The group met up tonight to pick up from the cliffhanger where they had found themselves on Mars instead of the “Second Earth”, Atlantia. While they tended to the wounded who had been rolled over by the minifighters that had exited the Eye of Shambala only to fall over and roll down the mound of marines, and tried to get the litle planes back on their landing gear, Zelansky was photographing their surroundings. He noted that the city they arrived next to had a larger “eye”-stlye gate that acted both as a portal, and as a door/gate to the city. Inside, the buildings seems to shift and more, changing, but in the center was a larger ziggurat with was surmounted by a strange object…a flying saucer much like those of the Atlanteans!

Suddenly, they realized they were being watched by three figures, very tall, dressed in white robes with red sashes. Their faces were disguised by featureless white masks. Yet, thy could hear these people in their heads, the language unfamiliar, but the concepts clear — “strange, one of them is a Vril-ya. I though they were dead or in the Celestial Keep. The other [Cointreau] has been touched by an ancient…but they are all asleep! How is this possible. They others, they’ve never seen their like; similar to the Zhul-ya, but not.” These creatures were quickly joined by more: strange humanoids with long arms and fingers, giant black eyes, none speaking but communicating directly to the characters’ minds. “The leader [Zelansky] is curious. The one touched by the ancient is larcenous, selfish, and weak; he is too dangerous to allow in the city. The Atlantean [Veitch]  is well-meaning but confused.”

Despite not having the same language, the characters are able to communicate. They are on Zhul — Mars, apparently — and Earth is “Vril” according to these things. The city is Elos Das, a term Zelansky thinks means either “hidden city” or “secret city”. The “people” are elosi — the hidden people or people of the secret. He’s not sure, the syntax is strange.

The creatures aided them with their injured, inspected the “crude but clever” Dogifsh minifighters, and examined the party. They find the marines bellicose. Far too dangerous to be allowed inside. Then, as a group, they turn to face northwest. Suddenly, they are headed back into the city, some of them simply disappearing as they go. The three “leaders?” inform them that there is food and water, two days march to the south, or to the northwest. In the northwest, they can see what the creatures saw: two ships in the air, sails out, coming for their position.

As they watch, the city twists and folds itself until it is gone without a trace. The marines spread out and prepare for hostilities, while Erha, O’Bannon, and Post get their Dogfish ready for the fight. The two ships separate, the larger one climbing, while the smaller bears in on them, firing a heat ray that carves a trench of molten glass in the sand and damaged Erha’s Dogfish. The three pilots get into the air, their minifighters faster but more unstable than ever.

The frigate or warship, or whatever it is, closes on the marines’ position while zelansky uses his math skills to aid the mortar crew in attacking the ship. Meanwhile, the Dogfish swoop and attack the craft, while getting fired at by strange cannons that shoot bolts of greenish light their way. These blasters miss the Dogfish, which are far too fast, and they successfully strafe the ship over and over. They noted that the crew of the larger ship seemed to be fighting each other, and they realized that it could be a prize for the smaller ships; perhaps they’ve been discovered by pirates?

The mortar rounds hit their target, and Cointreau finds himself using his Inspire to get the marine gunners to use their .30 machineguns to good effect. Eventually, the craft crashes into the sand near their position and the marines, led by Zelansky, Cointreau, and Veitch board and take the ship. they have to evacuate quickly, however, as the ship is on fire and eventually blows itself sky-high. The small crew is under guard by the marines, and their lone captive, a strange green woman with four arms! is being kept “safe” by Cointreau.

While this is happening, Post pulls a spectacular stall into a landing on the quarterdeck of the other skyship and gets them to surrender. Sure enough, the vessel was taken by the smaller ship, and the captain is a strange green-skinned man with four arms. Post is able to get them to land near the downed craft. Zelansky can talk to them; they speak a dialect of Atlantean. These green people are dheva (gods?), and the red-skinned people that crewed their ship, and that of the pirate vessel, are Zhul-ya, possible relatives of the Vril-ya!

They are able to talk their way into passage on the ship Warm Winds to Parras Das, the city “her highness” Priya, of the House Avasarava, is from. She is the first daughter of a powerful merchant prince in Parras Das, and she was taken captive by the pirates while being transported to a nearby city-state to a commercial negotiation. Priya is easily seduced by Cointreau, who finally gets a chance to try his “sex magic”, with high success (We decided that the tantrism thing he was going for seemed less a magic aptitude/ sorcery thing, than a psychic aptitude/ mind control thing, and changed the character to work more appropriately.)

