It was just the other day that I wrote a post about forgotten OSR games and here I am writing a full blown review about one of them. I'm not really sorry either, because what started as a casual look through my hard drive started developing into a complete campaign over the course of the week. Just like that. And that's something worth talking about, I think (well, I couldn't talk about anything else right now, since I'm totally in world-creation-mode ...).
What am I talking about?
In short: Hulks & Horrors is a free 156 pages long Sci-Fi D&D retro-clone of the B/X variety from 2013. That means 3d6 in a row, race-as-class, heavy on exploration and relying on player skill. It's also highly compatible with other games like it and very much in the spirit of the OSR.
Roll 3d6 in order (for the classic 6 ability scores), choose class (and maybe some special abilities), get hit points, get 3d6 credits to buy equipment, done. With games as easy as that, it's the little details that make them work or not. A game needs to inspire and the less rules I get to work with, the more I need to get inspired.
Let's start with the setting. So humanity manages to advance to a level where they start to explore the final frontier only to find out that all the great ancient alien civilizations that came before them fell to ruins because of a mysterious plague. Bottom line is: Space is vast and full of ruins and plague horrors, ready for the taking and the shooting at. That's all for now and it's plenty.
After a while humanity managed to find 3 other races who just recently developed spacefaring technology: some Hovering Squids (what the name says), the Omega Reticulans (basically amoeba in power suits) and the Bearmen (again, what the name says).
|One of two official art-pieces for the game [source]|
There are 7 classes now: the Pilot, the Scientist, the Soldier, the Psyker, the Hovering Squid (flying, multitasking), the Omega Reticulans (a bit pilot, a bit scientist) and the Bearmen (close combat specialist and a bit psyker).
I think it is difficult to keep the balance between new content and quoting the classics. H&H succeeds here, in my opinion. If you know your Sci-Fi, you will find quotes all over the place. The level 6 title for the Soldier class is "Master Chief", for instance (and having level titles is always nice, btw), Bearmen are a bit like Wookies, Psykers can force-strangle victims, stuff like that.
Science is basically hand-waved and works like magic, as each Scientist has a self-built hand tool that's capable of a number of tricks the player chose in the beginning and are limited to charges (just like Vancian Magic). They advance with higher levels, of course. Scientists just need to wave their tool over an area to achieve the effects (and that's a bit of Doctor Who and/or Start Trek right there). Some might have a problem with handling advanced technology like MAGIC, but for me it works.
It's also a constant reminder that most tasks regarding technology, as per the rules, are quite common for all characters and that's a very important bit of information, because tasks are mainly rolls on ability scores (the rest is combat). Those guys know their way around computers and spacefaring equipment, a roll on DEX is enough to find out if a character is able to repair a piece of equipment. No skills, just the assumption of knowledge, with the Scientist being able to achieve exceptional feats. It's all I need to make it work, really.
Equipment is also worth a sentence or two. There are Light Sabers and Power Suits and you'll most likely find the weaponry and equipment you are looking for, with the option to build some yourself. Really, it's all there, but again it's the clever little hints towards classic ideas of the genre that make the generic resonate and results in inspiration. So there is a "Scavenger's Guide to the Universe" characters can buy for a few credits and that works just like the famous "Hitchhiker's Guide" as it provides information about what the characters might encounter.
Again it's the assumption of knowledge (or the easy access of it) that'll work great in the game and leaves plenty of room for player skill ...
Alright, I'll stop. It's simplicity and the right amount of detail and hints that make for a very inspiring mix because it gives a reader plenty of room to project his or her own ideas of what Science Fiction is supposed to be into the game. You'll read it and think "Oh, that Babylon 5 right there!" or Star Wars or Star Trek or Mass Effect or Halo or Red Dwarf ... you get the idea.
DM tools, so many tools!
This is, now, where the game really begins to shine. Exploration got privatized, Space being vast and all that. The idea here is that characters own a ship as base of operations and get a claim for a sector to explore, survey and loot. A sandbox, if you will.
There are several ways to get a ship and a claim, for a wide variety of tastes (one could even skip it) and building a ship is fun for players and DM alike. But that's secondary to the number of random tables you get for building the sector itself! The game is worth getting for that alone.
