Last week I finally got my new 1930s pulp game fired up. It’s been a few months coming, but the momentum in the Battlestar Galactica game was such that i wanted to push through to the “season finale” which allowed me to write a major character out as the player was leaving for San Francisco. I chose to use Hollow Earth Expedition again, although I was sorely tempted to use Cortex or the old James Bond: 007 RPG for the rules set.
One of the issues was trying to get the characters to mesh well. I’m the only person with a strong grasp of the period, so I did most of the heavy lifting on character creation for the players, weaving the history of the preceding years into the characters — two served in WWI together, the aristocrat character spent a lot of time in Africa with the “Happy Valley Set” — known for their promiscuous sex life, rampant drug use, and other scandals; and tying how the Great Depression affected them or their families. With the characters well established came the hard part…how to get them together?
There’s a few ways to do this — I like teasers that introduce the players to their characters in little vignettes that showcase their strengths, weaknesses, and basic schtick. (A classic one is the teaser in Raiders of the Lost Ark.) That seemed like it would suck up too much time in this instance, and several initial ideas fell flat. Another good way is to start in media res — where the story is already under way. Open with either an action sequence or some aspect of the story. The basic mission is either revealed during play, or the players were prepped for it before play. Most teasers start in media res, but usually don’t have a direct connection to the main story. I decided for the later, with the characters meeting at the Travellers’ Club in London after the “lead” — a tomb raider named Tom Steele — had already retrieved the item central to the plot.
This brings up the last point…what brings the group together? For a military or espionage setting, you can make that easy: they are assigned to a mission together. For a superhero game, maybe they’re part of the same team. What kind of mission would get an aristocratic occultist/pornographer, his two-fisted manservant, and an slick-dressing and talking American tomb raider who was tossed from Oxford together, then get them out to China? I tried a few different ideas, but they all fell flat. What I needed was what Alfred Hitchcock called ‘a McGuffin.”
What’s a McGuffin? This is the thing that brings everyone together for an adventure, and the characters can have different reasons for engaging with the object. The most famous is probably the Maltese Falcon. In the book and the 1941 film, the Maltese Falcon is supposed to be a gold falcon that has been painted black. All the characters get roped into the action because they want the falcon, or in the case of Sam Spade (Humphrey Bogart in the film), he’s a private dick hired for a case that starts playing all sides off each other. Rosebud, the sled from Citizen Kane, is another: “Rosebud” is the last word spoken by the lead character and a reporter tries to track down what it pertains to. The Death Star plans, the Lost Ark — these are McGuffins. They might be central to the action, a red herring, or something that is, ultimately, unimportant beyond being the impetus for the story (think the briefcase in the trunk in Repo Men, or the diamond from Titanic.)
While doing some reading, I came across an interesting bit of old Chinese culture — the “death jade”, usually a small carving of a cicada, which is supposed to take ones spirit to its final resting place (or close enough.) Some were alleged to be used to store the spirit until resurrection. I took this idea, fused it with another idea concerning the Huangdi, the First Sovereign Emperor, and his quest for the Elixir of Immortality. What if the Huangdi’s death jade held his spirit? What happens if it’s used in a summoning?
And there was the first night. Pull the characters together for a summoning at a common friend’s house in Hampstead Heath. The summoning, rather than being the usual excuse for drink and debauchery turns out to work, with the acquaintance being possessed by the spirit of the emperor. Before people can react to the glowing eyed possessed man, enter the competition — in this case a bunch of black outfitted wushu-fighting types. the resulting fight in the library of the country house was classic Hong Kong chop socky meets Indiana Jones. Of course the bad guys get the death jade, meaning the tomb raider (who has not gotten his full pay yet) has to go after it. The occultist wants it for the obvious power.
The fight led outside to a car chase with a bunch of the bad guys on “hoopcycles” — a one-wheeled “motorcycle” — through the streets of London, and down into the Underground. This long action set piece took most of the night and was a blast.
Who are the bad guys? I had a vague idea. Why do they want it? They can guess. This week, i get to fill out the particulars and get them started on their way to China.