Wood Planet Gaming Lodge interviews Jeff Combos~
6SI: Earlier this year I stumbled across Hollow Earth Expedition (HEX) while on a Pulp movie/book binge and immediately snagged up the entire line (yes, including the out of print GM screen) minus the latest release, Revelations of Mars. I jumped on HEX for the simple fact that the premise is both a refreshing change of pace for me, and the rule system seemed solid yet easy to use. That said, will you speak a little on the journey that led to the creation of HEX back in the early 2000’s?
Jeff Combos: HEX has a quirky history. I actually created a one-shot Hollow Earth Expedition game for a convention in the mid-nineties, but a technical glitch prevented it from getting added to the schedule, so I never got to run it. Disappointed, I shelved the idea with the idea that I might do something with it in the future.
Now fast forward to 2003. I’d just founded Exile Game Studio and knew that I wanted to produce a role-playing game using a new system, but I hadn’t decided on the setting just yet. I did consider HEX (among other concepts) but at the time I thought a no-name company producing a no-name game using a no-name system would have a tough time finding players. Instead, I decided to pursue a licensed property that might get people more excited.
I spent a year or so educating a movie producer on the RPG industry and trying to convince him to let me have the rights I wanted for a reasonable price. I eventually gave up when it became clear that he had bigger fish to fry. This put me back to square one, but chasing a licensed property had shown me how much trouble they could be. Developing my own property would be riskier, but I wouldn’t have to pay royalties or answer to anyone but myself, so I decided to give it a go.
And yet, HEX still didn’t pop to the top of my list. I knew that feeding Nazis to dinosaurs was cool and original, but pulp RPGs had not done well traditionally, so I looked at some other ideas first. Nothing excited me as much as HEX did, and found myself coming back to it again and again. And when it dawned on me to split the genre so and have each book focus on a different flavor of pulp, I finally committed to producing HEX.
So in the end, I created HEX because there was no way for me to not create HEX.
6SI: Following that up… most people I know don’t just create a tabletop role-playing game unless they have a deep love for sitting around a table with a group of people, telling stories, and rolling dice. That said, could you take a moment and tell the WPGL readers who Jeff Combos is when it comes to your tabletop gaming backstory? How long have you been a role-player? What game first hooked you? Et cetera.
JC: I’ve been a role-player since I was a wee lad, getting my start in 1981 when my older siblings dragged me into a D&D game with them and their friends. I didn’t really know what I was doing, but I was hooked by the interactive storytelling and soon I was reading the books and making my own characters. I still remember buying the D&D red box and coloring in the numbers on the dice with a crayon, since they came blank in those days.
Ultimately, my interest in roleplaying outlasted my siblings, but I was lucky enough to have caught the bug when it was in its first heyday. I still remember the joy of seeing people gaming on the big screen in E.T., even though I didn’t understand why they didn’t get all the details right. Still, roleplaying’s popularity made it easier to find other players—and once you meet other people, you get introduced to other games and other genres. Throughout my teen years, I played lots of different games with lots of different systems. In fact, it might be easier to list the games I didn’t play at least once, as that’s probably a shorter list. By high school, I’d gotten hooked on Shadowrun, which ended up being the go-to game for me and my friends. We happily played that game for years, and I still have my first edition rulebook sitting on my bookshelf.
I also made my first game during this time. It was more of a board/card game where you played a spy that had to perform different missions, like collect data or find all the pieces of a rifle to take out a bad guy. The only problem is that the maps were random and the things you were looking for were on slips of paper that were randomly distributed around the board. It was fairly rudimentary, but it was different each time you played it, which was cool. There were others, of course, but that was the first one that I can remember.
My interest in games meant that I was always on the lookout for new ones, and I’d usually try to get my friends to play anything that piqued my interest. That’s how I ended up buying the first edition of Vampire: the Masquerade. There really wasn’t anything like it at the time, which made it a bit of a hard sell with my friends, but pulling on that thread eventually led me to getting my first freelance writing gig working for White Wolf. And the rest, as they say, is history.
6SI: Hollow Earth Expedition is powered by the Ubiquity system. Which to be honest I had never heard about prior to picking up HEX this year, even though there’s a few companies which you’ve licensed to have Ubiquity based products. With so many solid systems out there – d20, d100, FATE, Savage Worlds (just to name a few) – what led you to construct a fresh rule-set instead of using a pre-existing one?
JC: Great question. Despite how small the industry is, and how much growth the Ubiquity fan-base has had over the years, there are still a lot of people who haven’t discovered the rules set yet. But the fact that the player base continues to grow and I regularly get inquiries about licensing it for new games tells me that it’s more than just a flash in the pan, and if support remains strong, Ubiquity may someday be listed alongside the other game systems you mentioned.
To get back to your question, I started working on Ubiquity in the early 2000’s, at a time when it seemed like everyone was making a d20 game or sourcebook. Considering how prevalent it was, I figured that people were going to get tired of it eventually and would be interested in trying something new. Savage Worlds was already out there, which I liked (and still do), but FATE and other innovative game systems were still being developed. Clearly, I wasn’t the only one who had an itch for something other than d20!
Even if all those other systems were already out there, I would probably have developed Ubiquity anyway. Every system has its strengths and weaknesses, and there are some things that Ubiquity does particularly well, which is why it continues to thrive even though it is not as well-known. For example, I wanted the time between picking up the game and sitting down to play to be a short as possible, which means that it is pretty easy for new players to pick up a Ubiquity game even if they haven’t roleplayed before. I also wanted to streamline a few things, like the number of dice you roll and how often, which means that Ubiquity runs very fast. Plus, there is a mechanic for rewarding players for doing the kinds of things that make for a good story, including making mistakes, which keeps the game fun and interesting. That makes Ubiquity a good choice for people who want a nice balance of rules and role-playing in their games.
