• Turning the world inside out – female societies in Hollow Earth Expedition

    by  • March 26, 2012 • Essays • 1 Comment

    My gaming group rotates games and GMs almost weekly. We have at least half a dozen ongoing campaigns, and numerous other one-shot games under our belts. My on-going game is Hollow Earth Expedition – a pulp adventure game that I fell in love with last summer at the Origins Game Fair. For those unfamiliar with the game, it’s set in 1936 (and starts with an extensive history of various countries as they were in 1936 so you can easily set your surface world adventures in almost any country that existed at the time) in a world where the Earth is hollow and inhabited by dinosaurs, pirates, descendants of Atlantis and ancient Egyptians and any other number of fantastic, pulp adventure creatures and civilizations. It’s a wild ride.

    When I planned out our first session, I had no idea whether the game would become a recurring one for the group. So I set up a few antagonist groups and a “big bad” that could be defeated in one session, but was also poised to become the recurring nemesis should the story continue. I very consciously chose to make this nemesis a female character. For one, the femme fatale is a staple of pulp stories – Ilsa Johansen is based explicitly on Elsa Schneider from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade – and for another, the rest of my gaming group is male and I was 99% sure they would all elect to play male characters (I was correct). It was my job, more than usual, to inject some estrogen into my campaign.

    Looking through the various people that populate the hollow earth, as described in the core book, I immediately latched on to the Amazons as characters I was interested in exploring. For one thing, I’m already somewhat familiar with Amazonian legends thanks to a character I played in a different game (my character in our Dresden Files game is the emissary of Artemis and a descendant of Amazons). That meant I was more comfortable with making things up on the fly. It also meant I got to have all sorts of female characters to play with – and right off the pat hit home how different this world was from the world the adventurer’s had left. The party is nominally led by a (mad) scientist with the condescending flaw – towards anyone, really, but it gets kicked up a notch around women. Then there’s the dwarf movie director (along to record the scientist’s discoveries in Egypt, where everything started), and the cowboy thrill-seeker who works security. All manly archetypes – and suddenly after being chased down by Velociraptors, they’re imprisoned and the Amazon Queen is lamenting that a viral outbreak killed off a significant portion of their men and asking if any of the PCs are good at baking bread. When it was clear that the men weren’t going to be useful for any domestic tasks, the queen begrudgingly gave them the task of protecting an Amazonian holy site from the Nazis.

    It’s always Nazis in Hollow Earth.

    After not-quite-succeeding, but not-totally-failing either, the Amazons cast out the PCs, but gave them vague directions towards civilization, a pirate town. For our next session, I decided they couldn’t arrive just yet – isn’t getting there half the fun? So the PCs were chased by dinosaurs and apemen into an underground cave, populated by sirens.

    When I came up with the idea for the sirens, I realized that once again my male PCs were going to be facing an entirely female group. I considered scrapping the sirens, or at least delaying them for another game…and then decided not to. Sometimes ideas come to us for a reason, I figure, and in this case, I thought I could make a coincidence of my subconscious into a theme of the world.

    So with the introduction of a third matriarchal group – a band of pirate women who ran away from the pirate town, fed up with being housewives and barkeeps while the men were having adventures being pirates – it’s officially a theme in my Hollow Earth Expedition campaign – women are running their own societies down here. It’s made for, in my opinion, some fun role playing moments – questioning the pirate men what they did that made the women leave under the guise of being kidnapped, or using Hollywood-style charm to convince the Amazons not to kill the party on sight stand out for me.

    But there have been struggles as well. In some ways, I think it’s given the characters excuses to be more sexist than they would normally have been. Maybe it’s just coming up more often because they’re meeting women NPCs more often than they usually would (my group does a good job of keeping NPCs genders fairly balanced, but in this world I’ve created there are probably three female NPCs for every one male). That is, these characters would always be sexist, as a product of the time they are from, and I’m just giving them more opportunities to demonstrate that aspect of their characters. I’m going to start actively trying to encourage character growth – now that it’s clear this is an on-going campaign, the characters should start developing more. While it’s something of a pulp convention that characters stay relatively flat, I want to encourage more well-rounded characters (and would love advice from more experienced GMs on how to accomplish that!). The sexism may still be there – after all, it’s 2012 and there’s still plenty of sexism to go around – but maybe the character who keeps getting poked with a spear/broom handle/sword will learn to keep his mouth shut sometimes when pointy objects are being wielded by a woman.

    I’ve got at least one more matriarchal society up my sleeve – one that’s more balanced than the Amazons or the pirates, but will still feature more female leaders than male. Next up, however, the PCs are back in a pirate settlement, and this one I’m planning on making a somewhat idealized pirate society. Mostly male, with plenty of wenches around, but women who have proved themselves by sword or gun are welcome at the table. Maybe seeing other men that aren’t threatened by these powerful women will have an effect on the PCs? Only time will tell.

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    About

    Lifelong geek and feminist, my geeky passions include YA books, movies, and role playing. I've been playing table top games on and off for almost ten years with a wide variety of games under my belt in that time. Born and raised in Michigan, I've fulfilled a life-long dream and now live in New York City with my spouse and three cats. My gaming exploits are recorded at http://www.fandible.com

    One Response to Turning the world inside out – female societies in Hollow Earth Expedition

    1. avatar
      April 2, 2012 at 08:55

      It’s great to see Hollow Earth Expedition and the Ubiquity system getting some love. After running a short 3-session adventure for my group last year it’s become one of my favorite systems because of it’s simplicity, speed, and tone. I think it does a great job emulating the pulp adventure stories, with characters and action that is slightly over the top but still somewhat believable and dangerous.

      I’ll be curious to know how and if your player’s PCs develop as the story continues. As you mentioned, pulp characters are usually fairly two-dimensional and often remain that way, especially personality wise. Also, if you’re playing in a historical setting (even an alternate reality one like HEX) I think a discussion of how “true to the times” your game will be is always a good idea.

      When my group played HEX, we made a list of classic pulp archetypes for the players to choose from. One of them chose to play as a female reporter (his first female character ever) and another player said he wanted to “be a character like Wesly Snipes from the ‘Blade’ movie” (ugh). I thought that meant he wanted to play an African American character, and so we had a serious discussion about how women and minorities were seen in the 1930′s. As the GM I said that I didn’t really want to explore racism and/or sexism in such a short campaign, but that NPCs would be biased towards white male PCs because (unfortunately) that’s how the world worked back then. It turns out that the ‘Blade’ player just wanted his PC to carry a machete (again, ugh) and didn’t mean he wanted to be African American after all.

      The game went well and everyone had a good time. After the campaign a few of the players said that the game would not have been as interesting or as fun if the setting had been “white washed”; meaning that the sexual, racial, and economic biases of the time were intentionally left out and everyone was equal.

      I really like how you used the fantastic Hollow Earth setting to turn the sexually biased conventions of the 1930′s on their head by including so many women in positions of power. It’s going to give the players in your group a lot of opportunity to wither grow and develop their characters, or to complicate their character’s lives by trying to impose what they think is “normal” onto these new cultures they find.

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