HEXing Seoul, part 1

On Sunday, I met with new gamers for the first time in years. My efforts at contacting players in the Seoul area interested in trying Hollow Earth Expedition have turned up 4 possible candidates, two of which were able to make Sunday’s trial run of a very short introductory experience.

Normally, I like to make a strong first impression with period audio tracks and images, and get the action moving early – focusing on essential elements of character, and the most common elements of the system. My normal goals in these things to make sure everyone knows how I facilitate things, what the system feels like, and what sort of characters the others are shooting for.

I didn’t do that this time.

I would like to say that this was entirely intentional, and I had a well-considered plan, but that would be the kind of fiction my parents taught me to call a lie. The truth is that through a combination of factors, I just did not have time to get ready for what I normally do. Fate played a big role in turning the volume way down from 11.

A Symphony of Destruction

I had the scenario planned out, I had a trailer video, and I had pre-generated characters designed to work well together, bring up interesting system uses and provide insight into the genre, complete with lots of interaction hooks to the story, setting, and each other. Being something of an audiophile I of course had all the visuals and audio I needed. What I didn’t have was a place to run the game, a convenient way to get everything there, or a good idea of how the play styles of these strangers would actually manifest. It was this latter point which was my greatest concern initially.

The lack of an established venue however created its own subset of problems which soon took center stage. The largest of these was a cost that turned out to be higher than any of us wanted to pay to use the space we found. This heightened the motivation to restrict the length of play to 4 hours or less, making each delay or hurdle more of a bother than it needed to be. We had started out looking for a board game café on the off-chance that it might be quiet enough to use on a Sunday morning, but instead, the night before the day that game was scheduled to be held, we were finally able to find a multicafe close to the subway station that was willing to give us a large, private, corner room.

Who keeps stealing all the damn nails?

With that problem solved, I set about designing how I would make use of the room for the game, when to top everything off, both my printer and that of the other regular, remaining member of my group gave up the ghost, leaving me with no way to get character sheets and rules handouts printed off before the game. We would have to write the characters out by hand. This was definitely not the first impression I wanted to make.

As I was making my way on Sunday morning to the ‘multicafe’ we had selected, I began to mull over how to make a lemonade omelet out of the broken lemons the day was handing me. A multicafe provides private or semi-private rooms for small groups of people seeking entertainment and includes computers, Wii consoles, and a smorgasbord of snacks. Sadly, many also have theme rooms and the one assigned to us turned out to have a tiny round table and a touch of sparkly, fairy princess décor. Our first session was looking like it was going to start out with an imagination deficit. Not one to let minor problems get me down, I reassessed the situation and decided to do the opposite of what I normally do. I decided to run the first session as an audition combined with a meet and greet. Once the bugbear of the room had been faced, returning to the earlier concern about what these new players are like was easier.

Actual Play

The first issue was the characters. Turning this problem into a plus was easy as I had always intended to use the characters as a window into the nuts and bolts of the system. Having to write the information out by hand-made everything more memorable for the players and I definitely want to incorporate a more polished means of accomplishing this into my usual first game routine. It was one of those moments where I wanted to slap myself and wonder why I had never thought about it before: I use this all the time in my job.

The next thing was to decide whether or not to go with the visuals and sound. The room was oppressive; too warm, too cutesy, and far too bright. Deciding that there was no way for even my spectacular 19” laptop with built-in 5.1 surround sound to cope with the soul-sucking cheerfulness of that room, I choose to forego that route and instead rely solely on the imagination of the players. My normal sessions lack frills, so this did not feel odd in play, but the first few moments after deciding to sacrifice the props for pure description and evocation felt a little bit like I was cheating both the players and myself out of a good experience.

That feeling went away with the reaction the very first sentence out of my mouth drew out of the players. We were off to the races!

Even so, there was no escaping the realization that the players were not really getting a good sense of how I run my games, and with 1 hour spent on taking in the rules and characters and only 3 hours to play, there was really no way for them to do that. Accepting that, I shifted gears in play, altered the structure of scene 1 of the introductory one-shot, and started to shape the scenes in order to draw actions and interactions out of the players that would enable them to demonstrate who they are and how they like to play. I felt it was the best possible use of the time, but that it might have a negative impact on the potential fun of the story.

The story had its high and low moments and the group had moments where they shone together, but more moments where they were three individuals all in the same scene. The primary culprit I could see for this was not a lack of familiarity with each other, but a lack of familiarity with the genre. A common frame of reference for what constitutes ‘normal’ in a heroic pulp tale was essentially absent. As they were interested and asked questions this frequently took us out of the immersive game play that fortunately everyone seemed to prefer and into OOC genre discussions which while productive, ate up time and killed momentum. It was not a bad session, but other than the opening scene, it was not memorable.

What I take away from this experience is that with refinement, a lot of what occurred on Sunday could be applied effectively to initial sessions with new players. I also found it interesting to see again just how hard it is for players to get into the mindset for the pulp heroism genre. Despite having links to the campaign material, access to the core setting material, access to this blog, and access to all the film and book references I commonly use as referents, only one really seemed to get it. Adapting to the spirit of the rules was easy, adapting to the mores of the time was hard. To their credit, everyone tried, and I view it all as a work in progress rather than a wash. Still, it shows us to what a broad and deep extent the tropes of ‘fantasy’ have penetrated the collective consciousness of gamers, while the values of our grandfathers have almost completely disappeared.

Thinking about it now, had I set them to play Desolation, or even All for One, I believe they would have quickly and easily coalesced into a party and taken on very different challenges in more dramatic ways than what they chose to do as residents of a 1930’s Shanghai on an Earth which might be hollow.

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