while Post readied the Tupolev. Then O’Bannon and Post took the Boeing and did aerial reconnaissance, easily finding the monks and their Tibetan escort that were moving the Eye to a new location by mule-drawn wagons. The size and weight, Veitch has estimated, would allow it to be secured to the TB-3 under the fuselage between the forward landing gear, and after finding the Eye, they radioed to the others to come in. Veitch had serious issues flying the Tupolev slow enough to make a run at the caravan moving the Eye, but Cointreau managed to give them a warning strafe with the forward machine guns. One of the guards returned fire with Veitch’s coilgun, tearing up the observation dome in the nose of the plane and nearly killing Zelansky and Pin-Lee. At that point, Cointreau did something he hadn’t since the Great War: he mowed a few of the guards down with the machine guns. This was enough to take the fight out of the Tibetans.

Landing the Tupolev and Boeing, they quickly established they couldn’t get Veitch near the Eye or it would activate. The others used block and tackle to get the Eye affixed to the bomber, then O’Bannon flew the thin, while Post took the others, and they managed to make the 400 mile flight to Calcutta. Zelansky radioed ahead to get the US consulate involved, hoping to prevent the British from snapping up the Eye. He’d realized the likelihood the Chinese officials would impound it was high.

In Calcutta, they were met by consulate officials and marine guards, as well as British officials. One of the men was attached to the OSI, and informed them the Eye would be kept safe until their transport back to the States arrived. Admiral Byrd already had things in motion. They spent two days in India and the OSI offered to have them all return to the States for debriefing in California. Cointreau was in; Hollywood is in California! Pin-Le was in; he wanted paid! The rest were willing to head to the States to find out more about what the hell was going on.

Their ride turned out to be ZR-5, the USS Macon — America’s most advanced airship (which thanks to our alternate history, had modifications made to it that prevented her crash in 1935.) captained by Commander Herbert Wiley, the man who had commanded USS Los Angeles during the Hollow Earth expedition in the last campaign. Wiley was ecstatic to meet Post, a famed aviator and a bit of a legend. Post was similarly impressed to see Macon, which was still under construction when he disappeared.

USS_Macon_at_Moffett_Field.jpg

There was some description of life in the airship, some of the technological bits and bobs that interested the aviators (and the gearheads in the gaming group) while they flew their 8200 miles back to San Francisco, with a stop in the middle of the Pacific to tank off of a replenishment ship with the Yorktown aircraft carrier group. Finally, they flew over the Golden Gate bridge and arrived at the massive hangers of Moffett Field, where OSI and FBI agents were waiting for them, as well as the press who were waiting to capture the teary reunion between Post and his family.

We ended there for the evening, with the promise of supersicence at the “Barstow Project” down near Los Angeles. (Zelansky’s field group is the Atlanta Project.) But there’s also San Francisco and a chance for some mischief…

One of the things I’ve been doing as I research for Sky Pirates of the Mediterranean and while doing game prep for our weekly game is looking for the weird and forgotten airplanes of the ’20s and ’30s. One of the truly beastly looking craft I ran into was the Tupolev TB-3, a Russian heavy bomber that was first flown in the 1932. It was supposed to be retired by 1939, but they wound up serving the Russian Air Force through the Second World War, often as a paratrooper platform. It could carry up to 4000 lbs and still hit a service ceiling was considered 16,000′.

But it was the brutally ugly, utilitarian look of the ship that really got my attention. That and they would occasionally sling two I-16 fighters under the wings so they could carry them long distances into combat. It had an open cockpit on the top for the two pilots, an open air nose gun emplacement, and a air of domed turrets amidships. There was a door on each side, just above the rear edge of the wing to allow people to walk out onto the wing to parachute off the plane by sliding off the wing (see below.) But really….look at this monster:

Tupolev_TB-3.jpg

So, of course this thing had to find a way into my game…here’s the stats (RNG is range, CEIL is ceiling.)

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The TB-3 turrets had a pair of belt-fed 7.62x54mm ShKAS machineguns, as did the forward emplacement. Undercarriage turrets were sometimes included, giving the aircraft 6-8 guns. It could carry up to 10,000 lbs of bombs if the plane was stripped down to carry them, but the usual load was 4,000 of bombs. The specs on the paired ShKAS machineguns: Dam: 4L  Str: 3  Rng: 100′  Cap: 64(b)  Rate: A  Spd: A  Wt: 20 lb.