A short overview: a sector has a number of systems (d12+6), each system has at least one sun and a number of planets and planets might also have moons. As a DM you get a huge variety of results and contents-wise one system might already produce enough material for a complete campaign.
Sure, it's some work, but as far as I could gather (already got a sector map with all the distances and names and one of the 11 systems completed) it's also immensely productive. Ancient ruins all over the place, unique flavor for every ancient alien race you put in it, Urban Planets, Space Hulks, Generations Ships (yeah, Metamorphosis Alpha is like a footnote in my first system ... and that's already a whole campaign right there), strange life forms and even stranger vegetation, alien monuments ... You end up with a very, very big and deep sandbox for the characters to explore and exploit. It's beautiful.
|And that's just what the players know ...|
Usability is also a big plus for me. So it's relatively easy to tinker with the pdf, like getting a .svg file of a specific page and work it in inkscape. The example above is the result of that. To be fair, though, that might to a good degree because of how ubuntu works with pdfs ... Anyway, it's been quite easy to fill all the blanks and prepare the game. Lots of little details, sure, but fun all the same. It makes the DM sort of a surveyor himself as the sector manifests bit by bit before him.
System, monsters and stuff like that
The system is as easy as possible with two important factors in mind. The first is compatibility (or rule zero, to some extent) and it really allows to use this game anywhere else or convert to it with ease. I really like that the game doesn't try to stand in the way here. I have shitloads of other material and I can just take it and drop it, since the game is rules-light up to a point where it is almost system agnostic.
The second reason is with an eye towards online play. It's something I saw here for the first time (and I'm sure other games do this, too), but it is very welcome, as that's exactly what I'm using it for.
With monsters it's exactly the same. There are some and many quote classic SF creatures. So yes, there are the classic Aliens and Sleestaks and whatnot. But since you could drop almost every monster from a D&D compatible source into the game, you'll never be short of cannon fodder.
And still, H&H features some advanced rules, some rules about building your own monsters and some alternative rules. In the end it leaves an experienced DM free to play the game he wants in almost every aspect, from the specific details in the setting to the extent of rules he wants in his game and the sort of Sci-Fi he favors, while giving him the tools to build a sandbox for several groups of adventurers to roam free for years. And that's really something for a game that's free.
|Second official piece of art I could find [source]|
What's not to like?
It's not all good and I got some minor quibbles with it. This game is complete and free, yes, but sometimes I thought it could have needed some more editing. Clarity is the biggest issue here. And that's saying something, considering the minimalist amount of rules. Pieces of information are all over the place or completely missing. Sometimes more is better. So there is one tiny table about level progression in the first part of the book that is explained at the end of the book and not referenced. There is an index of tables, but no general index. Some of the rules about creating sectors is a bit too vague and you have to find solutions yourself. Stuff like that.
That's not to say the game is completely bugged. No, it's definitely not. But it's something you will encounter here and there ...
And there is the "issue" that there is no art in the book. I've honestly read that several times. People wouldn't read a set of rules because of that (even if it's free). So if that's a problem, the game won't be for you. I thought it was a plus, since artwork tends to manipulate a reader's expectations. As it is, it really allows for making this your own. It's also far more easy to get on the same page with the players, much for the same reasons.
I love good artwork, and who doesn't, but it shouldn't be an issue if it isn't there.
I honestly don't understand why this game isn't more popular than it is right now. It's rules-light, easy to tinker with, easy to use with other D&D variants and has some great tools for sandbox creation. The level range is 6, which makes it (in my opinion, perfect for a small campaign. Build a sector, give the players a ship and off they go. Or use it to emulate your favorite SF movie/tv show/computer game. All the same, it'll do the job. And for free.
And that's exactly what I'll be doing with this. The sector is in development and I already got a couple of characters and enough players to start this as early as next week. Looking forward to it, too. It's been fun to build that sandbox, with all the little treasures, traps and sights along the way. It'll be even more fun to let the players loose in it. I already got some schemes ...
Even if I'll get just that one campaign out of the game, it'll be a campaign worth playing. If you are in the mood for some light SF or seek some inspiration for a nice and random SF sandbox, you can't go wrong with Hulks & Horrors.