Agent 86 and the Crystal Skull

Congratulations. You found a hole in your schedule and decided to fill it by running your own campaign. Of course you don’t want to have this suck up every last second of your free time, so you decide to use a published module to serve as the cornerstone of your campaign.

With absolutely no work, your campaign will keep players happy for several sessions.

Unfortunately, you want more. You are a discerning GSA reader who devours articles about running better games and having top notch roleplaying experiences. That is why you will take the next step and expound your campaign using only the information provided in the back story to create an incredible campaign your players will remember for years.

This advice is system neutral. I don’t care if it’s Star Wars, Dungeons and Dragons or Deadlands. All published adventures have tons of backstory leading up to the epic set of encounters and investigations that bring years of backstory to a close.

frontgateIt’s tempting to skip this stuff or read it while on the toilet and then forget about it. You know the part of the module I’m talking about: Dungeons and Dragons 4e calls this “Background.” Star Wars Saga calls it “Adventure Background,” and the World of Indiana Jones calls it “Information.”

Sometimes it’s a paragraph. Sometimes it’s a chapter. Sometimes the information carries over into the briefing scene. You know the one, where the dwarf mystic lights his pipe, stares off into the Demon Web and says, “I had a vision…” or when the adventurer/professor opens a huge dusty tome and says, “I have a picture of the artifact here some place.” It’s the one where the old hermit in the desert shack sits back and stares blankly, saying, “For over a thousand years the Jedi Knights were the protectors of the Republic.”

There is great stuff in these scenes. Sometimes, like Raiders of the Lost Ark, it gets used in the adventure. For the Star Wars: A New Hope briefing, the information didn’t come into play until the prequels.

I want you to take a solid look at these briefing scenes and back stories. This should be your prime source of adventure hooks. You need to guarantee your players will take the bait and accept the mission that will be the primary campaign plot line. You want to eliminate all doubt the PCs will accept the challenge before the first session begins.

Sure, most players will metagame a bit when their characters wander into the inn and see the call for adventurers to perform some dangerous task. However, by creating iron tight ties from backstory-briefings and strengthening ties to your player characters, you remove all doubt these characters will leap at the call to adventure.

What? My aunt and uncle lied about who my father was, and I can learn to wield the powers he had? Count me in.

An army that carries the ark before it is unstoppable? This is everything we got into archaeology for in the first place. Sold!

We already have the first of the tools needed to bring an end to this Web of Darkness… and you know where the next artifact is? If we fail, all light will fail from this world? Onward! It is our destiny.



Let’s say you’re a GM named Garrett… and your wife has been not-so-subtly asking you to run an Indiana Jones campaign. You already have a lot of irons in the fire and decide to flip through the 1995 World of Indiana Jones book Indiana Jones and the Golden Vampires. A module catches your eye called Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull. Interesting.

You flip through the backstory section.

First, there’s a full page about Mayan history. Before World War Two, anthropologists thought the Mayans were hippies living the good life in the rain forest. They loved their priests and built elaborate temples in their honor.

After the Great War, scientists cracked the Mayan hieroglyphic code. Everything they had assumed was wrong.

The Mayans were in a constant class struggle. The priests and wealthy nobles lived decadently in their cities while the vast majority suffered in poverty. The wealthy erected defenses to protect themselves against an uprising. Also, the Mayans were bright mathematicians and engineers. They calculated the need for a Leap Year and worked it into their calendar. They created elaborate systems of canals and made sure their crops were on high land to better protect them from annual floods.

I like this idea of a total misunderstanding of the culture. From reading the adventure summary, I know the heroes will eventually encounter modern day Mayans. If the PCs expect to find dancing hippies eating mangoes and wind up encountering intelligent, tactically savvy, well-defended people, it will make great roleplaying fodder.

The module background tells of two cults. The House of Skulls possessed the crystal skull and performed sacrificial rituals to appease the gods, power the skull and make sure no one could stand up to them. Priests and nobles belonged to this group. I imagine celebrities also were card carrying members—like bloodthirsty Scientologists.

The House of Serpents was the Mayan Rebel Alliance: peasants trying to undermine the bloodthirsty power mongers, hoping to save their family members from torture or becoming sacrificial offerings.

For hundreds of years, these cults clashed, until the 9th century, when the two cults met in open warfare. During the showdown, the leaders and of both cults were slain…


Every module has this: an incredible scene that takes place way before the heroes were born. A scene you wish you could include in your campaign.

Why not? Why do we need to have this battle take place in the 9th century and not the 20th? The only historic plot point we need to worry about to keep the module intact is that around 1927 F.A. Mitchell-Hedges finds the skull and returns to Britain with it. The circumstances around the discovery are fair game for us to spin a wild yarn around.

How about a Raiders-like race between the Mitchell-Hedges team and Harold Oxley’s team of misfits? Of course, your PCs will be working with Oxley’s idealistic academia rebels?  Mitchell-Hedges’s team will be snooty, by-the-books but not above waving a revolver around when no one is looking. Think of it as the Bill Paxton tornado chasing team versus the Cary Elwes team in Twister.

After a brief glance at the Mitchell-Hedges Wikipedia entry, I learned that Mitchell-Hedges was a colorful enigmatic character. Some thought he was a British spy. Some thought he was independently wealthy and traveled for kicks. This sounds like a wonderful character to develop into a BBEG. Was he a spy? Was he funded by some shady organization or billionaire, like the shadow groups and thugs manipulating the main characters of Lost? Even if Mitchell-Hedges doesn’t harbor personal grudges against the PCs, his employers might.

jakeIf you start the campaign with Harold Oxley recruiting for an expedition to find a lost Mayan city, most pulp archetypes can easily be involved. A professor might be up for tenure, and Oxley is on the tenure committee. Can the professor possibly refuse Oxley’s offer to assist on an expedition? There are lots of dangerous creatures in the jungle. Soldiers of fortune and survivalists are certainly needed. Journalists bring great publicity to an expedition. Their words and pictures could help fund the university’s next major trek. An expert on a topic other than the Mayans might be dating someone who is an expert in Mezzo-American studies and took off with Oxley’s team before her boyfriend found out. The boyfriend charters a plane and travels the globe to keep his love from getting in too deep.

Less obvious archetypes can be brought in by using the backstory  Your buddy Ryan wants to play a Willie Scott entertainer. Why would she go looking for a lost civilization? Perhaps she has a history of family members joining the House of Serpents. When the expedition meets at her club for a night on the town before heading into the rainforest  Willie recognizes a symbol on a necklace the foreigners are studying… a symbol that was tattooed on her mother and grandmother. Then, she starts to have visions of a crystal skull summoning her. It would make a wonderful subplot if agents of the House of Serpents knew Willie was with a group closing in on their territory. She would be a powerful bargaining chip to use against the House of Serpents.

Another generic hook could be that the Skull chooses its future leaders by calling to them in their dreams and sharing visions of these “chosen ones” to its priests. The PC feels compelled to join the expedition and learn why they are having such visions. This isn’t much different than the Others’ prophecy that John Locke should lead them on Lost.

Back to the story. The PCs find the lost city as the cult showdown begins. This gives Mitchell-Hedges a chance to sneak in the back and take the crystal skull. The snarky Mitchell-Hedges waves to the PCs from the safety of his plane, crystal skull in his lap.

This would make a cool campaign opening. Wait a minute! This would mean writing an original module. The whole idea was to have spare time left over and not quadruple the work. Here’s a secret: you don’t have to write the module. Someone probably did it for you.

Next time, I’ll tell you how I found the adventure in only two minutes.

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