Well, we’ve made to the Hollow Earth in our Hollow Earth Expedition campaign (or have we..?) So it’s time to start working on what my version looks like. To that end, I spent the weekend digging through the Mysteries of the Hollow Earth sourcebook to see what Jeff Combos and the boys at Exile did with it. The last time i ran the game, we never got out of 1930s China, save for a short adventure on the East Coast of the US. This time I’ve committed myself to go full pulp, so Hollow Earth (or is it Venus? Or an alternate reality?) it is.

The characters had gone through an eye-like Stargate-ish artifact called the Eye of Shambala that was stored under the Potala Palace in Tibet and emerged in a setting cribbed from the Shangri-La in the Uncharted series of video games (I haven’t played them, but the visuals are great…and look to be highly influenced by the Shangri-La of Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow.)

A few of the things I’ve already started playing with:

Shangri-La — is this it? Or is it actually on the Surface World but only accessible through the Eye? This place looks uninhabited, which would fly in the face of the paradisiacal valley where people live long, idyllic lives.

How much dinosaur? Is the whole of the place dinosaur filled, or only certain bits?

The big one was how to incorporate Buddhist and Hindu mythology into the setting. Seems appropriate that sections of the Hollow Earth (or is it?) would have “nations” of a fashion — places where the devas and asuras ruled, places where their cousins, the Æsir and Vanir, or the Titans/Olympians might have ruled. We know the Atlanteans were around, but are these the same people as folks of Ultima Thule, or Hyperboreans? (Answer: no…and yes.)

That leads to the two races I know are going to have to get used — the Titans and the Vril-ya. The Titans don’t work for me. I see where they were going, but I’d rather go with these being the direct descendants of the creatures humans on the Surface World once called gods, but brought low by their own infighting. Perhaps a few of the old codgers are still around and ruling little fiefdoms? I also wanted to do a tie to the Mars from Revelations of Mars — and the Dheva are the link there.

The multi-armed thing works well with the Hindu angle. Perhaps the people of Mars and the Titans have a common lineage? One might be the experimental product of the other? It would also be a good reason for the animal-people of the Hollow Earth: all this is the result of the Titans or old gods playing around?

As for the Vril-ya — I’m not sure I want to use the “official” version. I think they might have to be modified to be the Atlanteans/Thule/Hyperboreans. Maybe they were caught in the crossfire of the War Between Gods?

I’m still musing on where I want to go with this, but I tend to be a sucker for using mythology in my games (the Battlestar Galactica campaign took a sharp turn into Greek myth coupled with transhumanism.) and the idea of playing with Hinduism is alluring, especially as their gods die and are reborn.

I had dinner last night with a gaming buddy I occasionally play with here in Albuquerque last night. We got talking about the various stuff we’ve been playing, what we’ve wanted to play, and I mentioned that the Battlestar Galactica game that’s dominated my group’s sessions for years was coming to an end. He pointed out I’ve been attempting to wrap this for a few years, and he’s right…but I just couldn’t bring myself to do it.

This past week, the rag-tag fleet reached Earth, 4 years and 9 months after the campaign first got restarted with a crappy pilot session about people going missing from a mining outpost on the Armistice Line. (I found the date on my computer’s calendar: 27 April 2011 — just ten days after my daughter was born…) There’s still a few episodes left, mind you, but the main conceit of the game — reaching Earth and (hopefully) safe harbor is the subject of next week’s session. Other than a few more loose ends to tie up, the game is over. My friend, at this point, bet me $20 I don’t finish by March. How could I resist?

But now I have a hard date for the finish of the game: February 25, 2016.

For five years, this campaign has dominated my life. Discussing it with one of the players during the ride home the other night, we were talking about the game. It is the longest continuous campaign I’ve ever run; it was the longest campaign he’s ever played in. During the course of the game, it moved from a Cold War conspiracy-style setting, to a military and post-apocalyptic setting, to an increasingly science-fiction setting mixed with Greek mythology, to a political thriller, and then hard into transhumanist science fiction. There have been players that have come and gone, but we two had been playing from the start, and three main players since the Fall of the Colonies, about three and a half years…the characters are rich, well-developed; the setting feels lived in, realistic — despite the increasing science fiction aspects; it’s been, I feel safe to say, epic.

