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Wednesday 24 December 2014

RPGpundit Reviews: Hulks & Horrors (Basic Black Edition)

This is a review of the RPG "Hulks & Horrors", an OSR sci-fi RPG.   It is a review of the print "basic black edition", which comes as a roughly 150-page paperback with no art but jam-packed with information. Its very bare-bones in terms of presentation and layout.  One person who saw it (who shall remain nameless because she doesn't want to be quoted as being "mean") said on looking at it that she understands its "basic black" but it was the worst cover she'd ever seen. Seeing the cover, she said, wouldn't motivate her to take it off the shelf.  We agreed that the cover was an attempt at an homage at 80s video-games. 
The game is published by Bedroom Wall Press, written by John S. Berry III.

The King of Old School Sci-fi is Traveller.  The King of OSR sci-fi is Stars Without Number.  Can Hulks & Horrors compete with these two giants? Can it produce something either good enough and/or different enough to make it worthwhile?  That's what I've set to find out.

The premise starts out well enough; its also an interesting thought as to why we've been sending out signals and messages and looking all over the place for signs of intelligent life out there for nearly a century now and so far come up bust.  In the game's default setting concept, by the time humanity develops interstellar travel, they find that the galaxy had once had a vast interstellar civilization but that virtually all of the species of this once-vast stellar community (almost all intelligent species in the galaxy) were wiped out by a disaster that spread across the stars.  Only those few species who had been out on the primitive fringes (like our own), and who had still been too primitive to even be bothered with, managed to survive.  And now humans and a handful of other races have gotten to the point of moving out into the stars, only to find said stars filled with dead worlds, the ruins of civilizations wiped out, the dead hulks of starships floating in the depths, and occasional mutated horrors and monstrosities left behind in the post-apocalyptic aftermath.
Like I said, not a bad start.

Someone else who got a look at it pointed out that the author could really have used an editor; there's bad punctuation and long run-on sentences in the text, a severe abundance of improper use of commas, etc.  However, said person is a grammar expert; for me, I would say when I saw it myself that the book's text was not much worse than the average game book without the benefit of professional editing. Aside from the lack of art, I think that some of the layout was a bit clumsy, and some of the tables a bit difficult to read.  These, to me, are mostly nitpicks; but if appearance, grammar, run-on or otherwise problematic sentences, or the abuse of commas is the sort of thing that drives you nuts, you might have a bit of trouble with this work.

Now, let's get a look at the system: H&H is based on old-school D&D.  The game contains rules for playing only up to 6th level, though it isn't hard to extrapolate beyond that.  Most features of the rules will be very easily recognizable to players of D&D, and as a great deal of the default adventuring-model has to do with exploring ruins of dead civilizations, and ruined spaceships, the basic form of adventures are themselves set up to mimic D&D.  This is already a significant difference from Stars Without Number, where while the rules are D&D-based, the adventuring model is largely Traveller-based.  This difference might make H&H more appealing to some, or perhaps less to others.

Ability scores are generated on 3d6, in order. Attributes can be "checked" on a simple D20 roll-under basis. There are human classes, and racial classes. The human classes are Pilot, Scientist, Soldier, and Psyker.
The alien racial classes are quite interesting: you have a Hovering Squid (which The Wench found particularly appealing; having always wanted to play a squid-like creature in an RPG), a giant sentient Amoeba called an "Omega Reticulan", and a Bearman.

None of the classes are just straightforward translations from D&D (though I guess soldier and fighter are pretty close to each other) but each have the familiar niche protection. Pilots get to make special maneuvers, they're fairly good at ranged combat, they get a very slight bonus to INT checks with computers.  Scientist was a class I found kind of cheesy; they have a "multi-tool" that can perform specific programs, but only have limited charges.  They get more charges and can use more programs as they go up in level; meaning that Scientists can use "Science" the way magic-users use spells in D&D.  I don't really know if that was the best way to handle this class; it seems fairly arbitrary.

Soldiers get bonuses to hit and damage, to perception checks related to combat scenarios, and weapon proficiencies. And curiously, the Psyker, rather than being a magic-user equivalent, has straightforward "psi points".

Regarding the non-humans: the squids have multiple attacks, can't be surprised (they have multi-direcitonal awareness), can entangle opponents and sense non-organic life.  the Amoebas can use Science in the same way as a scientist, can pilot like a pilot, can carry heavy weapons, and have a type of exosuit that lets them survive in extreme environments.   And the Bearmen have some Psyker powers, gets barbarian (or should that be Barbearian? or Bearbarian?) rage, have natural weapons and AC bonus, and can detect un-natural creatures.

The list of both "science powers" and psychic powers are relatively small; there are 3 levels of science powers (again, in the same style as spells); each level has an average of a half-dozen powers.  Psychic powers have no levels, and there's a list of 13 of them to choose from.

There's a small but decent equipment list, of low and high tech weapons and armor; AC is descending in this game.  There are grenades, environmental protective devices (things like gas masks, climbing gear, parachutes, etc), power sources, drugs, computerized devices, general equipment, and a list of goods and services (for things like costs of meals, berths on ships, robot transport/carriers, hovercars, or hired henchmen/mercenaries).