But then again, I’m biased. Your mileage may vary, of course.
6SI: The Hollow Earth Expedition line has really filled out since its release in 2006. Over the years It has been nominated for several Origins and ENnie awards. HEX adventures have been part of the Free RPG Day event on more than one occasion. Additionally, you’ve even had a couple successfully Kickstarter campaigns for the line. The setting has traversed the Hollow Earth, made its away across the Surface World, and most recently trekked to Mars. The breadth, and staying power, of the setting makes me wonder where else is left to go. So, what’s next for the HEX-verse?
JC: It worries some people when I say this, but with Revelations of Mars out the door, HEX is finally complete, which is to say that it is finally at the scope I’d originally envisioned for the game. That does not mean we’re going to stop supporting it or that HEX is done. Far from it! The setting includes three loosely connected game worlds (surface world, Hollow Earth, and Mars), so there are an amazing number of adventures and stories to be told, and we’d certainly like to do that.
It’s taken a long time to get HEX to this point, however. In fact, next year will be the 10th anniversary of the game, which gives us an opportunity to take stock of it in its entirety. A lot has changed since HEX first came out, and we’ve tweaked a few things here and there along the way. Even the game setting has shifted a bit from what I originally envisioned, which means that there are a few places where things don’t align perfectly or make total sense. So next year may be a good time to start updating HEX and smoothing everything out.
6SI: With the creation of Ubiquity, and HEX, you stepped out into the deep in order to bring your vision, your role-playing dream, to life. Furthermore, as I previously mentioned, Exile Game Studio has chosen to permit others to bring their ideas to fruition using the Ubiquity system. Some of which include: Leagues of Adventure (Triple Ace Games), Space: 1889 (Clockwork Publishing), and the forthcoming Quantum Black (Quantum Black Games). As of the time of this interview there’s no generic toolkit edition of Ubiquity on the market (think Chaosium’s Basic Role Playing Big Gold Book). So, in light of that, was there ever any hesitation in opening up Ubiquity to others? Or do you maintain a “Ubiquity Bible” of sorts that removes any concerns about the possible distortion of the rule-set?
JC: Don’t forget Desolation (Greymalkin Designs), Regime Diabolic (Triple Ace Games), and the upcoming Roan (Clear Skies). There’s a lot of different Ubiquity games out there for people who like the system but may not love the pulp genre.
As for your specific question, no, I never hesitated to open up Ubiquity to other game designers, mostly because I started with the game system and then adapted it to Hollow Earth Expedition. With that being the case, I felt the core of the system was something that could work for other settings, provided the people involved could see what I was trying to accomplish beneath the pulp paintjob I’d put over the system.
And lucky me, I’ve been approached by many people over the years who wanted to do just that. In fact, I’ve given out more licenses than the ones we’ve mentioned here, but game development is a lot like exploring the Hollow Earth—it’s dangerous and not every expedition is successful.
What’s been even more surprising is that people have been asking me to produce a generic Ubiquity rulebook pretty much from the beginning. Much like Mars, it was something I dared not hope for to start, but role-players have great imaginations and many of them were way ahead of me. They could see that Ubiquity would work for more than just a pulp game. It’s been a long time since it first came out, but I’d still like to update the system and put out as a toolkit for people to play with. I’ve even playtested some of the major changes, and it went well, but there is still a lot more work that needs to be done to get it ready to release into the world.
For now, I’ll just say that the more people ask me for a generic Ubiquity rulebook, the more likely it will become a real thing with a real release date. For now, there are plenty of great Ubiquity powered games out there for people to play and enjoy.
6SI: So, HEX has finally blossomed into the beautiful flower you envisioned from the start. You say that you’re not going to stop supporting it, after all there are still stories to tell and adventure to be had. However, like you said HEX is coming up on its 10th year so that leads me to my final question: Are there any potential non-HEX ideas bobbing about in your mind that you would be interested in sharing?
JC: Oh my, yes! I have a long list of different ideas that I’d love to put out into the world. In fact, I have a list of ideas—OK, it’s more of a folder filled with documents and inspirations—that I used to capture brainstorms when they occur. That way I can hold onto them while I focus on Hollow Earth Expedition.
As lucky as I’ve been to find an audience with HEX, I didn’t want to be known only for feeding Nazis to dinosaurs. Fortunately, I’ve had opportunities to work on other kinds of games, which has helped me scratch the itch to do other things. For example, I’ve worked on a collectable card game for young girls about magical horses and a video game about flying around with a jetpack, shooting robots in the face. And the last big project I worked on was at Microsoft, where I helped develop Quantum Break—a video game/TV show hybrid that will come out next year.
As much fun as that stuff has been, there is nothing quite as thrilling as working on your own thing. That’s why I’ve pretty much always been working on HEX. Even when my day job was sucking up all my free time and creative energy, I would write up some notes for when I had the chance to return to the Hollow Earth.
To get back to your question, one of the reasons I’m excited about the Ubiquity system growing in popularity is that it means I’ll have more of a chance to develop other settings for it in the future. I can’t expect that each one will be as popular as HEX, but it might be fun to try out a few in a smaller way and see which ones people gravitate to and want to see supported. I think that would be a lot of fun, provided it doesn’t take too much time way from HEX. Those Nazis are not going to feed themselves to dinosaurs, after all.
6SI: In closing I’d like to thank Jeff Combos for taking the time to be part of the Six Shot Interviews series here at Wood Planet Gaming Lodge. As I’ve expressed I really like what I’ve seen of not only HEX, but Ubiquity overall. Exile Game Studio has a fine product in HEX, and obviously there’s a great creator behind the company.