Friday, June 6, 2014

Geek Chat: Interview with Steve Johnson and Leighton Connor of Hex Games Part 1

I met Steve Johnson, Operations Director of Hex Games, at a convention a few years ago when I attended a couple of Hex's sessions in the gaming track. I learned that we were alumni of the same college and I've kept up with the goings on of the company over the last few years. The folks at Hex have been very supportive of Kentucky Geek Girl and I'm delighted to feature their new release, Dynateens: Surf Force here on the blog.

From Drive-Thru RPG:

When the evil forces of Megalodon the Mighty threaten the submarine city of New Atlantis, a team of super-powered teenagers, the Dynateens, arise to meet that threat. But are they strong enough to defeat the Great Shark menace and save humanity?

Dynateens: Surf Force is an action-packed game of aquatic adventure designed for use with the QAGS Second Edition rules. It includes background on the setting, rules for creating Dynateen characters, genre tropes, sample characters, adventure templates, character sheets, and more!

Dynateens: Surf Force is written by Ian “Aces & Apes” Engle and illustrated by Joshua LH Burnett, with a cover by James Hornsby.

Go go, Dynateens!

I'm delighted to be joined on the blog today by Steve and Leighton Connor, Creative Director, as they shed some insight on how Hex came together, their creative process, and their convention experiences. I'll have info on how you can win a copy of Dynateens and QAGs Second Edition at the end of the interview!

Steve Johnson of Hex Games
Image from QAGS Facebook page
Kentucky Geek Girl (KGG): How did Hex Games come together?

Steve Johnson (Operations Director): Leighton and I went to college together at Transylvania and usually spent at least a night or two a week playing games. At some point, several of us started talking about how we all wanted to write assorted geeky stuff (games, comics, fiction) and decided to start a company and try to publish something. Since the goofy little candy-based game that I’d come up with seemed like the simplest thing to do, we decided it would be our first release and hopefully we could make enough on it to do something else. So far, we’ve mainly stuck to games, but we have managed to keep publishing for 16 years.

Leighton Connor (Creative Director): QAGS (the Quick Ass Game System) was a simple system, so we thought we could sit down and write it in no time at all. It turns out that even a simple game takes a lot of work. It took us a full year, from the time we first sat to brainstorm to when we printed our finished books. We’re much faster now, because we’ve had so much practice, but that was an important lesson--writing is hard work, to say nothing of editing, revising, and layout. If you’re going to make something, you have to be willing to dedicate the time to it.

Steve and I wrote most of the early Hex stuff, with help from college friends like Carter Newton. As time went on, we were lucky to meet talented people, like Ian Engle and Josh Burnett, who were in sync with what we were doing, and who have since become integral parts of the Hex team. Do you have any idea how many games Ian alone has written? The man’s a machine.

KGG: With the RPG systems on the market, what was unique about QAGS?

Steve: When we released the first edition, even we didn’t really think of it as a “serious” game, so we mainly turned it into a parody of everything that annoyed us about gaming and gamers.

Leighton: Also, we wanted the book to be entertaining, and we thought reading plain, straightforward rules would be boring. We spiced it up with jokes. Probably, in retrospect, too many jokes, because there are points in the first edition where the actual rules are obscured by the humor.

Steve: So it started out as a joke, until we actually started running it at conventions and using it for our home games. Suddenly we realized that it worked. You really didn’t need a more complicated system. That’s why the Second Edition (while still being fun to read) goes into a lot more detail about how to use the QAGS rules for more traditional (“serious”) games.

I think QAGS was really the first generic rules set that was simple but not exclusively intended for “silly” games. Despite the jokes in the rule book, you can just as easily use QAGS for a dark horror game as you can for a comedy. There are a lot more rules-light games on the market today, but I think QAGS is still the most open-ended.

KGG: Just to give the readers a frame of reference, what’s the combined years of gaming experience with your team? Did you always play D&D or was there a diverse background?

Steve: It’s hard to give a combined total since “the Hex team” is kind of nebulous--we’re a part-time company without a paid staff, so except for a core crew that handles the essential stuff, everyone’s involvement tends to fluctuate based on what’s going on in their lives. The average gaming experience for our crew is probably somewhere in the 20-25 year range and QAGS was first published in 1998.

I’ve personally been a gamer for over 30 years. In high school, I mainly played D&D. I always wanted to try other games, but except for Top Secret/S.I. and the occasional one-shot of games like Gamma World and Boot Hill and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, most of the gamers I knew were pretty focused on elves and magic swords. When I got to college, I found people who were willing to play other stuff, many of whom went on to work with Hex. During that time, we tried tons of different games (TOON, Shadowrun, Lost Souls, Pandemonium!, TORG, Star Wars, Vampire, Deadlands, etc., etc.) and played several full campaigns (including two that ran for something like six years). That’s also when we started making up our own game worlds and adventures and rules systems. Leighton once ran a Challengers of the Unknown/Crazy Grant Morrison Stuff type of campaign where all conflicts were resolved by consulting a Magic Eightball. We still played D&D, too, but by the time we all started to get tired of it we had so many alternate rules that most people wouldn’t recognize it.

