Wednesday, September 23, 2009

To the Earth's Core!

: The soon-to-be straight-to-DVD blockbuster remake of CHILDREN OF THE CORN (that was filmed in my tiny home town of Lost Nation, IA) premiers this Saturday on the "Syfy" channel at 8pm Central!

I decided to actually give Hollow Earth Expedition a try with my gaming group, and I must say it was a blast. I had a short adventure already planned out for Gencon but never got the opportunity to play it there, so decided to invite my buds over for a convention-style one-shot game of 1930s pulp action!

Now, as my players had never played Hollow Earth Expedition before nor even heard of the dice system, I had to give a quick overview of what was going on. I read the following:

Several months ago, Prof. Challenger received a faint distress signal from a group that identified itself as "Expedition 3." The cryptic messages from Expedition 3 stated they were a scientific crew who had become stranded deep within the Earth's Crust.

Prof. Challenger immediately began work on the Maneuverable Oxygenated Linear Excavator, or MOLE, a drilling machine capable of traversing through the Earth at remarkable speeds.

Most of the world thinks this is either an insane endeavor or a scam, but Prof. Challenger was able to secure funding and pull together a group of distinguished explorers to join him on this expedition. Together, you will travel in the MOLE on a rescue mission to the heart of the planet!

Then I just let the players see all the demo characters I had printed off and let them choose who goes on the mission without knowing what all the stats meant on the sheets. I would explain the rules after they chose characters because I figured it'd be easier to understand while looking at the sheets.

The characters available were as follows (and yes if you're a Sir Aurthur Conan Doyle fan you'll recognize most of the character names I used):

Prof. Edward Challenger -- Mad Scientist (Expedition Leader)
Lord John Roxton -- Big Game Hunter
Ms. Gladys Huntington -- Intrepid Reporter
Preston Weatherby III -- Dying Moneyman (Expedition Sponsor)
Doug McClure -- Ex-Military Rugged Explorer
Prof. Julius Summerlee -- Snooty Professor (Challenger's Academic Nemesis)
Jacqueline Payne -- Archaeologist and Fortune Hunter
Glenda Blondell -- Imperiled Actress

This being their first adventure they opted for a combat-heavy group and chose Prof. Challenger, Lord John Roxton, Doug McClure, and Jacqueline Payne.

The rules to the game are pretty simple, and I won't go into them here. Suffice to say that one of the major differences between HEX and other rpgs are Style points. Each character had a predefined Motivation (Power, Greed, Truth-Seeker, etc.) and a pre-defined Flaw (Overconfident, Absent-minded, Thrill-seeker, etc.). Each time a player plays their character to their motivation or flaw I give them a Style point, which is a poker chip. They can then use these style points to get fairly big bonuses on their die rolls. So for example, Prof. Summerlee's flaw is "Condescending," which means he gets Style points whenever he proves his mental superiority, or just from being a dick in a smarmy and entertaining sort of way. Now, his combat stats are rubbish, but presumably by the time he has to dodge bullets he's saved up so many Style points from antagonizing the group that he can wade through combat by sheer "luck." Style points really made for a fun game, and flew back and forth between me and the players like water.

When starting new games, I prefer to channel my inner Robert E. Howard and start the campaign in media res, that is, toss the characters into an immediate and dangerous situation and gloss over how they got there in the first place. This is much more fun than starting out with the characters sitting around with a long briefing and a Q&A session with the local king, royal sponsor, or general "quest-giver." Don't give the characters the opportunity to waste time haggling with the blacksmith for deals before they've even dented their sword.

With that in mind, the description of the setting was simple and straightforward:

To reach the coordinates broadcast by Expedition 3, the MOLE must travel through over 500 miles of solid rock. You are just getting used to the sound of the grinding drill when suddenly the MOLE is rocked by external explosions. Boiling hot, sulfurous gases penetrate the hull, the electrical systems spark, and the engine pistons scream and struggle to put out enough power! A tectonic tremor has caused the MOLE to fall into a matrix of brittle rock within an enormous magma field!