The night ended with the characters spotting the spires of Parras Das, which sits on the conflux of two arrow-straight canal that stretch to the horizons. I opted for a fusion of the Revelations of Mars Barsoomian feel and that of Space: 1889, with its canals and zones of life for a mile or two around them. We’ve also got hints that the dheva are a royal or rich/aristocratic caste of Martian, whereas the “red Martians” or Zhul-ya are more common.

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The Hollow Earth Expedition game continued tonight with the characters, having escaped the underground lair of the “hungry ghost” Dai Pan and the arrival of Morana, the “Queen of Shambala.” She had made off with a finger from Anton Veitch, who has Atlantean blood and can activate their ancient technology. Following this the characters had used the gate in Dai Pan’s lair to pass through to the eye of Shambala, which was being unloaded from the airship Macon at nearby Moffett Air Field. The group was arrested by the shore patrol until the FBI and Dr. Lancaster of the Office of Scientific Investigations could come get them released. Veitch, missing his finger was admitted to the naval hospital. (Recap here…)

We opened the night with Zelansky and Lancaster talking about the situation. The local FBI office and SFPD were incensed over the fire in Chinatown that consumed three buildings and left dozens of Chinese gangsters (the On Yik Tong) dead. They were seen with another gang (the 17 Tigers) attacking the place and many of those gangsters are now missing. J. Edgar Hoover and RADM Byrd have cut a deal allowing the team to remain free and to cover up the incident under the guise of gang violence. The local FBI agent in charge had wanted to deport his team and hand O’Bannon over to the British. (Both the British and Irish have arrest warrants on him. He is protected in Shanghai only because the Sky Rats are agents of the Republic of China.) They are told to lie low and that evening they are put on a train to Los Angeles.

On arrive in that city, they are picked up by the OSI’s “Boston Project”, which Lancaster heads up, and given nice apartments in a new motel in Bunker Hill, the Ocean View (which it does not have…) It is the residence for the unmarried men of the project. The characters minus Wiley Post, who is not an OSI contractor and was staying with his wife (and the player was out for the evening), were taken to the Goodyear Airship Factor in Huntingdon Park. A separate building on the property, far from the airship sheds and company offices is the home of the Boston Project, and the facility they use is hidden under the grounds. After a security briefing and signing agreements to keep their mouths shut, they are finally showed the new home of the Eye of Shambala.

Lab B is where the scientists will be studying the Atlantean artifact. But next door in Lab C is where the fun stuff is — one of the Atlantean flying saucers, and the OSI reverse engineered version using “telluric countergravity” and gas-powered turbofan (jet) engines. The designer in Zebulon Edward Koenig, last seen in our other HEX campaign, a long lost associate of Nikola Tesla. He had stopped an invasion from the Hollow Earth in 1908 using Tesla’s telluric cannon, which destroyed miles of the Siberian forest, but had been sucked into the vortex created and deposited in the Hollow Earth. He had escaped with U.S.S. Los Angeles at the end of the last campaign, and now, which his daughter Erha, is working for OSI.

In addition to the saucer were a few prototypes of Erha’s “minifighter”, made by Curtiss: the XM-01 “Dogfish.” (The gearhead players really loved these things, as I thought they might…) We’re finally getting more super-science in the game: flying saucers, mini-fighters, and they think they’ve figured out how to use telluric energy (the earth’s electromagnetic field) to create antigravity, as well as a weapon (similar to the one Tesla and Koenig used to save the world in 1908.) Veitch was also interested in starting work on robots.

After their visit to the facility, the group returned to the Ocean View in time to join Post in his trip to the Burbank Airport, to see his new airplane provided by his sponsor Texaco. A new Lockheed Electra 10D with upgraded R-1340 Wasp engines. The plane is perfect for some of the ideas he had to push the boundaries of aviation. While there, they are approached by Mark Hooper, a stunt coordinator for MGM that knows Post. He needs pilots for a new film about to start filming. The movie is a love story set against the fight between an Italian sky pirate gang and a fictionalized version of the Sky Rats. Having O’Bannon and Veitch immediately got them an offer, and Cointreau parlayed this into getting a audition with the casting director.

