It’s been a week or two since I’ve done one of these: our group has been continuing their Hollow Earth Expedition campaign titled Thilling Action Stories! (exclamation mark absolutely neccesary!) This is the campaign set in 1936/37 Shanghai and has revolved mainly abou the search for a mellified man, and the attendent troubles they’ve had keeping a hold of the thing.

The latest snag was the introduction of new (hopefully recurring) villain Hanoi Shan — based on the original character from the 1920s. He’s was a native colonial administrator in French Indochina, and is now the head of the Silk Mountain Triad (for our game) and a master chemist and villain. Shan was interested in the mellified man as a means to pursue not just quick-heal medicines, but longevity drugs. He combines Chinese magic and lachemy with Western chemistry and science for the usual 1930s Pulp “science” (best personified by the Red Skull in the latest Captain America.)

Having raided the hideout of Hanoi Shan, hidden in a wing of an operational textile mill, the characters rescued Dr. Drake (who had been captured in a massive raid on the Silk Mountain Triad hideout by the Shanghai Municipal Police, lead by the corrupt cop PC Inspector Ned Shrapnel. They also got into a classic fight-in-laboratory, complete with acid-filled beakers, loads of glassware with weird colored stuff in them, and the inevitable fire that gets started in the the fray. In the end, they rescued Drake — who had been tortured using a combination of hypnosis and drugs — but the factory burned to the ground with their mellified man and a massive gun shipment meant for the Kuomintang of another character (a Chinese gangster.) They also accidentally killed a bunch of prisoners under the building, the results of some of Shan’s experiments — the horror aspect of this has had to be put on hold, as a result, until next time.

In this, Dr. Drake managed to escape at the last minute by somehow turning one of Shan’s (of course) female assassins. This is the second time he’s turned a female assassin sent after him — it’s turning out very James Bond in that aspect, and I suspect it’ll be his signature move soon. (Eventually, that means he’ll have to run into his Fiona Volpe, doesn’t it..?)

A lot of the background on the mission revolves around the split authority in Shanghai. For the raid a few weeks ago, they were working with the SMP in the International Settlement, but the original theft took place in Chinese Shanghai, and the textile mill debacle in Pudong, across the river in China proper. They’ve frequently got to cross lines of control with ID checks and other issues, and even the SMP can give them trouble, as there are several nations participating in the police int he International Settlement…not all of them working for the same goals (the Japanese, most specifically.)

This has meant a lot of politicking — particularly for the Chinese gangster character who lost the gun shipment, and now either has to make good to his boss in the Green Gang and to the Public Security Bureau of the KMT (the police in Chinese Shanghai), or they lose their big connection to the government and criminal elements. This has lead them to work on stealing a bunch of guns from the regular Chinese army to resell to the PSB, and to muddy the waters and make themselves look less guilty, they are buying other guns from a White Russian competitor with ties to the Japanese in an attempt to pin the theft on him and remove him from play. This has meant running around the various environs of the city trying to coordinate a major theft and slight of hand while moving through the areas of control of the various powers — Chinese, French, and International Settlement (Japanese and British, mostly.)

The realism I’m trying to introduce here has required serious study of the city in the time period, and the urge is to throw it all at the wall…when you are creating verisimilitude like this you don’t want to chuck everything at the characters at once — hold back on the cool information about the nightsoil collectors (or what have you) until it matters. You can foreshadow some of that, of course, but don’t turn your game into a history lesson on the subject.

The setting of a split control city is turning out to be a good one. You could do much the same with Berlin of Vienna after WWII. The zones of control mean fleeing authorities by crossing those borders can help the characters, but you can also use it as a foil — are your papers in order? Is there a warrant for your arrest? Did you bribe the right guys? How do you move materiel between French controlled Vienna and British-controlled Vienna? Who the hell is in charge of what? It makes just every day chores challenging. (For a good example of how this can work, rent The Third Man with Joseph Cotten and Orson Wells. It’s about gun running in Vienna in 1949.)