Leighton: I’m less experienced than Steve--I’ve only been gaming for 27 years. I played a lot of D&D in high school, but I gradually got more interested in other games. Before I started using QAGS for all my gaming needs, I would say my favorite games were Ghostbusters, Star Wars, and TOON.

KGG: You all have put together a lot of genres with your games. Do you try to appeal to different interests and gaming styles?

Steve: We learned a long time ago that trying to appeal to other people wasn’t our strong suit. So these days we write games that we want to write and hope that other people want to play them, which is actually a viable business model today thanks to PDF sales and print on demand. Since we have a lot of different creators and they all have eclectic tastes, our product line casts a pretty broad net.

Leighton: I think it’s safe to say that we’re all interested in experimenting with genres--not just trying out different genres, but warping them, mixing them, taking them apart, and putting them back together. It would probably be a more sensible business plan for us to focus on one genre. For example, we won an ENnie award for Hobomancer, and that’s a game with a strong premise that people seem to connect with, so it would make sense for us to only release hobo-themed books. That’s never going to happen, though, because we would get bored just doing one thing. We’ve got more Hobomancer books coming, but we’ve also got M-Force, and the Legendary Heroes line, and really anything else that strikes our fancy. We’re not doing this to get rich, so it’s important for us to keep doing what we enjoy.

KGG: Is there anything that you’d like to talk about in regard to this project?

Steve: The bad guys are talking sharks!

Leighton: Which means  that you can incorporate ideas from our October 2013 release Sharktoberfest, the ultimate guide to shark-based role-playing.

But anyway, as I mentioned above, the Hex staff members are fairly obsessed with genre fiction. I know I am. I like seeing different genres translated into games, even when they’re genres I don’t know much about. Dynateens: Surf Force is based on the imported-sci-fi-martial-arts-edited-with-new-footage-teen-science-fiction-adventure-tv-show-designed-to-sell-toys genre, which I have very little experience with. In fact, I don’t even know the proper name of that genre. But Ian Engle has done his research, and watched hundreds of hours of these shows, and has distilled the genre down to its basic formula,  and has created lists of tropes so that you can accurately recreate the tone of these shows in your games. I love how he did that.

That’s just on a conceptual level. What really made the game appeal to me was that it sounded like a lot of fun to play. Ian originally wrote a shorter version of Dynateens for use at a con, with no intention of us publishing it. When I read it, though, it captured my imagination--I liked the idea of this underwater city, New Atlantis, complete with a high school and teen drama and frequent attacks by evil talking sharks. It’s the kind of set-up I could see working really well as either a one-shot or a campaign. And it’s a set-up that works whether you’re familiar with the genre or not. After I read that first draft I asked Ian to expand it, and he did, and Josh Burnett provided great illustrations, and James Hornsby drew a gorgeous cover.  I’m really happy with how it turned out.

KGG: What has inspired some of the combinations for games?

Steve: Some of our best sellers (including Hobomancer) were inspired by random dumb ideas we’ve had while talking late at night when everybody’s slap-happy from sleep deprivation. Alcohol is sometimes involved. If it still sounds like a good idea in the morning, we add it to the list of possible supplements. Others are just based on ideas from pop culture that we think would be cool in a game

Leighton: Like Steve said, we have a lot of random ideas, some of which are really dumb and not worth pursuing, and some of which are really dumb and absolutely worth pursuing. And some that aren’t dumb, I guess. Whatever the case, we often try out our ideas as con games. That gives you an idea of how well a concept is going to work with a group of players that you don’t necessarily know. Some of our games start out as con games, with no goal of anything bigger, but then the games go so well that we decide to write them up.

 For instance, Josh once signed up to run a con game called  Funkadelic Frankenstein on the Mean Streets of Monstertown--which is monster movies meets 70s exploitation films-- because he thought the name was funny. He wasn’t really excited by the idea, and thought it was fairly stupid,  but those of us who played in the game loved it,  and we basically pressured him into writing the game. And for the record, we were right--Funkadelic Frankenstein has proven to be consistently popular over the years.

Keep an eye on the blog for Part 2 of the interview in which the guys talk about female gamers, convention experiences, and where they see Hex Games in 5 years.  But for now, enter to win a copy of Dynateens and QAGs! Just follow the instructions in the Rafflecopter and I'll select a winner at random to win digital copies courtesy of Hex Games and Drive-Thru RPG.
a Rafflecopter giveaway

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