They could be reconfigured as troop or passenger carriers (designated the Antonov-6) and held 36 people, not including the four man crew. The most ridiculous load was a variant that carried the Polikarpov I-16 “Rat” fighters under the wings. The fighters could be dropped by the pilots with a pull of a release lever for action. The Rats would then have to land normally; they could not reconnect, like the Curtis Sparrowhawk could with the American Macon-class airship.

 

After a couple weeks off for the holidays, illness, and other life events, the group was able to get together last night (with a plus one, a friend of one of the gamers who was in town visiting) and pick up the action in our Hollow Earth Expedition game. The campaign has been titled The Atlanta Project — a play on the Manhattan Project — for the new “Office of Scientific Investigation” that is investigating the pulp story weirdness that has hit the Earth, and for which the characters are working for.

The characters: Edmund Zelansky, an archeologist once thought to be a crank and whose crackpot theories were proven correct with the discovery and emergence of the Hollow Earth. He’s the team leader, working for the OSI. Declan “Irish” O’Bannon, a pilot for the Foreign Volunteer Force (or “Sky Rats”) and his mechanic, Anton Veitch, who have been contracted by Zelansky to get him around. There’s Marcel Cointreau, Shanghai’s “song and dance man”, actor of the screen and stage, and secretly the burglar known as “the Fox”, and his sidekick, martial artist and stunt man, Pin-Li Cheng. Lastly, there’s a Vril who was stranded on the surface world when the Hollow Earth phased out of the world and was taken in by Tibetan monks, Na-Sung (played for the night by our guest!)

The characters had gotten the jump on the Ahnenerbe in Western China in a dramatic firefight. We picked up the action with the characters in their Boeing 247D, flying to Lhasa in Tibet to find the Eye of Shambala, the ancient Atlantean portal to what was once the Hollow Earth, and is now the “Second Earth”, Atlantia. They had gotten the location from the tulku of Tibet, Chudak, who had been “rescued” from the Germans, questioned by the team (as he had already been drugged by the Germans,) and found the location of the Eye — in a small monastery 12 miles outside of Lhasa. They also found a crystal that the tulku had, and which glowed when near Anton Veitch, who has Atlantean blood! That means they can actually use the Eye!

They arrived in Lhasa and landed on the ice and snow-covered desert plain across from the city, next to the remains of a Junkers trimotor the Nazis had used to get to Lhasa in our last Hollow Earth game, and a Sikorsky S-38 — the ride of the characters in that last game. They were met by Tibetan irregulars, led by a British legation officer who smoothed the way for them. It seems that since the 1934 War with China and the emergence of the “Ghost World”, as most Chinese call Atlantia, things have gotten a bit tense in Tibet. This has been made worse by a series of raids by an unknown force on the northwest end of Tibet. The British know it’s not the Soviets, nor the Muslim Uygers in the region…Zelansky wonders if it the city of Shianking, which the tulku had told them was newly ascendant. The British officers of the legation think this is unlikely: Shianking, or Shangri-la (or Shambala) is a myth, the supposed “navel of the world.”

But what’s myth in a world where the Earth was “hollow” due to another world, in a dimensional bubble, and which erupted from the Earth after an unknown incident (assumed to be connected, correctly, to the characters in the last campaign…)

While most of the characters settled in to rest and drink heavily, Veitch and Na-Sung took the opportunity to resurrect the Sikorsky S-38, Bernadette. There was a bit of character development, with O’Bannon and Cointreau getting hammered and bonding over a rousing rendition of La Marseilles. Then the next morning, the group was off on rented horses to the Gardong Monastery, where they were intercepted by Tibetan soldiers that told them the monastery was closed due to illness. Not to be deterred, the characters offered assistance. Zelansky informed them he was a doctor. “Not a medical doctor, mind you…but my study of anatomy is fairly comprehensive!”

Here was where I assumed the party would either try to fight their way through or retreat and slip into the monastery at night. (For this group, the most likely option…) But we had a guest gamer who used Na-Sung’s position as an acolyte of the 9th Panchen Lama and tulku Chudak to convince the guards they were sent here on official business. The guards concede, take them to the monastery where they have to convince the monk at the door of the modest building to allow them entry. Finally, after they’ve disarmed, the party convinces the monks that the dangerous artifact they guard needs to be studied by the “scientists” na-Sung has brought with him, at the behest of the Panchen Lama.

The Eye is stored in a cavern behind the monastery and they are escorted by six of the middle-aged to elderly monks. Veitch immediately can tell the Eye is not stone, but metal — shaped like an almond-shaped eye with a central circle that is covered in a woven mandala:

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Veitch’s presence also triggers the eye, and the mandala begins to unweave and twist, opening to reveal a bright light. Veitch alone can hear a voice in his head — a woman speaking Russian, but somehow he understands her — calling him to where she is, a phenomenal city in a lush valley surrounded by high snow-capped mountains, her green eyes superimposed on the vista. The player was already leaning toward going through the Eye, but I pointed out his Curiosity flaw and offered a few style points as a bribe to roll with the proceedings.

