I discussed this particular game in another post, but that was aimed more at the idea of reusing old game ideas. Still, for those readers who frequent the site, there will be a lot of reused verbiage.
We had brought on a new player, one of the core group was away on vacation, so I thought I’d try them out on Hollow Earth Expedition. It had been four years since the death of the marvelously over-the-top Shanghai Campaign. We’d made a few abortive attempts to get a new campaign going, but the characters and the players just weren’t connecting. So, using the bones of a one-shot I ran for a Meetup RPG group, I put together a “backdoor pilot” using the same basic plot — the characters were looking for an academic that was 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.
Here the missing fellow is Lord 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, and I wanted the new player to be the “lead” for the game. Her character: 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. She’s a Beryl Markham sort of “damn it all, let’s have some fun!” sort.
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, complete with a strange metal eye altar or icon (with the iris being an open space big enough for a few people to go through) — see the cover of Revelations of Mars for what I’m talking about.
They try to figure out some of the mysteries of the place, but the cameras don’t 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 named David Gould, 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!) The Eye firing up spooks the apes, who run away. 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 player in question preferred the Gould character when asked. So this week, when that player away again, I had us return to Equatorial Guinea and Mangani, right at the point we’d left off: they’d come back through the Eye to find the apes had decamped, fleeing the city…but that was not all: landscape around the city seemed discolored and twisty, and the buildings of the city itself seemed to be moving. Whenever they looked away, things had changed.
Lord Trevor went to scout and see if other apes were around. Bose looked at the inscriptions on the walls for more information. But quickly it was obvious that something dangerous was occurring — the very geometry of the buildings was wrong! They looked for an found Lord Trevor in another of the larger buildings, a minaret-like spire. Inside, a red glowing, crystal (never good) was in his hand and when he addressed them, he told them they hadn’t much time.
“I’ve been sleeping a long time… I never expected one of my own to find me. (This to Gould.) It is time I return, before those that cast me out realize I have awaken.” When they try to find out what is possessing Trevor, he remarks “I can only wear this face for a short time. I’ve had so many, over the years, but this karn is old and will not handle the strain for long.” When asked what his real face was, he doesn’t even remember. Those that once worshipped him called him the Faceless One. “The city is returning home. We must not wait.” He took them to the temple and the Eye, where he casts the crystal through to some place of red sands and pink sky. “You must go. The city will disappear soon…” and with that he releases Trevor. The heroes hot foot it out of the city just as it folds and twists and pops out of existence.
The few Spaniards who had escaped when the apes ran, having seen the whole thing, take the characters into custody and question them at the local logging compound. In the end, no one really knows what to make of the situation — the Spanish saw the city disappear, the apes flee into the jungle. While they have issue with Trevor’s actions, and they suspect that the character may or may not have been involved in violence against their people, how the hell are they going to spin any of this? And the characters can’t really make too much of the Spanish actions, white apes, or a missing city. No one will believe it!
Released, the characters flee back down the river and eventually get to Fernando Po, where Bose’s S-36 is moored and fly home to England. On the way, the group decides they aren’t letting this go — they hit the British Library to quietly start looking for references to the Eye in literature and history; Trevor and Gustav talk to the Royal Geographical Society about the apes and to try and find anyone who claims to have encountered a creature like the one Gus shot.
In the end, they had a few leads — an eccentric mountain climber and hunter named Kinnie, preparing for his attempt of the Eiger in Switzerland had claimed to have shot a “dinosaur” in Venezuela; the others found references to the Eye in the Potala Palace of the Dalai Lama in the autobiography of Francis Younghusband (now the chairman for the Himalaya Exploration Committee of the RGS), and another reference in the crazy works of Thule Society founder Rudolf von Sebottendorf (recently arrested in Germany, but escaped, and allegedly in Switzerland, as well…)
So with one quick toss off adventure, I now have two lines of attack for a campaign — the Tibetan mystical one, or the Venezuelan jungles.
It’s a sharp break from the long running space opera of the last half decade, but I’m hoping this time it’ll catch fire with the players.