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.

 

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