There were a few really big risks I took. Early on, I threw out canon from the reimagined show, but kept the good stuff from the setting. The Adamas were not the focus; the player characters took the place Apollo and Starbuck and the commander.  A bigger risk was going with “the Blaze” elements that got cut from Kobol’s Last Gleaming (a mistake, in my opinion); the “angry god” that destroyed the harmony of God and Man became the main antagonist, and the humanoid Cylons became “Seraph” — his “messengers” and replacements for the Lords of Kobol, Hades’ “family” whom he missed. I brought in Athena to replace a popular NPC and though I’d really screwed the pooch doing it. After a few sessions, it was obviously better. And in the end, I think I may have run my best game in the 37(!!!) years I’ve been playing RPGs.

Better than the excellent Babylon 5 game that was the first time I tried to do a coherent, planned out story arc. Better than the surprisingly good and long-lived Star Trek game at the start of the aughties, after I moved back to Albuquerque. Better than the very good espionage and Victorian sci-fi games from the ’90s, or the uproariously fun Shanghai campaign for Hollow Earth Expedition that faded away after this gam started.e..and like a good TV series, I want to see how it ends, but I don’t want it to stop.

Now the question — the same one I’ve been trying to work my way through for about six months, once I realized how close we were to the end — is “what next?” Or maybe more appropriately, “How do I top this?” and I suspect that’s my big mistake when thinking about the next games. I didn’t set out to top myself with Galactica, I just wanted to do the best game I could for people.

I sent out an email to the group, looking to see what they wanted to play or run. The newest player likes to GM, I was hoping to coax her into the center seat, but we’ll see. The big favorite seems to be a cyberpunkish sci-fi game, Atomic Robo, and I’m thinking I’d like to take a crack at either Space:1889 or Hollow Earth Expedition‘s Revelations of Mars settings, but I think that’s it for space opera for a while.

Here’s a video of Operation Black Swan which effected the capture of “El Chapo” Guzman. It’s helmet cam footage and should give you a good idea of how to describe combat sequences in your game.

It’s chaotic even if you had a good plan. It’s loud and disorienting, even when you know what to expect. (It would be no different with swords and magic — fighting is loud and confusing.) If you want to get the feel of the thing, concentrate less on the number of 10′ squares in the room; no one is pausing to say “gee, this looks to be a 50×20′ room, I now know my fireball will do…”

You might even misdraw the map for the initial portion of the fight, then reapportion the dimensions as people move through and realize it’s bigger/small than they thought; drop things on them that “should have been visible” (really, what could you see in portions of that video that were well lit?) They blow a perception (or whatever you’re calling it) test and that guy/goblin/alien/whatever that was hiding pretty much in plain sight gets the better of you. Damn that wizard for flashing his damn light spell right in your eyes! Or crap, my large friend with the two handed-sword didn’t realize I was inside the arc of his swing when he cut that monster in half; or Johnny over on Team C was a bit out of position and you thought he was the bad guy…good thing he had kevlar on.

Make it murky, stressful, and confusing.

While working on the other post Blood on the Deck: Combat in RPGs, I had a paragraph I later pulled to tighten the focus of the article, but something about it stuck with me. Blood on the Deck talks about the centrality of combat in many RPGs and their adventures. That leads to the paragraph in question:

…[M]ost RPGs are analogous to action movies. There can be philosophy, and deep character growth, and political or social commentary, but in the end the monster is going to kill folks/the protagonist is going to throw down with the bad guy/the heroes are going to have to overcome the [pick your disaster]/or the crew is going to pull of that “one last job…” Depending on what the denouement is, that should be the focus of the rolling and the description in the game.

Action movies are about action. You dogfight the evil galactic empire. You find and kill the monster (and steal its treasure.) You find the big bad and throw down, preferably in a secret volcano base. But they’re not always about fighting, and neither do your games need to be.