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I think this is concept art for a video game, but I didn’t see an attribution. Still, it had the look I was going for.

Veitch is drawn toward the portal, but the monks realize that he has ancient blood (the portal didn’t open until he stepped into the cavern) and seeking to protect the world from anymore magical bullshit, they attack the party. O’Bannon catches Veitch and hurls him into two of the monks, snapping him out of his hypnotic trance. Veitch gives one of the monks a sock in the jaw, but gets his jacket pulled down around his arms by the second, allowing the monk to gain initiative.

Meanwhile, one of the monks swings at Zelansky with his oil lantern, which the scientist blocks with his camera (he had been taking pictures of the Eye.) With a few style points to avoid failure, he blocks and shatters the lantern’s glass, showering the monk with kerosene and turning him into the Failing Human Torch™ who is promptly kicked unconscious by Pin-Li. The other monks grab weapons from the conveniently positioned weapons racks along the sides of the cavern, and the fight is on! Cointreau nearly gets skewered with a trident, and Pin-Li rushed to aid his friend. O’Bannon gets into a kung fu brawl with another monk, and Na-Sung — sensing his opportunity to get back to his own world — dashes through the Eye!

Veitch follows him, with Cointreau in pursuit, and this spurs Zelansky to dodge monastic attacks and do the same. O’Bannon and Pin-Li fight the monks for another round, then throw themselves through the gate.

On the other side, they find themselves surrounded by young Chinese monks dressed in blue — the color of protection. Another group are bringing a palanquin from which steps a tall, beautiful woman dressed in black leather dress and a cloak. She introduces herself: she is Queen Morana of Shambala!

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We ended there as my voice was starting to go and we needed to chat about the next chapter of the Roman campaign. The gamers that were around for the last iteration of Hollow Earth were given an old ally-turned-nemesis in Morana. She was last seen falling into a pit aroun the great Machine that had kept the Inner World inside Earth. Are they on Atlantia? Or are they somewhere on Earth? What has she been up to for three years? When the players last encountered her, she had been trained by the Emperor of Atlantis to use her sorcerous powers and she had become fond of her position of power.

It was fun to link an old campaign to the new, beyond the central conceit that the Hollow Earth was now a new planet. The new players get a fresh villain, the old players get a returning villain whose new intentions are still unknown. It gives us more Chinese mysticism, mixed with the Atlantis themes built into the Hollow Earth Expedition setting.

Recurring villains are often difficult to pull off in RPGs. The players naturally want to vanquish their foes, and often aren’t fond of letting the big one get away. To build them up, you usually have to keep them off-screen for a long time, as I did with the Emperor. We got more capable henchmen to go through, but ultimately, the group is going to face off against the Big Bad. That gives you a problem. Either the villain needs to be so strong and competent that it takes all of the heroes to finish them off, which often winds up with a vastly imbalanced bad guy; or you have to make sure their attention is scattered, by having a multitude of mooks to keep them from all dog-piling on your freshly introduced villain.

With Mot in the original Hollow Earth Expedition campaign, I went with the latter. He was never encountered without at least a few guards that were competent enough to be a challenge, and Morana — the new baddie. The challenge as good enough that they could not defeat him, and he needed to escape. With Morana, I’m using the same tactic: give them enough bad guys to push through they just can’t overwhelm her. (That and they have no weapons…it handy when in modern[ish] games they don’t just have guns available.)

I also went with the idea that Morana has had three years to mold a fighting force, to study the esoteric knowledge of Shambala, and has become more powerful as a sorceress. However, he main talent has always been to manipulate people through charisma or (now) her enchantment abilities. That she has access to knowledge that Zelansky and Veitch desperately want may be enough to direct the group through a series of adventures, instead of having one big punch up next session.

It should be interesting to see how it goes.

 

I closed out 2017 with a nasty flu that had me down for 14 days. One of the gamers in my group showed up hacking up a lung and like clockwork five days later I was running a fever and coughing up mine. I had a day or two where I felt almost well enough to do a little work on Black Campbell products, but it was a fortnight of no gaming, missed Christmas with the in-laws, and a missed anniversary dinner, and a missed New Years Eve party.