With an excellent series of rolls, Cointreau found himself bumping Mischa Auer for the part of Moroni, the Italian gang leader and rival for the hear of Sophia, played by Merle Oberon. The lead, Cary Grant, is playing “Sky Captain” — obviously patterned on “Captain Joe” Porter, and there’s even a character that is obviously a take on O’Bannon himself, played by David Niven. There’s a young plucky mechanic who is comic relief played by Mickey Rooney (this drives Veitch nuts!) The story takes massive liberties with the final battle the Sky Rats fought against the Cavallieri del’Aria (Knights of the Air), an Italian sky pirate band the Foreign Volunteer Force took down for the Yugoslavian government in 1931. The asistant director of photography doing the aerial battles is a Dave Morelli, whose father supposedly told him stories of the Sky Rats and pirates…he’s thrilled to be working with them.

There followed a montage of vignettes: Cointreau doing well in his work, seducing Oberon only to be discovered in the act by her boyfriend, famed director Alexander Korda. Korda has complained to Mr. Mayer and it looks like Sky Rats! might be the Frenchman’s first and last Hollywood movie! Veitch has been getting close to Erha, while aiding in their work on the saucers and the Eye of Shambala. Zelansky has finally gotten the group paid well for their work, but the government has put their pay into an annuity (which is subject to the new 50% tax on their wealth bracket…thanks, FDR!) O’Bannon and Post are filming aerobatics, including a wing-walking scene where Pin-Li, posing as a David Niven’s character, jumps from one plane to the other to pull the “enemy pilot” out of the cockpit and take over. (There’s another pilot hidden in the plane…PIn-Li can’t fly.)

Finally, Cointreau goes to watch the aerial shoot during a break in his filming, only to find the boys are already up. Veitch is at the Boston Project, but Post and O’Bannon are flying Curtiss Jennies dolled up to look like the Aero A.12s the FVF had flown in the campaign against the Knights of the Air. The “emeny” planes, a Jenny made up to look like an Aeromarine AS, and a Curtiss R3C racing seaplane painted red to play the Macchi M.39 of the villain, Moroni, are joined by the film plane with ADP Morelli in it. The grip on site at the Burbank Airport says they were called in early for the shoot…and moments later Hooper and the other pilots arrive. What they hell is going on? That’s not the routine!

That’s because Morelli is the son of Andrea Morelli, the wingman to Marco Pasquale — the commander of the Cavallieri and a man that O’Bannon had shot down five years ago! O’Bannon remembers the battle — their battered Aero A.12s against the new, nimble Macchi M.71 seaplanes, and Pasquale’s M.39 racing plane that had been armed. It was twice as fast as they, just as maneuverable, and armed with twin .30 machineguns. In that fight, O’Bannon had shot down Morelli’s father, but Pasquale had taken his plane out. Captain Joe had managed to kill Pasquale’s plane by using the slower Aero to pull the faster Macchi in tight, then had rammed the tail of the racing plane to defeat the sky pirate.

It’s the battle that they are supposed to be reenacting.

The “bad guys” has actual bullets in their guns and Post and O’Bannon find themselves using their superior flying skills to try and outfly their opponents. O’Bannon leads the R3C into the canyons north of Los Angeles and manages to get that pilot to damage the plane badly. He then uses Captain Joe’s tactic, out-turning the R3C until the racing plane has to slow down lest it overshoot him…then rams the plane, sending it careening into the neighborhood below.

Post tangles with the “bad guy” Jenny, lopping them to get behind, then just under them before the observer shoots, taking their own tail apart. He then gets under them and nudges the plane into an uncontrolled roll toward the ground. (Post’s player was out for the night and Veitch’s player was rolling for him.) To keep the Zelansky and Cointreau players involved, they were rolling for the bad guys.

Cointreau knows the boys are in trouble and calls the Boston Project, getting contected to Veitch. He tells them about the dogfight and urges him to get out there to help.  He convinces Erha to loan him a Dogfish and together they fly out in the motorcycle-cum-airplanes to the rescue. Veitch arrives just as the plane Post flipped is returning to the fight, and strafes it with the Dogfish’s twin .30s, taking it down. Meanwhile, O’Bannon comes up on the “camera plane” with Morelli and uses his propeller to shred the tail, then follow the damaged craft down to land in the streets. He and PIn-Li were leaping out to face Morelli and his Mafia buddy as Veitch and Erha were closing in the Dogfish.

That’s where we ended for the night.