If you are exploring, the big denouement can be climbing a mountain or escaping the avalanche. You could be navigating your ship through a particularly nasty maneuver near Jupiter. It could be the heist (with or without fighting) requiring climbing and sneaking and safecracking. It could be a car/horse/airplane/boat chase. This is the focus of the adventure

The focus is where the game should move in, get close to the characters emotionally, but also this should be where the most time is spent. The buildup to the focus can be interesting, but these are the things that — unless tied to the finale — can be glossed over with a “did you succeed or no” sort of roll. An excellent example of this in a movie is the recent The Man from UNCLE, which made some really intriguing choices in the action sequences. Most of the focus is on the character interaction, the action is mostly handled quickly unless it ties to the characters’ motivations. There is a sneak and peak scene at the Vinciguerra Yards. They need to find evidence of a nuclear bomb. Most of the action is to show the strengths and weaknesses of the skills and character of the two leads — Solo and Kuryakin. Once they find the bit of evidence, it’s a quick escape, followed by a boat chase/fight that we see mostly in reflections on the window of a truck after Solo has fallen off the boat and swam to shore. It’s funny and shows Solo moving from casual indifference to the people he’s working with to a grudging respect and desire to do the right thing. The fight is just there to help him get from Point A to B.

This might have been well emulated with a few tests to show the two PC’s skills: a stealth roll, a roll to defeat the fence, the door; a test to knock out the guard; a test to overcome the safe. A few tests to run away and exchange some shots with guards, then a some kind of discipline or willpower test for Solo while watching Kuryakin’s boat getting sunk.

By comparison, the raid on the bad guy castle is handled in quick, ’60s split screen that could have been handled with a single test to overcome the guards defenses. It’s not about the characters; they are part of a bigger action piece. It’s over very quickly, and the action slows and focuses of the two once they find evidence of the bomb and have to rescue Gabrielle, their MI6 partner. It’s about the people. In a game, you might run the basic raid as a contest of Tactics or a combat skill to lead the commandos, then slow down to do a few investigation-style tests, before launching on the bike/ATV vs. Jeep scene, where you would want multiple rolls to emulate the need to use the terrain to try and close on the escaping bad guy.

What’s the focus in your game or adventure? That’s where the players should be rolling to heighten suspense and give them chances to shine by doing things their characters would do. Is it a heist? A quick sneak test to climb the wall, get through the window, and past the guards unseen might do…but if the point is to rob the place, you should have tests that show that: a climbing test — oh, crap! the rain gutter is corroded!, another to open the window three stories up without falling, another to incapacitate or slip past the guard, another to crack the safe…

Is the character a “driver” — the final “fight” should be a car chase, using the environment to battle each other until the good guy escapes or best the other driver. Is the final objective for the character’s socialite to best her rival in verbal combat at a dinner and win the affection of Lord Stuffinpants? You get the picture — focus on the point of the story, and let the other stuff take a back seat.

Since the early days of role playing games, fighting has been a central theme or the specific purpose of play. This is no surprise for a hobby that grew out of wargaming — the simulation of warfare through the use of maps, dice, and complicated rules regarding the various elements of combat. Look at any game book pre-1990 (and even a few today), and you will often see combat takes up more pages in the rules than the basic mechanics of play: modifiers for range, for being prone, for fatigue or injury, for ammo or blade types, explosives and other area weapons, environmental condition, and on and on… Even in games that are oriented more toward social activities, you eventually get into verbal jousting. Some games go so far as to have mental “damage” you can take from a harsh word or brilliant insult.

In a game, in the end, it’s usually easier to search a room, drive a car, negotiate a price, or hack a computer system, than it is to pull a knife on a guy. Complexity ramps up the instant the fight starts, from the use of initiative (you don’t tend to have to throw dice to decide if you got the last box of Klondike Bars in the supermarket…but that kinda sounds fun, now that I think about it.) Some games look to limit this disparity in complexity. In Fate, you can have a simple challenge between players or players and GM — one roll to beat the two mooks guarding the door. You win the roll, they’re down and you’re in; you lose, take a complication or get “taken out” in some way. some are even more abstract.