Then I set down a map I drew of the inside of the MOLE and showed them the five stations, there is the HELM, SYSTEMS MAINTENANCE, ENGINES, AIR PUMP, and SENSORS.

The players had to get ten successes at the HELM within three turns to escape the oncoming rush of hot lava filling the tunnel behind them. Every station gave benefits to other stations or the HELM if successfully maintained, and also gave other stations penalties if not successfully maintained (or in the case of the Air Pump, made everyone start to suffocate and take damage). Of course there were five stations and only four PCs, which is by design. But Doug McClure flexed his mighty thews and manned the bellows of the Air Pump, Prof. Challenger put on his steampunk goggles and drove at the HELM, Ms. Payne interpreted the SENSOR array to help steer the MOLE, and Lord John Roxton took up the monkey wrench and banged on the ENGINES to keep them going. Everybody ignored the smoldering and sparking SYSTEMS MAINTENANCE station and just hoped it would hold until they were safe, and sure enough they were able to just make 10 successes by the third turn and thrust upward through the Earth's crust into an expansive jungle valley! They had little time to ponder this unusual circumstance as they were closely followed by the rushing lava!

They only had a few minutes to spare before the MOLE was swallowed completely in lava, so I let them grab their gear and head out the upper porthole, where they had to jump to a nearby tree for safety. Ms. Payne made it easily, and Lord John Roxton had no trouble grabbing a tree. Doug McClure took a stumble and his boot brushed some lava, but he made it in one piece. Prof. Challenger tried to use the MOLE's ejector seat to get to safety, but only succeeded in setting off a small explosion wrecking the control panel and throwing him harshly into the jungle trees.

Once safe, the PCs were able to look around and while the Professor's coordinates said they were deep within the Earth's crust, they could see a shining sun above them and were deep in a tropical jungle! Then, Doug found some tire tracks in the mud, suggesting they were near the site of where Expedition 3 must be operating!

The PCs followed the tire tracks for a few hours and noticed a lot of previously unknown and thought-extinct ferns and insects. Fortunately, Roxton was keeping an eye up while they traveled because he shushed the group as they came upon a horrendous sight... lizardmen!

A small tribe of lizardmen were dancing around a large bonfire and playing drums. Near the makeshift bonfire they saw an overturned truck and a wooden pole stuck in the ground, with a very distraught woman tied to it! The lizardmen danced around the young sacrifice as the drummers thrummed hypnotic music into the jungle.

Lord John Roxton could not stomach the sight of a woman in distress, and immediately took a knee, aimed his .405 Winchester rifle at the serpentine head of the nearest abomination, and pulled the trigger. The lizardman's head exploded in red mist. The crack of the shot scattered most of the tribal serpentmen, leaving the shaman, his bodyguards and the drummers left to defend the sacrifice.

After a few rounds of intense hand-to-hand combat between the group and the lizardmen, a thunderous roar was heard throughout the jungle, and the PCs realized what the drumming was actually summoning. That's right, since this was a one-shot I wasn't holding back, the lizardmen had summoned a T-rex!

McClure raced to cut the bonds holding the captive with his machete as Ms. Payne distracted the T-Rex with her shotgun and fancy moves. She narrowly escaped being bitten in half only by the grace of spending a lot of Style points and using up her special "Lucky" Talent she gets once a game session. The T-Rex finally reached down to snap up the sacrifice as McClure pushed her out of the way and threw a lizardman drummer forward at the same time, feeding it to the T-Rex Gammorean-guard style. With the death of the drummer the other musician lizardmen stopped playing and started to flee in panic. With the T-rex no longer hypnotized by the music it rampaged around the area attacking things at random. McClure grabbed the damsel and ran past Challenger, the T-rex hot on his heals. Fortunately, Prof. Challenger had in the meantime been attaching a fuse to the overturned truck's gas tank. As the thunderous Superpredator passed the jeep the Professor lit the fuse, and the truck and T-Rex exploded in a tremendous fireball! Prof. Challenger barely leapt out of the path of the explosion into a nearby sinkhole.

