07 August 2011

GenCon Update: Hollow Earth Expedition

We've played the Hollow Earth Expedition/Ubiquity game system before in a few of their sample adventures which we enjoyed, and I have been watching Doctor Who since I was a child, so when it happened that the two coincided here at GenCon we signed up for slots.  A good time was had by all.  This is a little review of the Ubiquity/HEX system game Doctor Who: Is There a Doctor In the House?and mostly a review of the system itself.  There will be spoilers for Doctor Who in this review, I can't help it.  Feel free to skip the Game Specifics section if that bothers you.

Game Specifics: GM Scott had pregenerated Companion character sheets ranging across the time spectrum; it so happened that we selected our sheets so they were arrayed around the table in chronological Companion order - from Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart to Sarah Jane Smith to K-9 Mark III to Ace to Captain Jack Harkness to Amy to Rory.  GM Scott had done something interesting with the characters: on the back of the sheets was the timeline reference for that particular character, as well as some keynotes to remind what precisely each character knew. Sarah Jane had not yet met K-9.  Jack was placed shortly after the events of The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances, well prior to gaining immortality.  Rory (wearing centurion gear, of course) had the entire span of his very long memory available to him, but Amy was taken from the time shortly after Rory had been erased in Cold Blood and so effectively did not know who he was.  We spent a few minutes figuring out how up-to-date everyone was on the current season so as not to spoiler anything on accident, and then the action rolled.
In short: timey-wimey stuff happened and the companions were all dropped onto the fields of an 1860's British isle. The Doctor was trapped.  The Tardis wasn't working.  It had all the makings of an episode, and GM Scott did an excellent job keeping the action moving.  There was the Brigadier heroically facing down a very large tree-person with his service revolver.  There was Sarah Jane being handed a robotic dog and told to "aim the nose."  There was a can of Nitro-9 and a successful check to get the fuse mostly right.  There was Captain Jack informing Rory that there was no need to get period-appropriate garb as "I like you just fine in that."  There was a lot of Rory protecting Amy against her will, and Amy stomping off on her own affairs.  There were gadgets and gizmos with odd names and blinking lights.  There was a Sonic Screwdriver and a lot of pointing it at things and waving it hopefully.  There was also, as always, a last-minute wrapup just as things seemed to be running out of time to end happily.
I walked away from the session very satisfied and entertained, also wondering where four hours had gone so quickly.  We had a great time and I think that thanks for that are due both to GM Scott's prior playtesting and careful preparation and to the players he got, who made their characters really come to life.  High marks for the game!

Second Round:  Later that night we picked up a handful of our gaming friends and a few six-packs of cider and craft beer.  Flush with new Ubiquity system toys we decided to give another sample adventure a try, using the pregenerated sample characters (HEX actually comes with a lot of pregenerated characters - downloadable here if you are interested - which serve both to save time for playing with first-timers and to demonstrate well-built characters with a lot of variety.)  The results were no less spectacular despite only about fifteen minutes' worth of prep time on GM Matt's part: when our plane went down through a rift in the sky and landed in the Hollow Earth, there was larceny and gunslinging and giant moving steamer trunks with fangs (Flaw: Poor Vision and Perception 6, played with an exquisitely humorous touch).  Much like the Doctor Who game, the story is in the story - a collective narrative formed that sometimes threatened to take on a life of its own and leave without worrying about any silly GM adjucation.   We got through the scenario in 2-3 hours with adventure to spare.

Gameplay: This was my first time under an experienced Hollow Earth GM, and I am no less a fan of the system because of it.  The flexibility of Ubiquity at base makes it fairly setting-agnostic: characters are a collection of stats and traits that can be customized to fit your particular needs.  This is a system in which the character sheet describes the character rather than defining it, allowing you to craft a character whose stats actually add depth and personality.  Furthermore, the Ubiquity system deliberately rewards good roleplay with tangible effects.
There are motivations and flaws: playing either well (For example: Amy's obstinacy causing the party trouble; Rory doing something foolishly heroic for love) results in gaining Style Points, which can be traded in down the road to either gain extra dice on a roll or to soak damage.  Exile Games actually makes physical Style Points, which look a lot like repurposed poker chips, and GM Scott had a pile of them to fling at players as the game progressed.  We gained a lot of them.  We spent them just as freely, whenever a little more oomph was required to keep a suitably epic feel to the action - or, in the case of the Brig, whenever his service revolver failed to stop the advancing tree-people.  On my part, having a pile of Style Points in front of me gave me more leeway to send Amy charging headlong into danger despite my player's inclination to protect the character, which lent itself to more accurate roleplaying.