The keys to a successful fight scene can be summed up by looking at the difference between two (recent) movies — Quantum of Solace and John Wick. Both have great action sequences…or should. QoS follows the Greengrass “Jason Bourne” style of close shots, quick cuts, and shaky camera action to heighten the sense of danger and confusion of a fight. It is a great way for a guy who doesn’t know how to shoot fight scenes to get a fast-paced, seemingly vicious scene on the screen. The choreography could be excellent, but you wouldn’t know it; your experience of the fight is truncated to claustrophobic space and frenetic movement — not unlike a real fight, where you are tripping over things, missing when you throw punches, bouncing off of people and things.

This method of description in an RPG is best handled by not using more than the most basic of maps, if that Descriptions of the space the fight occurs in should be short, pointed, and designed to either increase peril (that floor-to-ceiling window with the ten story drop outside, for instance), or for use by the character (“you land on the coffee table next to the heavy-looking brass lamp…”) The environment and the actions come into the character/player’s perception as needed to keep the action flowing. It is particularly good for certain kinds of large-scale combat, as well, where the character doesn’t have a complete view of the field, lacks a complete understanding of the objectives, and is being pummeled with the sensory input of war — explosions, smoke, dirt, blood, screams, panic — to the point where they focus too tightly on certain things. (The excellent initial scene of Saving Private Ryan does this very well.)

A game system that does this well is Fate: where fights happen in “zones.” Zones aren’t necessarily consistent in their scale, but are instead defined by a few bits of scenery (aspects) to give the environment character. Here, the players can use the aspect in ways that give the fight the quality we discussed above. Say your intrepid police are staging a raid. Two PCs are involved, and enter a large warehouse from different directions with their teams. Player A goes through a side door into Zone 1: “Cavernous warehouse” while Player B goes through the front door into Zone 2: “Small, cramped reception area”. While A might engage in a firefight with badguys on the ubiquitous “second story catwalks” and “sparsely located crates”, B must get past the tight doors and furnishings of the reception room to Zone 3: “tight corridor with small offices on either side” in which bad guys lie in wait. the ranges are tight and personal, and the details might be lost in the action.

The other end of the spectrum is the surprisingly good John Wick, which was made by stuntmen and film makers tired of the Greengrassian shaky camera fight scenes. All the fight scenes are beautifully choreographed, but still look fairly realistic. They are shot medium frame, so you can see what the hell is going on, and only dive to close shots to show injury or characters grappling. The environments are there to be used for the fight: the rack of something you can knock over to stall your opponent getting to you, or to distract/injure; the pool that you can fall into for the grappling underwater schtick; the stairs — so nice to toss (or get tossed) down your enemy; columns or crates to hide behind. The fights show the character thinking his way through the fight — prioritizing the closer or faster moving enemies for a quick, non-fatal gunshot, to slow them while he takes out the guy at the end of the hall, then returns to the closer baddie. Similarly, the famed hallway fight in Daredevil (the Netflix one, not the…shudder…) does something similar.

In doing combat this way, you’ll want to either give an excellent description of the fight space, or have a solid map for the characters to use, so that they can strategize their actions. This is the traditional Dungeons & Dragons approach: battlemap, minis, well-estabilshed scale. This would work particularly well for the above example of “Zone 1” — the massive interior of the two-story warehouse lets the character find a place to pause and assess before they leap in. A better map, showing the I-beam supports, the locations of crates or vehicles parked inside, the catwalks overhead, the stairs up, the location of the  tilting windows on the upper floor, etc. could be filled in to allow this player to have a more clear picture of what is going on than Player B in the dark, tight corridor with people spilling out of the offices on either side.

The key to describing combat in your game is to decide what the emotional and stylistic beats you want or need.

