Thursday, May 7, 2020

Game Review : HōL: Human Occupied Landfill

Review: HōL: Human Occupied Landfill

HōL Cover Art
by Simon Kono
© 1994 Dirt Merchant Games
Authors: Todd Shaugnessy, Daniel Thron, & Chris Elliott
Publisher: Dirt Merchant Games via Black Dog Game Factory
Game Engine: Custom 2d6 roll-over system
Marketplace: Amazon (used)

Note: This is a retro-review I am putting together so I can use it for compare and  contrast with newer role-playing games. It will not follow my standard format.

'Claimer: This article is full of nasty language discussing a nasty game about nasty things happening in a nasty place. Adults only. Mentally as well as chronologically.

First, A History Lesson.

In the backward primitive days of 1998, I used a brand-new World Wide Web based book store called Amazon to buy a copy of HōL with my credit card. Half of my friends thought I was insane for using a credit card on the Internet... especially with a totally unknown company with a name that made it sound like a porn site.

But I was in University, damnit, it was a time for doing crazy things.

So yeah. I'm old. Which means I am old enough to remember this wierd little gem that was the first of a genre.


If you are under 35, it was easy to miss something about the 90s: they were a vapid intellectual wasteland. Something about the fall of the Soviet Union, stable growth, and the end of the Cold War gave North America and Western Europe a serious case of The Stupids.

This could easily turn into a complex rant covering politics, the Silicon Valley Boom, round 2 of the Satanic Panic, Apocalyptic Consciousness, the death of Second Wave Feminism, Necoconservativism, the first wave of Political Correctness, Thug Culture, etc. I'll spare you. If you are old enough to remember, and played role playing games, you'll probably get flashbacks.

Suffice it to say, the vast majority of Western Culture stopped listening to anyone who said anything that made them feel remotely uncomfortable with a "La la la la laaah! I can't hear you!" We no longer had to worry about the outside threat of subversion or destruction by a powerful Socialist State; we had a chance to look honestly at the deep flaws in our own culture and make changes for the better. For a moment, we looked inward, assessed the deep ideological and economic flaws we had built up in over a century of constant warfare, and ran away screaming to the comfort of Sitcoms, Pundits with Easy Answers TM, or pretending the world was about to end anyway.

These trends began in the 50s and were definitely in place by the mid 80s, mind you, but the fall of the USSR hyper-accelerated them.

DVD album cover for 1989 film
Meet the Feebles advertising it
as having "Something to offend
everyone."
The majority of the culture got so comfortable and complacent that we suddenly found that there was only one tool that worked well to get people to pull their heads out of their asses long enough to think: Shock.

Shock became the weapon of choice for the thinking man in the 90s.
  • We saw the resurrection of the dying Punk aesthetic as its Second Wave, in music like Sublime, Finger Eleven, and The Ramones and in Zines and Underground comics. 
  • We saw radio personalities like Howard Stern emerge willing to say anything to try to get America to look at itself. 
  • LaVeyan Satanism, Goth culture, Nihilistic films like Fight Club and to The Doom Generation, all tried to force people to face the fact that the world we made was, just under the glossy finish, rotting. 
  • Counter cultural geniuses of the past who had been overlooked like William S. Burroughs, Alan Ginsberg, Robert Anton Wilson, and Terrence McKenna surged into the discourse again. 
  • And then there was pure shock entertainment like GWAR, the Insane Clown Posse, Beavis and Butthead, and Marilyn Manson.

Penny Dreadful, iconic character from 
the novels based on White Wolf's
Mage: The Ascension © 1995 White Wolf
(Also appeared on the TV show Angel)
Role Playing Games became a part of the counter-cultural movement, too. Mostly because the same people who were trying to scream into the faces of the West and get it to wake the Hell up were pretty likely to be the ones to play them. At the time RPGs were the hobby of brainy misfits. One's who were given ample opportunity to see the intellectual rot in the West face to face thanks to the Satanic Panic and the moral crusades against video games and heavy metal. (D&D culture and Heavy Metal culture were joined at the hip.) Look at Mage: The Ascension as a prime example: indie musicians, computer nerds, goths, and Wiccans using magic to fight a monolithic order of evil wizards that mind control the masses through school and television.

But in trying to fight The Stupids, sadly, the counterculture got pretty damn stupid, too.