The Hollywood interlude was fun and focused on the strengths of the characters — Zelansky’s science and bureaucracy, Veitch’s invention, O’Bannon and Post’s piloting skills, and Cointreau’s attempts to break into the Hollywood scene. It also allowed us to do a playtest of the new dogfighting rules  for Ubiquity that will be in the Sky Pirates of the Mediterranean sourcebook we’re working on at Black Campbell Entertainment. I wanted something that was both simpler than the rules in the Secrets of the Surface World sourcebook, and captured the elements of a dogfight better: the jockeying for position that is key to setting up a shot, and how quickly that can be overturned.

Originally, when I started working on this adventure, I had thought to pull it back a bit after the sorcery and kung fu antics of the last few episodes. Instead, we went for more pulp goodness, just with airplanes, that allowed us to delve into the history of the O’Bannon character, which we hadn’t really done yet. The next session I decided not to pull back, again — I had wanted to do something with the Dust Bowl and Okies. Instead, I’m doubling down on our new villainess, Morana.

Something that will be making an appearance soon in our Hollow Earth Expedition game is a “mini-fighter” that is being developed by the Office of Scientific Investigations “Boston Project”and built by the nearby Curtiss-Wright.

I needed something dieselpunkish and spotted this on DeviantArt by Leonard M Grion:

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An innovative design that came out of the Office of Scientific Investigations’ Boston Project, the Dogfish was created by a refugee of the Hollow Earth, Erha Koenig. This ultralight is powered by an Allison V-12 motor positioned behind an open cockpit that provides more of a motorcycle-like position in the aircraft. The idea was that small, nimble aircraft could outmaneuver the enemy planes, while being inexpensive and less of a financial loss in combat. Armed with a pair of Browning .30 caliber machineguns, the Dogfish had a center of gravity and lift that were balanced in the middle of the craft. Difficult and somewhat terrifying to fly, and with a limited ceiling due to the smaller wingspan, only a few prototypes were created.

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qoto cover

So…my daughter was playing “animal rescue” with me this morning and at one point we needed to leave the HQ in her cardboard box “jetski snowmobile…with wings that pop out…” to save the jaguars. We were going to find them at the jaguar temple.

So — the next adventure scenario for fate and Ubiquity will be Secrets of the Jaguar Temple. It will take place in Mexico, most likely, about 1937. There will be a temple. And jaguars. No word yet on the possibility of jetskis that turn into snowmobiles.

 

After running Hollow Earth Expedition for the last six months or so, I’ve started to note some issues with the game design. When the game came out in 2006, it was slick and quick compared to many game systems, but with the rise of Fate, Cortex, and other mechanics, it’s become downright clunky.

One of the biggest issues is dice modifiers, which I addressed in this post.

Where I’m finding consistent issues comes from the Secrets of the Surface World sourcebook, specifically the magic and invention rules. I suspect that Jeff Combos has a formula he uses to try and keep inventing gear and spells, etc. balanced. Other Ubiquity fans and designers have been reverse engineering the system to try and figure this formula out. I went another way with Sorcery.

First, why?

Simple. Sorcery is handled like weapons, for all intents and purposes. There are mods for range, for area or effect, for the number of people affected, for “basic rituals.” Other rituals have their own modifiers based on what they do and what they do it to. This is all in the name of balance, and it was why magic users in early editions of Dungoens & Dragons were, until they reached a certain level, utter useless. “I’m a fighter, I get these mods all the time!” “I’m a wizard, I can make a magic light appear for 10 minutes once a day!”

Magic in pulp games (I’m specifying this because Hollow Earth Expedition fits a genre, and should fit the tropes and expectations of that genre) should unbalance the game. That’s why the bad guys have magic, and rarely — if ever — do the good guys. They overcome through grit, luck, and in the case of Jack Burton, because it’s all in the reflexes.

Second reason — psychic powers are very well done in Secrets of the Surface World. Mentalists aren’t invulnerable, they’re not all-poweful, but they are powerful. Why was the Shadow so dangerous? He could cloud your mind; you didn’t see him coming. A guy who can control your mind is dangerous, but you still get a Will test. And they just do it.

Magic in HEX is hampered by table and table of modifiers to your dice pool which, in effect, render sorcerer less useful than a 1st level wizard in AD&D. Worse, they have to take five rounds — an eternity when your opponents have guns and harsh language — to launch…if you succeed. More worse, you only have a ritual per skill level. So your sorcerer with the 6 skill rating and 4 Intelligence only knows two spells. One is probably casting a light spell for 10 minutes once a day.

This isn’t Ming the Merciless, or David Lo Pan, or any number of magic using bad guys in pulp comics. So how to make magic feel more like the comics and movies?