It was a crappy end to, what for me and the others working with me, has been a pretty good year. Black Campbell Entertainment made back its investment on the products we’ve created and (more importantly) everyone has gotten paid, we released our first print book, Queen of the Orient — a guide to ’30s Shanghai, then followed it up with a print version of all our adventure scenarios to date in the bundle Thrilling Action Stories! We’ve got a small board game designed by a 6 year old kid, for kids called Monster Killer! that should be out soon, and a couple of new ’30s pulp adventures, the first of which is going to be Secret of the Jaguar Temple. Progress has been made on the Sky Pirates of the Mediterranean sourcebook for Fate and Ubiquity, which will provide a campaign setting and adventures for sky  pirates and mercenaries in the 1920s and ’30s.

So a Happy holidays and New Year to all of the readers out there, but especially to susan Rhymer, Jim Sorenson, Adam Blahut, Matt Bohnhoff, Chirs Colguin, Bill Forster, and all the others that have made this year so good!

We opened with Marcel Cointreau, or “the Fox”, as his criminal alter ego is known being trapped by the monks of Jyekundo after he had “pumped” one of them for information. Locked inside the guy’s cell, they had to think of a way out. With an excellent Larceny test, he was able, over the space of 15 minutes or so, to peel a section of the door frame away with his swordcane, and get to the latch and open the door.

While he was at that, his ever-faithful but mouthy friend Pin-Li Chen waited at the bottom of the steps to the monastery. Night feel and Chen was starting to get impatient when he heard movement in the trees near the steps up the mountainside. Tracking the nose and doing well with his stealth, Pin-Lee spotted five men in dark clothes climbing the side of the mountain, expertly, until they were near the gate to the monastery. Hoping to upset whatever was afoot, he warned the monk guarding the gate, but this drew action from the dark strangers. One of them silenced the monk before he could raise the alarm with an expert shot from his silenced pistol. More shots forced Pin-Lee to leap over the side of the steps, where he eventually found the ropes the others had used to help them in their ascent. As he climbed back up to meet the men, he noted they were messing with the large wooden gates…he could hear them speaking in German.

As this was happening, O’Bannon the Sky Rat arrived at the Chinese army encampment outside of town where Dr. Zelansky — the American “scientist” they’ve been working for — had been recovering from the attack by Chinese monks on the Nazi camp the night before. The poison was finally wearing off and Zelansky was brought up to speed on the questioning of the monks that were taken captive. His response to hearing that a new playing in Tibet is the ancient monastery of Shianking — the supposed birthplace of the world, itself! If Shianking is involved, they must be ready to head out to its location in the Kunlun Mountains bordering the Soviet Union.

The trip is impossible, O’Bannon pointed out — Rudy, their Douglas Dolphin seaplane only has a range of 680 miles…that’s about the same range as the mountains, on the other side of the Tibetan Plateau; the chances of carrying enough fuel to return is highly improbable. But the Nazis have a Boeing 247D — with a range of 750 miles that could be extended with extra fuel bladders. It might be enough to get them there, and most of the way back to a Chinese outpost. Also, the owner of the plane would be unlikely to just hand it over…

They head back to Rudy only to see an explosion on the side of the monastery! Quickly, they head for their plane. They need to gather what they need and get to the Boeing before the Chinese army locks the place down! On approach to the plane, however, they see movement outside the rear door… Veitch has been cracking the codes their nemesis Obersturmbahnfuhrer Werner keeps his notes and communiques in. He has learned the Germans have cracked the issues with their “saucer” using standard airplane motors, but that “crystals are essential” to the weaponry, and finding a way to Atlantia — the former Hollow Earth now orbiting the sun 20 degrees behind Earth — to collect more is imperative.

That’s when the grenade, a German “potato masher” comes through the door. With some style point expenditures, Veitch caught the grenade and hucked it back at the German, only to have it explode in the toilet of the plane (but absorbing much of the blast. His assailant then opened up with his Steyr MP34 submachinegun, grazing Veitch. By this point, O’Bannon and Zelansky were close enough to take shots at the man. With a lucky hit from his Webley, O’Bannon dropped the Nazi, who used the shallow river to get under the plane and to the other side, out of sight.

Veitch recovered his coilgun from the nose of the plane, while O’Bannon circled around to find the bad guy. Zelansky, exuberantly, rode his horse into the river, shouting a warning to Veitch that allowed the young man to avoid a burst through the fuselage, and return it with his coilgun — shredding a hole in the fuselage and the Nazi. Whatever is going on, the truce between Werner’s men and the American-led team is over. Gathering up their gear, O’Bannon instructs Veitch to get Rudy up and head for Chengdu, about 180 miles south on the Mekong; the plane can just make it. He and the others will meet him there. O’Bannon and Zelansky, armed with Veitch’s Tommy gun and the dead Nazi’s Steyr, head back for the Boeing, hoping to pay the owner off…or take the plane.

