Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Review: Hulks and Horrors

Okay, so I'm really on a roll with reviews these days.  I hope everyone's okay with that, content-wise.  Personally, I like to read reviews of games--even if I already own them.  In fact sometimes reviews of games I already own are the most useful because they can help me see the familiar in a new light.

This time around I want to talk about Hulks and Horrors by John S. Berry III.  (This is a review of the Basic Black Edition, by the way.)  The premise is simple: humanity expanded out into the stars, was mown down by a Great Plague, and is now expanding back out again.  As they return they are rediscovering places of danger and mystery left behind after the plague.

As the name suggests, Hulks and Horrors is based on Dungeons and Dragons.  Despite being a science fiction game it borrows directly from the very early editions of the D&D fantasy role playing game.  This legacy is evident almost immediately in that you generate the same six attribute scores as in D&D and by using 3d6 rolled in order from Strength down through Charisma.  If you've read some of my earlier posts you'll have heard my fulminating against rolling stats in order like this.  This is important in this game because the classes in H&H have stat requirements.  Thus players will often not be able to play the class they want because the dice said so.  I say that is bad game design, but let's move on.  (To be fair there are alternate generation rules in the DM section way at the back.)

Next come the classes.  Since H&H is D&D-based it uses classes and these include three alien species as classes.  This race-as-class approach also comes from the very early editions of D&D where the Elf and Dwarf were set classes with abilities rather than races you could pair up with a job.  Humans in H&H can be a Pilot, Soldier, Scientist, or Psyker.  The squid-people, amoeba-people, and bear-people just each do their own thing.  I'm not really bothered by the race-as-class approach, but I'd prefer to have the races/species separate from the classes/professions so players can have more fun and freedom building their characters.  One thing to note is that H&H only takes the classes up to level 6, but there are rules at the back for going beyond that if you so desire.  I was glad to see that there is one experience table for all classes instead of the needless complexity of OD&D style individual tables for each class.

Because it's a science fiction game, H&H does not have magic users or clerics.  However the Scientist uses a multi-tool which gains a certain number of programs of a certain Software Level which increase as the Scientist levels up.  This is much like the spells per level of the magic use or cleric.  However, the multi-tool expends charges to run the programs and needs 8 hours to recharge.  I did not see any provision for recharging the multi-tool for shorter periods to get back a smaller number of charges.  It's 8 hours for a full recharge or nothing.  There is also a Psyker class which gains additional powers at higher levels, but these do not have individual levels of their own.  In other words you would have five powers at level 4, but those are not divided up as three level 1and one level 2 power.  Using powers requires the expenditure of psi points and a successful d20 roll against WIS - (power point cost).  As with the Scientist (or magic user or cleric), you regain all psi points by a full 8 hours of rest--no napping to get a lesser amount back.  This points up a problem I've always had with the D&D magic system.  Why can't you take a nap and get back some of your expended energies?  Why is it an 8 hour block or nothing?  It really makes no sense.

I found the three race-classes interesting.  All of them have a campy space opera genre feel to me, but I think you could run a game with creepy or gritty versions of them.  The hovering squid is rather generic in terms of its role in the party, but that's fine.  the Omega Reticulan (amoeba people) are blobby, slimy, and slotted in as natural scientists.  The Bearman reminded me of the wookie in Star Wars, except that they have native psionic talents.  Later in the book there's a very nice section on the difficulties which each of these species has in communicating with other races.  There is also a related section covering all the languages of the setting.

The combat section had an interesting twist on attack rolls.  Armor in H&H uses the OD&D "lower is better" system for armor class (which always annoyed me with how totally counter-intuitive it was).  Thus an unarmored person is AC 10 and Exo-Armor provides AC 1.  The To Hit number is calculated as: Attacker To-Hit Bonus + Enemy AC + 5. There is also a limit that AC may never go below -2 or above 10.  The book also includes a To Attack Armor Class 0 (TAAC0) chart to help with the math.  Overall I thought that this was all unnecessarily complex and should be simplified, especially because combat is where a game can really bog down.

Next up is a very big, very detailed section on space ship design and combat, including some pre-made ships.  I found that this section had echoes of the Traveler RPG in it, such as the sandcaster weapon, ship tonnages, etc.  I'd have to actually play these rules a few times to see if they totally work for me, but it looked reasonable on just a straight through reading.

Exploration is next and this is one of the bits I really look forward to in a science fiction game.   The basic concept is that people (the four cooperative races) are exploring/re-discovering) potentially lucrative places in space under the overall sponsorship of The Surveyor's Guild.  It's a big like a gold rush in the American old west.  You acquire the rights to a claim of a sector and explore it.  Claims can be bought and sold, inherited, stolen, lost, etc. 

Then came the chapter where you generate claim sectors, stars, and planets.  Now I want to say that one of the thing I really loved about the old Traveler game, perhaps even the thing I loved most about it, was the sector and planet generation rules.  I really enjoyed how easy it was to throw together a sector and then get down to embellishing each planet.  The later Scout supplement greatly expanded on the original rules.  So given that H&H is built on OD&D I was expecting something fairly simple.  Not so.  In fact this section is incredibly detailed and complex.  Yes there are quite a lot of simple "roll a d10" tables, but also some much more detailed work required.  As I read through this section I wanted an example of a completed sector to help see what a finished map would look like but there wasn't one provided.  There is, however, an example of a map for an individual solar system.  I really like the form for solar system mapping, particularly in that it combines graphic and text information in a easy-to-use format.

After the system and planet rules are some really nice rules for randomly rolling up the interiors of space stations, hulks, pod colonies, etc.  These "random dungeon" rules are very much in the spirit of OD&D.  The "treasures" available are fun and imaginative.  Monsters are next and the book provides a great selection of creatures plus rules to make your own critters if you want.

So overall I'd recommend getting Hulks & Horrors.  It's quite complete for the type of game it is designed for, has plenty of room for adaptation and expansion, and contains a lot of fun ideas.

1 comment:

  1. Well, you've saved me some time & money at least. I despise race-as-class and the counter-intuitive AC is lower mechanic.