Rich asked me to come up with some thoughts on the how’s and why’s of my LittleWars game, “California Smythe and the Grotto of Evil”. Herein lies the tale
First off was the decision to use a four-scene format for the game. This is the easy part.

Last year at LittleWars I ran a 6-scene game called “Jungle Screams” which was basically very similar in that it was a loose adaptation of an Indiana Jones-type setting of a quest to rescue someone/something from a hidden jungle location. Using the 4-hour format for a game, the play-tests ran quite well and we easily finished the game within the allotted time frame.

The only problem with play-testing with your normal group is that you tend to slide into a “groove” in that – knowing your players as intimately as is normal for a regular group – you tend to gloss over things or take things for granted due to familiarity. No matter what the game or scenario, if you are testing with well-known players, you need to adjust whatever time frame you come up with by a factor of 1.5/2.0 – it’s just a fact of life. If you play together regularly, you know each other’s way of dealing with rules and/or situations and will gloss over things that “outsiders” won’t. Last year I forgot this, and had to rush the last two scenes to the point of making them all but irrelevant.

As a result of that experience, I determined to shorten this years’ game to include only 4 separate scenes/locales. Once again, testing with my friends showed this to be the correct move, as we finished the play-test well within a 4-hour time frame (and using only 4 players instead of the planned-for 6). Since the smaller number of players and scenes played out in the needed time slot, I figured I was well within the necessary parameters time-wise. Well, guess again! As always, new players come up with new and interesting variations on a theme. I thought we were a bloody group, but my players came up with all sorts of new ways and means of inflicting mayhem! So what was planned as a nice 4 hour game wound up running over 6 hours (mostly thanks to a bunch of great players that were having a great time and also had no other games that they had to rush off to)! So once again the best laid plans had run terribly amok.

So maybe next year we book a 5 or 6 hour slot and hopefully come in under budget!
The next bit to consider is the means of coming up with a basic idea for the game. The rationale behind this is a bit harder to define since – being what might be considered by some to be an “old fart” – my depth of experience with/ immersion in the period literature and movies will probably be greater than most. The only thing I can say in this regard is that folks need to visit a great website called Nina’s Oldies (www.oldies.com) and pick up some of the “great” B-movies and serials that they have to offer. At $5 per disc you can’t go wrong. Their list of bad action/drama/mystery movies and serials is hard to beat when it comes to ideas for games.

Having watched more of this tripe than I care to admit to, the ideas for locales and scenes is more a matter of sifting out the excess and honing it down to 3/4/5 ideas that will fit with what I am trying to set forth in my “movie”.

As to the specifics for this years’ offering, I wanted to have an opening scene in which there would be no guns – only fists. That way I could ease the players into the game mechanics (which are very similar when it comes to close combat and ranged fire) without overloading them right at the start.

Since the con was located in a Chicago suburb and, being an art lover, I have visited the Institute of Art many times over the past years – I figured that having the opening scene set in the Art Institute would be kind of neat. It would add a bit of local color/interest. Doing a web search I found a site that allowed me to view graphics of fine art sorted by museum and so I was able to down-load a ton of graphics that hang within the Art Institute which I could “hang” on the walls of my gallery. The actual building of the “set was accomplished using 3” basswood and some “texture” paint for the outside of the walls and some Velcro strips to hang the artwork from. Doing the art in this manner allows me to re-use the basic building for other things. Next time it might be the Prado, the Louvre, or the Field Museum – maybe even a department store – who knows?
Moving on to scene two – the airfield. Just about every serial known has some form of air transport in it. Sometimes it is the main locale as in “Ace Drummond” or “Sky Raiders” and at other times it is a means to an end as in “Robinson Crusoe of Clipper Island”. Just say that airplanes figure in many of the period flicks. So for this year we went with airplanes as our means of getting from point A to point B. (Last year we spent our transit time on a tramp steamer which is the other transport staple.)

The nostalgia bit this time around was in naming the field as Floyd R. Turbot Aerodrome. Back in the stone age, when I was in the service, I had the experience of flying into and out of Floyd Bennett field in New York on a military mission. For those of a younger bent, this is the locale on Long Island from which Douglas “Wrong-Way” Corrigan flew “mistakenly” to Ireland instead of California. In my warped mind it was a short jump from Floyd Bennett to a red-necked character played by Johnny Carson called Floyd R. Turbot who I always enjoyed during my younger years. Once again old age comes in handy!