Once they were clear of the area, the damsel explained she was Dr. Emily Masterson, a British geologist who was with Expedition 3. She explained that they were ambushed by Nazis who had come into the Hollow Earth on an icebreaker Ship via an opening in the North Pole. The Nazis had found a treasure-trove of strange and precious artifacts and hoped to utilize the riches of the Hollow Earth to help their Fuhrer to conquer the world! She was forced to work with a group of Nazis looking for more precious minerals when they were ambushed by the lizardmen. The Nazis fled leaving her to be sacrificed to the Lizardman gods.

Upon hearing this, patriotic Doug McClure expressed his disdain for Nazis and asked how they could stop the nefarious germans from fulfilling their plans. Dr. Masterson said she could lead the party to where the Nazis had found a strange obelisk in the jungle that they believed to be some sort of weapon. The party needed little prodding with the promise of glory, riches, and a possible escape to the surface and so proceeded to follow Dr. Masterson to the Nazi encampment.

Sure enough, upon arrival at the obelisk they saw a bunch of Nazi guards and Nazi engineers lowering a dug-up obelisk toward the back of a large truck. The obelisk swayed unsteadily on some jury-rigged ropes and it was clear the Nazis were concerned it would fall before they got it on the truck. Deciding they needed to stop whatever it was the Nazis planned, the crew threw together a hasty plan. They would play the lizardmen drums to make the Nazis think more lizardmen were coming, and at the same time Ms. Payne would sneak behind enemy lines and pull the stake holding the obelisk upright at a 45 degree angle above the truck. It seemed like a good plan, until the drumming on the mystical lizardman drums accidentally summoned a group of hungry Ultraraptors from the nearby tall grass!

Nazi, Explorer, and Raptor fought in a desperate three-way battle. In the confusion Ms. Payne pulled up the stake and the obelisk came crashing down onto the truck, just as a guard jumped into the truck to avoid an oncoming raptor. He was flattened instantly. The obelisk broke in half and revealed what the rune-inscribed atlantean artifact had been hiding, a miniature black hole!

Suddenly, everything started to be pulled toward the tiny black hole between the two broken halves of the obelisk. As objects and creatures fell into the dark matter, it grew in intensity and was able to pull toward it larger and larger objects. The players had to hold on for dear life not to get sucked in. As the Professor secured himself between some trees with a hastily-erected harness, he noticed that when the smaller broken-off pieces of the obelisk fell into the hole it decreased in size slightly! On the other side of the battlefield Lord John Roxton noticed it too. Held by his belt and secured to a nearby tree by the stout Doug McClure, he was able to take aim and shatter one half of the obelisk with a well-placed round from ol' Matilda, letting all the smaller pieces fall into the hole, decreasing its size significantly. Unfortunately, the other half of the obelisk was on the other side of the black hole from Roxton, which would suck his bullets into it if he tried to shoot past it!

Seeing his only chance, the professor overloaded the dilithium oscillator on his experimental Stun rifle and tossed it to Ms. Payne, who was able to throw it under the other half of the Obelisk just as a huge explosion rocked the valley. The obelisk section was thrown into the air and came down into the black hole, nullifying the black pulsar, or what was known to the inhabitants of the area 100,000 years ago as an Atlantean Gravity Bomb! The Nazi's plans to take the bomb back to the surface had been foiled!

The trucks and encampment destroyed by the implosion, the players gathered themselves together and headed toward their only hope of escape, the Nazi's icebreaker ship docked just a day's hike away. But as they got to the shore their hopes were dashed, as some time in the night the ship had been attacked by what must be giant sea beasts, or had suffered an artillery explosion, as now only pieces of the deck and various debris bobbed out in the water.

Where would they go now? How would they survive in this hostile world? Where did the rest of the Nazi sailors and soldiers go? Would they ever find their way back to the surface? Find out next time on...

Trapped in the Hollow Earth!