Lest we think this game is for pure mindless dungeon-crawling (or starship-hulk-crawling, as the case may be), we get a few pages on rounding out your character; recommending that you choose a good name (with some guidelines on how to make alien names), detail your background, and choose languages (with a list of the standard languages available). This section does, however, have a little too much information about Female Bearman nipples. No, seriously; in the "appearance" section the author goes into great detail on alien race appearances, but this takes a definitively weird turn when he feels a need to mention the prominently protruding six nipples of the pregnant "female bearman" (note: "female bearman", not "bearwoman"; I suppose that's technically correct inasmuch as "bearman" could be correct in the first place, but it still sounds awkward).

There are a few important tweaks to the typical Old-school rules, variations from the D&D norm.  Saving throws are not handled in either the standard "save vs. paralysis" type of separate checks; nor in the form of reflex/will/fortitude 3e-style bonuses.  Instead, they are handled by standard roll-under attribute checks, for Dex, Con or Wisdom, essentially streamlining the ref/fort/will concept.

Also significant is that attack rolls are also roll-under; with characters scoring a hit if they roll less than the sum of the 5 + PC's attack bonus, plus opponent's AC, plus theoretical modifiers. A 20 is always a miss, and a 1 always a hit. 
There's nothing inherently wrong with this; but of course, this might not sit well with some D&D-fans; it feels counter-intuitive.  For whatever reason, celebrating a 1 and bemoaning a 20 does not seem as right as doing the opposite.

There's the standard list of how to handle conditions for different sorts of hazards, but adapted to a sci-fi setting: there's things like fires, falling, or disease, but also stuff like handling vacuum, gravity, weird atmospheres, etc.

There's some very complete, somewhat traveller-esque rules for creating starships and starship combat.  The starship-build rules are very step-by-step, which is of course immensely appealing to some, though I've never personally cared for that sort of thing myself.  Thankfully there's a small list of sample starships provided.

Next up you get a very detailed chapter on adventuring, starting with a setup for how to handle the bureaucracy of space exploration, and then a large section on generating star systems and planets, with plenty of random tables. The tables aren't exactly hard sci-fi, but they also aren't particularly wild and gonzo; just what you might term classic sci-fi.
The subsequent chapter details similar rules and random tables for creating both ruins on-planet and spaceship wrecks, to explore.  Both operate as substitute for dungeons.  Wrecked starships obviously function along similar lines to dungeons; as do some of the ruins (like the conveniently constructed "pod colonies"; one common type of ruin from a common interstellar civilization whose preferred style of architecture was towns of domed "pod" structures with interconnecting tunnels).  Aside from those there's also guidelines for space stations, underground bases, spaceship hulks, and urban ruins.  There's also additional material for generating hazards, loot, weapons, armour, other valuables, and technological wonders. 

The monsters chapter provides some basic guidelines on creating monstrous creatures, and some very good random tables for different types of locations. Then you get a list of about 40 pre-made monsters; and this is one of the treasures of the book; they have a great sci-fi aesthetic, clever names and descriptions, and I could see them being generally used in other OSR games besides this one.

The section on dungeon mastering, at the end, provides some guidelines for general management of the game. It includes some sound advice about how to handle the random tables for generating the various "dungeon-type" scenarios, a good reminder to GMs not to set out to be trying to impose a gm-run story on the game, and context for the game stating that it is solidly situated in the "soft sci-fi" end of the SF spectrum (and thus that there shouldn't be too much concern placed on technical or scientific accuracy. You also get guidelines on running NPCs and handling monsters, as well as the rules on how to give out experience points. Finally, some optional rules-modifications are provided, including alternate methods of generating ability scores, how to continue play past 6th level if you so choose, how to use stats above 20, an option to give extra hp to characters for a less-lethal game, and an optional "Redshirt" class (to be taken by PCs who were generated without ability scores that wouldn't meet any of the stat requirements for any of the classes: the Redshirt can advance as a red-shirt gaining a +1 to an ability score each level until such time as they qualify for the minimum required ability in a regular class, at which time they have the option to switch to that class).

The back pages have a character sheet, ship design sheet, sector design sheet, and star-system design sheet.

So what to conclude about Hulks & Horrors?  Its a very different game from Stars Without Number, to be sure (and I suspect, also will be different, though perhaps closer to, Machinations of the Space Princess, the other OSR sci-fi game I'll be reviewing shortly).  It certainly has a lot less Traveller in it.  In some ways, it sticks more closely to some of the strictures of the D&D-mechanic, occasionally to its detriment.  SWN is also better-produced.

But, that said, H&H does have a wealth of very interesting material that you could use in any OSR sci-fi game (or indeed, sci-fantasy, or any standard game that you wanted to add some sci-fi weirdness to).  I think its a bit of flawed gem: some very good material (the world generation and ruins/hulk generation stuff is very good and quite emulative to what the author set out to do), and then some stuff that isn't quite to my liking at least (scientists having 'vancian science spells' for example), and its all wrapped up in a package that would probably beg for a slightly more professional revised edition.

Pick it up if you're an OSR completeist, if you really want a sci-fi game that's a touch more gonzo than SWN (without going into the full-bore gonzo of Machinations of the Space Princess), or if you're looking for sci-fi material to cannibalize for your other OSR games.


Currently smoking: Castello 4k collection Canadian + Image Latakia

(originally posted September 28, 2013)


  1. What a great review, as usual.

    I just started running H&H and am reviewing it after few sessions.