That takes care of getting our characters from their starting point to the mysterious north/south/east or wherever you want them to get to! The next scene brings our players to the point of real danger – anywhere mysterious. In my case it was Baluchistan, but it could just as easily have been Java or Africa or an encounter with Jivaro headhunters – it really doesn’t matter! What’s more important is that the characters are now somewhere that is totally foreign to them and the dangers become perceptibly more real.
My scene three was a gorge crossing – Kiltumani Gorge. Once again this comes from watching an old serial – in this case “Jungle Jim”. There was a really great episode in this flick where the hero is crossing a rickety old rope bridge and – you guessed it – the damn thing breaks when he is half-way across! Will he survive? Of course he will, he’s the hero and there’s no way he’s gonna die even if he falls into the heart of a volcano! Don’t worry about making sense in these games because the writers of these turkeys made it up as they went along and the more unlikely the scene the more fun it is to see your players tossed to the fates.

Besides the inspiration from watching the serial, what really decided me on doing the gorge bit was my local store got a ton of cork in for use by railroad hobbyists and the ease of making cliff style terrain with this stuff is just to good to be true. So much for deep thought about seamless game flow! When an opportunity presents itself, go for it!

Once again, in an effort to make my terrain boards somewhat multi-purpose, I fashioned the rope bridge in such a way that it is not a permanent part of the board. It mounts to the chasm by way of a couple of pins which allows me to remove it and either use an old log across the gorge in the manner of a “Lost World” type setting, or even place some trees near the edge of the canyon and make the players swing across the gap by using vines ala the Tarzan flicks. Ya gotta think ahead when making the terrain so you can reuse it for multiple games.
That brings us to the final scene – the title carrying “Grotto of Evil”. This again was dredged out of lots of old (and even some new) movies. There’s always a scene where the heroes are hidden and watching some evil cult do unspeakable things to the heroine. It’s another staple of the genre and a great way to finish up our effort. That and the fact that Bob Murch (Pulp Figures) had just released a pack of villains which included some great pulp nasties made the choice for me! Zelda would be kidnapped by some evil cult and it would be our hero’s task to get her back to safety.

The twist of including a monster in the well came from one of my other interests – H.P. Lovecraft. I had just finished watching a movie called “Dagon” which is one of the few movies based on the Cthulhu myth that works reasonably well. (Lovecraft reads much better than he translates to the screen since most of the horror is unseen.) The end of that movie involves just the nastiness I was looking for as a twist to throw at the players and so I stole it! Finding a Reaper mini of a critter emerging from a well just confirmed my idea and made the plan possible. I painted up a garden variety well for placement on the board at the beginning and the critter/well on a similar stand for unleashing at the proper time.

The design of the board was again made easier by using some of the cork treebark and the scenario was all but complete. By adding some bits that I had accumulated for other games and periods, I was able to flesh out the grotto as the chamber of our final encounter between good and evil.
So that pretty much does it for the method behind the madness. Scene one is there for some local color and to introduce the game rules – scene two is our departure from the safe and sane world of civilization into the unknown – scene three is our first real encounter with danger and throws in some unruly natives – scene four is where it all comes to a head and either the good guys win or evil triumphs over all. (And this is also where you can throw in some type of twist – either an unknown danger or even a cliff-hanger for next years’ game. It’s up to you.)
The final part of this exposition deals with how I handle the rules in a convention setting. I try to keep things moving as much as possible and it’s a must to keep the players involved at all times. One thing I do for conventions is to modify the morale rules slightly. Because nobody wants to be constantly running away, I make the “Gut Check” after wounding only take effect for 1 turn. If you fail, the fig runs away but then can come back on its’ next activation. Since I only give players 2 or 3 figs to play with, this keeps their toys on the board throughout the game.

I also follow the credo that since this is based on the old movie serials, nobody ever dies until the final reel. I have my stat cards printed on 3 x 5 index cards that I laminate. (Stat card on front – printout of the figs’ skills on back.) Then I have the players mark their wounds using “china writer” style grease pencils. When the scene is over, I let the players erase their wounds and start all over as healthy figs. I do this for the end of scene one and the finish of scene two.

Once we hit the wilds of the unknown, however, I change it slightly – and I announce this prior to the start of play. At the end of scene three, I have the players carry some of their wounds into the final scene. Depending on just how badly they have been hurt, I make them keep, either 1, 2, or 3 wounds on their fig. (I let them choose which hits they keep so they have to decide just where their fig is vulnerable.) This adds a little spice to the last scene.

Those are really the only modifications I make to the rules (I do modify the initiative sequence very slightly to accommodate multiple players) and it is strictly for the purpose of keeping folks in the game until the end. The true joy to this ruleset is that it is quite easy to teach the basics to new players and get them in and going and yet the skills and other bits will keep even a veteran gamer involved with the finer points of using his fig to its’ best advantage.