In the monastery, the Cointreau and his new friend, Ni-Sung the Vril, head for the exit, fighting a monk here, outrunning a few there. In the main audience chamber, in front of the massive Buddha statue, they are surrounded. The tulku, Chudak, tells them they cannot be allowed to find the Eye of Shambala…Cointreau throws a conveniently placed brass Buddha at the tulku, who catches it and throws it back. Cointreau (spending style) catches it and knocks down one of the monks in their path through the front doors to the main courtyard. With monks in pursuit, they dash into the coutryard…only to have the gates explode from the charge Werner’s men placed.

Cointreau finds himself momentarily disoriented, thinking he’s back in the Great War at the Battle of Armiens…but no, Werner’s men are using submachine guns and drop a few of the monks, intimidating the rest into surrendering. Without pause, Werner walks up to the tulku and stabs him in the neck with a hypodermic needle. He has one of his men pick up the man and they retreat, with Cointreau and Ni-Sung in tow. Pin-Lee meets up with his friend, and they head back for Rudy, while Werner’s assault group heads back for the plane. Below, they can see the entire Kuomintang camp is up and readying for action.

On the way back, they run into O’Bannon and Zelansky. Cointreau heads for Rudy with Ni-Sung, while Pin-Lee jumps onto the back of Zelansky’s horse to help stop Werner and take the plane. The horses allow them to catch up quickly, and O’Bannon is nearly kiled by a burst from Werner’s gun. The other Nazi fells Zelansky’s horse, but not before Pin-Lee rolls off and rushes that second bad guy. With a fantastic roll, he walks up the guy’s chest, kicks him unconscious, and lands gracefully…only to find Werner has him in his sights. Before he can shoot, however, Zelansky blasts Werner with the MP34. With O’Bannon badly trailing with a shot in the ribs, they catch the other Germans as they are dumping the tulku into the 247D. Before the bad guys can get a shot, and thanks to a lot of style points, Pin-Lee charges them, and with a shoulder roll past them, pulls the pins on two of their grenades.

BOOM! All three bad guys are down.

Pin-Lee boards the plane and then ruins his bad-ass streak by biffing the intimidation test vs. the pilot, Ma Cho. Just as he is about to blast the martial artist, O’Bannon gets to the door and offers to pay him to get them all out of here. the nazis are gone and the Chinese army are fast approaching! Ma doesn’t need convincing. They hop in and launch.

Oh…and they have the tulku, who is shot up with something that has addled him and made him prone to talking — about the location of the Eye of Shambala, and the danger they think it represents: the last person to be able to activate it did so shortly before the “Ghost World” (Atlantia) emerged from the Earth. Only those with ancient blood can do this. They fid out he has a device that can detect these descendants…some kind of crystal. the fear of Shianking — once a mystical center of learning, but now rumored to have been corrupted by dark forces.

Aboard Rudy, Veitch takes off, but the river has dropped since they landed and a few style points get the seaplane off the ground, but they rip up her undercarriage and tear off a pontoon. They can’t do a water landing, but they can crank down the landing gear for a terrestrial landing.

Two hours later, the planes are on the ground and they formulate their plans: Zelansky offers Ma twice the value of his Boeing to take Rudy back to Shanghai and deliver the intelligence they’ve gathered (and the plane to the Sky Rats); he gladly sells! They strip the Boeing for room to put in extra fuel, repair Rudy so it can get home, and send the tulku with Ma so as to buy themselves time — because they have a destination now: Zelansky knows where the Eye of Shambala is hidden! During their preparations, they learn something even more stunning — the crystal the tulku had glows when Veitch is near it! He has ancient blood!?! Now they not only know where the Eye is…they have the key to open it!

 

 

We’re working on the Sky Pirates of the Mediterranean, featuring the Foreign Volunteer Force we highlighted in the Queen of the Orient sourcebook. There might be a few small setting books coming for their activities during the War against the Soviets, as well as their actions in South America.

Some of the folks in our gaming group have been playing characters in the Sky Rats, and this has led to the creation of tee-shirts…

sky rat shirt.jpegOnce I’ve had a look at the test shirt — if it meets standards, we’ll have an online shop for them. I’m thinking of doing a few different ones for the FVF Shanghai, FVF HQ Gibraltar, and FVF Fiume. I’m thinking of playing cards, as well — that’s stated to be one of the merchandise the Sky Rats sell in Queen of the Orient.

It’s looking like Black Campbell’s going to need a real storefront online soon…