The Role-playing Game of egregious and repulsive bloodshed.
By Designer X (Greg Costikyan)
Published by Hogshead Publishing under their “New Style” Imprint
First things first. This isn’t a game. It looks like one, it’s got rules and everything, and there is a humour to the writing of the sort that usually has reviewers joining in to show that they are able to appreciate the joke, lots of “talking directly to the audience”. Except that the humour is of the blackest kind and this still isn’t a game, or at least, not one I’d want to see played.
At the grossest level this is a set of rules to role-play Dungeon bashers for the dying years of the 20th Century, Bikers, Street-Gangs and Junkies who, instead of slaughtering Orcs and casting fireballs to gain treasure, murder single mothers, beat up grannies and rob houses, probably to make enough cash to score your next load of drugs.
The production quality is generally fine, cardstock cover, luridly illustrated containing 32 pages, the printing is clear two-column text, though on a couple of pages the ink is smudged. The interior art is also of a piece with the game, being dark, violent and “image” laden. By the way, that cover comes supplied with 19 cut out experience certificates, of which more later.
The system (tart that I am, I was asked to actually discuss the game) is simple enough, roll characteristics on 3d6 for Strength, Threshold of Pain, Constitution, Intimidation and “Everything Else”. You can agree a certain level of characteristic that, if you get below, you can reroll and you can adjust slightly by taking “disadvantages”. You get Hit Points and Pain Points based on your Constitution and Pain Threshold, some money, not a lot as you are the bottom of the food chain, or at least a bottom-feeder, and points to spend on skills. The skills all have a starting value of “3” and you can raise them to a maximum of 18 by spending 1 point per skill level. To use a skill the GM would decide how difficult the skill is, the harder to do the more faces on the dice and you try and get your skill level or lower. E.g. if you had a skill of 6 in “Locksmithing” and the Lock was “Hard”, then you’d have to roll a D30 to see if you succeed or not.
The system is very rules light, a fast play system where things like “Tactical Movement” are best ignored. Instead the rules discuss Drugs, (finding, what they do to your skills when you’ve used them, Addiction and withdrawal), F***ing (because your characters are not into flowers and chocolates, they are more likely to rape, which is more about power than sex), Monsters (the rules breaks them down into “Decent, Law-Abiding Citizens” and “Pigs” of various sub-varieties), Treasure (Cash, Credit Card or item to fence), Adventure ideas and other staples of Role-playing games.
And that’s the point, or at least part of it, that’s where the humour comes in. I said this wasn’t a game and despite the rules it isn’t, it is a satire on games, the games industry and the society it exists in. It would be comforting to dismiss this as “American Society”, but we have some of the same problems on this side if the pond and it would be self-deluding to be smug about it.
The narrative that the author adopts is full of comments that show a contempt for the gamer public, whom he sarcastically portrays as an overweight mass of sweaty (usually male) inadequates, trying to convince themselves that they are indulging in high art when instead they are usually playing glorified smash-and-grab raids with a little light murder on the side. From the introduction.
“Dunnigan [Jim Dunnigan, head of SPI] had the industry dead to rights when he said that games that sold were always about NATO, Nukes or Nazis. Or rather, he was only wrong because he was talking about wargaiming; the basic sensibility remains.” And later “Enough with this high-falutin’ crap about playing a role or telling a story … Here vile reader you shall find what you desire. Violence of the most degraded kind.”
And from the character Generation.
“Choose a gender. In reality scum like you are almost always male, but go ahead, play a female character. One with big boobs, no doubt.”
The gamer is further portrayed as a slavish consumer of any old junk, sorry, essential game aids, that the companies choose to sell, including the wide variety of trademarked accessories from dice to in-game snacks. I think he’s making a point here but in case there are any lawyers out there I shan’t draw any exact comparisons. In fact the game takes this brand loyalty and consumerism further in that you can gain extra points for your character by either bribing the gamesmaster or sending money by verifiable means direct to Hogshead. Furthermore your “experience points” are represented by certificates which you must buy. No certificates, no character progression.
The satire opens up into areas of Urban culture as a whole, given the prevalence of games like “Quake” and “Unreal” or whatever the latest multi-player gore fest is. These things deny humanity to their victims, they’re just sprites right? And before the RPGers get smug, one of the monster types is “orc”. Why, to make a point, about how the characters rarely if ever, role-play encounters with the Orcs (To paraphrase, “Hey dude, just passing through, apologising for disturbing you but have you seen other Orcs, who you might not personally know, pass by here carrying a couple of human kids away?”). Instead it’s fireball and hack.
Not a lot of this is new. The first essay on the GM actually putting depth into “monsters” is over 20 years old, but it is the first time I’ve seen an essay like this marketed as an RPG and sold as such. The question is not to judge it as a game, but does it make its point. After reading this will people be affected to reconsider their lives, their approach to gaming and the casual attitude to violence when they do. Will gaming companies stick by their advertisments, “all you’ll ever need”?
Sorry, I don’t think so. The people who will appreciate the humour and the irony will, like myself, be able to convince themselves that “it’s not about me, even if I do do the occasional monster-bash, I can stop it any time I want.” Yeah. Right. There are those who will take it at face value, and want nothing to do with it, like my local game-store owner who will get it in if asked, but will not stock it normally. He’s not known for being overly sensitive, so it was a bit of a surprise.
More worryingly, there may be those who will try and play this as a straight game. No matter that he has disparaged guns’n’ammo afficianadoes, or pointed out the problems with drugs (e.g .the possibility that you’ll have the opportunity to form a close romantic bond with your cell-mate), there are people decadent enough to try this. They’ll think it’s k3wl, sorry cool, and proof of how close they live life to “the edge”, there are a few sickos out there who are so jaded that they’ll try it. They’ll probably wear a lot of black too, but so do a lot of quite stable people. Although the humour is there, and it is extremely funny in places, I think that ultimately it miss the target and that the issue of role-players attitudes to violence and crime in games is better handled by John Tynes “Powerkill”, ironically also published by Hogshead.