The latest “episode” of our Battlestar Galactica campaign was a response to how the game had been progressing with our last big action piece on New Ophiuchi. The characters had a bunch of stuff they wanted to do with their characters that probably could have been glossed over, but we 1) have a new player and I want to give her time to develop her characters, 2) there’s opportunities for good character development around the horn, and 3) it gave me the opportunity to do some development of NPCs.

Following their confirmation that the Cylons hadn’t done anything nefarious with the TITAN shard on the planet, and their recovery of a few of the Seraph from the Seeker ship that they had found in the middle of the dead from a huge battle between Cylons and Seraph.

In the end, they discover that the Seeker ship was the last of her kind, a museum of sorts to the early attempts to force conversion of the scattered human populations to worship of the Blaze. When the centurions revolted, a massive civil war rocked Kobol (prior to Galactica‘s arrival and the destruction of the planet by Athena) and a few thousand Seraph rescued their Kobol-human charges and fled to the stars.

The original intent of the episode (named “Eros and Angst”) was to give some small character vignettes and look for the Seeker ship. What we wound up with was a “talking abut our feelings” episode, where we had veered sharply away from the plot to focus on the characters. For some GMs and players, this can be frustrating. You set up a mission/adventure and suddenly the characters are…talking. This, however, is a good thing. The players are getting comfortable with their characters and the setting, and are interacting with both. This — to my mind — is the entire purpose of role playing games; this is an activity not just for killing monster and taking their stuff (although there is certainly a play for that), but for escaping your life to be someone else…even if it’s just in your head.

The evening started with the characters visiting those NPCs that had been gored pretty badly in the last two evenings. One was a young viper pilot who lost his hand in the fight with the Cylons, another was a Three from the Seeker fleet they had rescued after she had interposed herself between Hermes and a horde of rampaging Cylons.

I’m very pleased I got to use the phrase “horde of rampaging…”

This gave us a chance to see the new PC, Alala — a Seraph that had been involved in the scene where the pilot, “Spaz”, lost his hand to a centurion — start to really form a connection with her human counterparts. The CAG, “Boss”, showed a snese of responsibility and guilt for Spaz’s injuries, but also extended her kindness to the Three she hadn’t even met. She’s the face of this “alliance” between the humans and Seraph, and how the walls are breaking down between them. We got to see Hermes, the Kobolian, have a moment with the Three he’s dubbed “Soteria” (savior)…it’s rare that they’ve had people throw themselves in front of bullets, much less a creature that sees them as false gods and frightening. It’s had a real impact on the “god’s” psyche.

The admiral, Pindarus, had his time in the spotlight. He’s attempting to maintain a relationship with Athena, who is ever less human and more herself. She has been thrust into a role as leader, but is trying to keep the pretense she is here to advise…while dispensing justice to the miscreants in the fleet.

There was a meeting after a few days time between all the ship captains to cover the raft of stuff the characters thought they should do. They wanted to salvage what they could from the battlefield over New Ophiuchi, so the captains talked about the swag they found, the repairs, the dead recovered, but also talked about the search for the Seeker (not yet successful.) Nike (now a PC) sat in to represent Athena, and made her suggestions plain to the folks there. It was a nice “champing at the bit” moment where this superior being was becoming annoyed at an (unnecessarily?) subordinate position.

During the meeting, it became obvious to Nike that there was something wrong with the basestar commander, Tana, another Three. We’d established that the Kobolians are, essentially, as good a biological “human” as can be engineered, and one of their traits is a sort of ability to just know the probabilities of genetics with a look at, or a whiff of scent from, people. She knows immediately the Seraph is pregnant. Pindarus, who she’s been sleeping with, is the obvious father. This is a great set up for drama between Pindarus and Athena, as well as between Tana and Pindarus, and their respective people — there are still plenty that are not happy with the alliance on both sides and they might view this union as problematic. Pindarus, however, sees opportunity in this to create a strong symbol of unity. I suspect the seeds of a dynasty are in the offing…