First: Number of rituals known. The number of rituals a sorcerer can know is the skill rating, not the level. You have a rating of five, you can know five off the top of your head. If you have a book or scroll, etc. you can still use that spell, but it takes longer and you’re not as likely to succeed. (More in a moment.) Now, you have to gain access to learn those spells — you might not start with them. There’s your game balance.

Second: The Rank of the skill is the base difficulty (unless skill test is contested by another character…) So a Cast Light ritual might be Rank 1. A sorcerer with a skill rating of two could just take the average and bust this out. Oooh! Magic is cool! Now, maybe he’s using Drain Life on you. That’s a Rank 3, but it goes against your Body. Their difficulty is 3 minimum because that’s how hard it is to do, but if you have a Body 4, you get to roll eight dice (or take the average of 4.)

Three: The minimum number of round requires to cast a ritual is equal to the Rank of the ritual. However, in the name of balance, if there are modifiers to the difficulty, the GM could increase the time of the ritual. So a Bless would take one round, a quick muttering of incantation and some hand waving; opening a portal to Summon and ancient Horror would require 30 seconds (5 round) minimum, but other modifiers might lengthen that time.

Fourth: Modifiers. Geez, the number of modifiers! Here’s a good rule of thumb — ranges are simple in pulp movies, shows, and books: you can touch them (no mods) , you can see them (+1 or a +2, maybe), you can’t see them (+4). A villainess doing sympathetic magic on an unsuspecting target on the other side of town has a +4 to their Curse (Rank 2) because they are across town. To do the spell in the first place requires a piece of something from the victim (blood or hair, say) — so that counts as touch range. Ignore the modifier. They have a skill of six; taking the average, they can levee a -2 die curse on the target.

Area effect v. specific targets: Use Size here. Up to human size is Size 0 — no mods. Size 1 gives a +1 to the base difficulty. Size 2 is up to 14-15 feet: +2 to the difficulty. But say trying to effect two particular targets in a Size 2 area that has a crows of people — each person adds a +1 to the difficulty because the caster has to be discriminate.

On other skills, simplify the modifiers. Animating the dead? That’s Rank 4, but the corpse is badly decayed — +2 difficulty; he’s a skeleton +4. Is it big? Size 2, say? Add +2. Simple. Levitating something? That’s a Rank 4, so it’s damned hard to start with. So instead of worrying about the size of the object, go with “size matters not” — or if there you want a modifier, it’s the size of the thing. Size 2 — +2.

Keep it simple It still makes success hard for a sorcerer, but they are more likely to kick ass this way than it you nickel and dime them on their dice. Magic should be big, flashy, and powerful in a pulp game — something to be feared and hard to overcome.

So, working on adventure scenarios for Hollow Earth Expedition and Ubiquity in general has illustrated (for me) one of the flaws in its design…adding and subtracting to the dice pool. Over the last year, I’ve noticed that adding to a pool feels natural for most players and is easy enough to do, but subtracting — while still easy — is less intuitive. And this is something that Ubiquity relies on — modifiers to the number of dice in your pool.

What this can quickly do is render a competent character completely ineffective. You have a six dice in something, but with the range, other difficulty you are reduced to, say, two. You are, effectively, able to complete a task with a one difficulty. (Yes, you can roll a two, but essentially, your average is one.)

Here’s my suggestion for GMs. Cut the dice modifiers entirely. If something is at twice the range, don’t chop the player’s dice pool by -2; add a +1 modifier to the defense of the target. No one die, a one. It’s taking the average, but it’s quicker to pull one off  or add it to a total. And alway apply it to the difficulty, not the players roll. It puts more on the GM, but I’ve found it speeds play quickly.

The other benefit is environmental effects don’t get stupidly powerful. Oh, it’s dark and a bit misty — that’s -4 dice! So that could be an effect of 0-4; or take the average of two. Add it to the difficulty and press on. It becomes pretty intuitive for the GM to hand-wave some things quickly.

“Oh, you are trying to run across a snow covered field in the dark. That’s a +2 to a normal Difficulty of two, so roll your Athletics v. a 4.” Done. Easy. You don’t even need a chart.

For style chips, we’ve been using something similar. It always seemed a rip-off to make a player pay a style point for an extra die; we’ve always just given them a +1 to their total. (Making style points useful…)

The impetus to this idea came when I started working with the Sorcery rules. Which are, to my eye, a hot mess. But more on that next post…