Mechanics: This session was advertised as "no experience needed" and we got some players who had never heard of HEX/Ubiquity before.  Explaining the character sheets and game mechanics took perhaps ten or fifteen minutes at most, and some of that was repeating it as players trickled in.  There's not much roll playing in the system at all.  The die system in Ubiquity is a stripped-down dice pool mechanic: you take your rating in a skill, if you have it, a number based on an appropriate attribute if you don't; you apply any bonuses or penalties from your character sheet or special circumstances; you roll that many dice and you count successes.  Each die has a 50-50 chance of success or failure; you choose your mechanic.  I use evens.  Rory switched from evens to odds halfway through the game after failing repeatedly.  Some people use high-low, but that's too much math for me.  If you really don't relish the idea of rolling a handful of dice and picking through them you can just take the average: use half of your die pool as your number of successes, flipping a coin if your dice pool is an odd number.  Compare your successes to a target number.  It's quick and easy and I still get to roll whole handfuls of dice, which I find to be extremely satisfying.

Combat: Taking out the tree-people the first time was smooth and juicy, aided by K-9's nose laser and Captain Jack's 14-die sonic blaster.  We lost two players to family obligations before the next combat, which did showcase the downside of the Ubiquity mechanic: combat can drag.  It's up to the players and the GM to keep things interesting  as you roll a handful of dice, and the GM rolls a handful of dice, and you cancel out your defense successes against their attack successes and take some generic damage or not, and then do the whole thing again.  The Brig had an inspiring stream of orders going which did give us extra dice, but we were far less well-armed than the first encounter and I suspect the plant people were stronger as well; it began to turn into an endurance test after a few rounds.  Thankfully, this did not go unnoticed: GM Scott had the insight and skill to gracefully wind down the combat several rounds before it probably should have ended, and handwave aside several guards later in the adventure to spare us another slug-fest.
I believe that combat should be an integral part of an adventure, not an interruption in its flow: too long and players are exhausted and lose the sense of high epic drama; too short and it's hardly worth doing.  Our first encounter was scary and satisfying, the second not so much so.  I'd estimate that for me Ubiquity gets three, maybe four rounds before there is a definite need to add spice to avoid the endurance test factor; this is a little too short for my tastes but your mileage may vary.
There are some built-in mechanics for making boss fights palatable: a flanking mechanic means you are subtracting defense dice every time you add an additional attacker against a single target.  I have not looked at the magic supplement yet so there may be spice aplenty in that as well.  It may be that Amy's single weapon was a dead tree branch and so there wasn't much variety I could work with.  Regardless, I am far more satisfied with the Ubiquity mechanics as they relate to actual roleplaying than I was with the combat in the system. It's far from terrible, but it is definitely designed to be an underpinning to some epic narrative skills rather than stand on its own.

Replayability: The characters in Ubiquity are designed as people rather than collections of statistics: they have goals and motivations and hopes and dreams and histories.  The system revolves around playing those out, and I sense a high campaign quotient out of it.  Character advancement is done through an XP purchase system rather than leveling, allowing players to customize how their characters grow and change.  The sample adventures that HEX provides are all keyed toward trapping characters in the Hollow Earth itself, with a goal toward a sustained campaign arc - probably of moderate to epic length; there are endless possibilities for what happens inside - partly dependent on how or whether the party gets out. 

Verdict: We already had the HEX core rulebook, and so the decision being made was whether to invest more money in the system.  Both Matt and I tend to run games more focused on roleplaying than combat, and we were satisfied enough that we picked up the GM screen, an Enny-nominated module, and the Secrets of the Surface World expansion (sorcery, psychic powers, and weird science).  It's the best GM screen I've ever seen: sturdy enough to stun a rabid lemur with and loaded with four pages of useful information.  I haven't read through the expansion or the module yet.

If you are a GM with a heavy storytelling focus and you want to run an adventure or a campaign with a lot of character development and high pulp drama, I'm happy to recommend HEX/Ubiquity despite the combat - just plan ahead and read some good old-fashioned pulp novels (Ian Fleming's James Bond books are also a good resource) to get your "bam" and "pow" up to speed.
If you depend on the game mechanics - magic items and skills and powers and weapons - to keep things interesting, this may not be the system for you.  Shame, though.  I still recommend some pulp novels.


  1. Thanks for the kind words about the game I ran. I passed your thoughts on to the people at Exile Game Studios.

  2. Thanks for that! I really did have a blast.