Where the evening when “off track” was when Nike took a trip through the Hall of Remembrance with Boss. The sight of the thousands upon thousands of pictures of loved ones and places, the votives, the little notes, hits her very hard. The player did a great job here as the “goddess” realizes that these people have lost everything, and that their wee ships and few tens of thousands of people are it; all the eggs are in one basket. (It also is a good moment for her to realize that her own people are similarly placed — a few dozen on a lonely, cold outpost world from thousands of years ago [Argos], and the Seraph, too, are in the same boat…all these versions of humanity scrambling to find safe harbor somewhere…)

Nike drags Boss to the” off-the-books, but everyone knows where it is” speakeasy on Galactica to get roaring drunk — difficult with her physiology — and it wound up with a very drunk Nike decrying their situation and grousing about Athena in a lovely moment of “resentment for the smarter/better sister” that twined with her frustration at the Cycle of Time and her not knowing all the ins and outs that Athena might know. It was good roleplaying and made Nike seem a real creature.

This is all the more admirable when you research Nike and realize that in the old myths she had the depth of a greeting card. She is obviously an older iteration of Athena, not fleshed out. The player took this shadow of the Goddess of War and made her real in a half hour of drunken tirade that took the game off the main course, but into a thicket of great character development.

This is when “talking about our feelings” sessions get good. I would suggest when they happen, don’t fight it, don’t try to pull them back on track, but let the players explore their characters for a while, instead of the world.

[Ed. I know the player in question reads the blog, so if you want to comment on what processes you were using to develop Nike, please do. SCR]

“There’s nothing new under the sun”, the Bible says, but I think God was paraphrasing. Everyone steals, borrows, or repurposes stories — that’s just part and parcel of cultural capital. A good story is retold, revisited, rebooted, reskinned, or otherwise reprocessed. Some do it really well — Shakespeare’s whole damned catalogue, The Magnificent Seven’s Western-izing of The Seven Samurai, or the Nolan Batman movies take on Frank Miller’s work with the Dark Knight.

Don’t be afraid to borrow, tweak, file the serial numbers off, and repurpose. Yes, sometimes or often, the gamers will realize where you got the idea, but this can work to your advantage. If they expect that this plot, that seems ripped straight from [movie] will lead to a certain place, and you change it up, they will be surprised.

Borrowing from yourself is always a good idea, as well. If you’re like me, you’ve got years of plots and stories and characters on your hard drive, thumb drive, or in notebooks in your closet your wife and the fire marshal want you to get rid of. A few weeks ago, one of the gamers in my group left for a three week trip to the Orient, leaving the ret of us with either three weeks of no gaming, or the need to do something else. (His characters are kinda pivotal in the Battlestar Galactica game.)

So I thought about trying the new player out on Hollow Earth Expedition. I’ve wanted to fire up a new campaign since the end of the Shanghai Campaign, which had been delightfully fun and creative until half the gaming group moved away or had their work schedules change in dramatic and infuriating ways in the space of two weeks. Six gamers one week, a fortnight later, two players and a GM. Campaign: dead.

A few abortive attempts with the new group didn’t catch fire. The characters and the players just weren’t connecting. So, even though I thought it a longshot, I put together a “backdoor pilot” using the bones of a one-shot I ran for a Meetup RPG group. The basic plot remained — the characters were looking for an academic that is 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.

In the original one shot, the players were the crew of a small smuggling steamer, and one player was the father of the man missing. In this reimagining, the missing fellow is Dr. 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. Our latest player got that role, making her the lead for the story — 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.

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, coplete with a strange metal eye (with the iris being an open space big enough for a few people to go through.)

They try to figure out some of the mysteries of the place, but the cameras down 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, 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!) 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 play was swift and the players quickly learned that sometimes “taking the average” was much more efficacious than rolling dice, and it was decided by the players there that the system was one that “did not get in the way” (about the best you can usually hope for with RPGs; they rarely enhance play, I find.) So now we have a great opportunity for ’30s pulp that seems to appeal to the entire group…

All because I needed to slap together a quick two-night adventure and chose to steal from an old piece none had played through.


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