Shock, it turns out, is a two-edged sword. When you are more interested in being heard than being coherent, it is easy to make your message extreme. If you don't worry about being palatable with your arguments, you also don't have much call to test to see if they are workable. Angry turns into bitter pretty quick, and eventually the people shouting "Wake up America" gave up, grumbling "To Hell with America", and just made art only to appease their equally angry and bitter fans with progressively less valuable discourse in their content.

Intellectuals in the 90s became far more interested in patting themselves on the back for being smarter than the morons that ordered their lives around watching "Friends" and "Beverly Hills 90210", and failed to worry about whether their ideas are actually smart. (Thus, the state of the Academy today.)

"Johnny the Homicidal Maniac"
By "Invader Zim" creator
Jhonen Vasquez was a six-issue comic series
 that spent a large amount of its volume exposing
the hypocrisy and inanity of counterculture.
By the mid 90s we already got our first dose of the counter-counterculture: A few people who looked at the sad state of their fellow intelligentsia, and realized that they were being even dumber than the people that they were screaming at.  They started a collective cry of "Slow down and think about your message before you rub people's face in it." Which, at first got ignored. It turns out, the intellectuals now could only be reached through the language of Shock, too.

And so was born the third wave of Punk culture. The ones whose job was to out-punk the Punks, and get them to see that they weren't fighting for anything anymore except the right to be obnoxious.

There was an unspoken rule in the intellectual circle of the 90s: if something offended you in a piece of Shock Media, it was your job to get over yourself. You had to pretend it didn't upset or offend: you played it cool. Then you had to assess why you were offended, figure out what about the message offended you. You then assumed the Artist, not you, had a better view of reality and its flaws: taking offense was to be seen as a sign of your own intellectual weakness. You then had to put down your offense and at least attempt to accept the message as real in thought experiments, no matter how uncomfortable that made you.

The only way your offense was legitimate, was if you could prove, logically, that the idea was Harmful. (We have since spent years precipitously lowering the bar for what constitutes "harm" accordingly.)

The new counter-counterculture and third wave punks took advantage of this ridiculous habit to cram as much silly, excessive, and warped material as they could into their works, knowing that faux intellectuals would still make a show of listening, buying, playing, and displaying their controversial media, even if it was unlistenable, unreadable, or unplayable. Just to get "street cred."

This third wave was focused on using the formats of zines, self-publication, self-recording, and amateur film, because:

A copy of William S. Burroughs '
The Naked Lunch presented with
'Zine aesthetic cover by Grove Press
A) Academics were suddenly obsessed with it.  If it was made on a Xerox out of news clippings and pen doodles, they would buy it, read it, and write papers on it. (See: Book and Album cover design from 1996 to 2001)

B) Once you got corporate recording contracts, someone started telling you how to be shocking and what to be shocking about. Getting big bucks out of pseudo-intellectuals takes precedence over challenging them. (See: Marilyn Manson's lyrical content.)

C) pointing out to people who are convinced they are smarter than everyone else that they are being dumb can backfire easily. Being able to jump from project to project with minimal loss is important.

And: D) Because the best message is often the medium, the easiest way to show the shock-jocks just how dumb they are being is to do the same thing, only go completely over the top. Find their lines, then cross them. Be so offensive that they see just what they look like to the "drones."

The Sex Pistols infamously acquired huge advances
 and expenses from record companies, then produced
 bizarre albums at the last minute that technically
 fulfilled all contractual obligations. They lived like
 millionaires on nothing but the reputation they had in
 Punk circles while playing multi-million dollar
 corporations for fools.
They took the DIY aesthetic and ran with it, often producing material entirely hand-written, drawn, or home-recorded. Often, corporations desperate for cred would buy works, get the creators into contracts, and hope to bowlderize later works to make them more marketable, keeping both the shock-addicted counterculture buying their goods out of nostalgia, while selling the appearance of edginess and intellectualism to people with a superficial interest in fitting in with the counterculture.

Because of the DIY mode, however, the creators could often just walk away and do projects outside of the contract or refill the contract with intentionally rushed, sub-par work. It effectively allowed these creators to reenact the Sex Pistols "Great Rock n' Roll Swindle" on a smaller scale over and over again.

Still with me? Good. Let's talk about role playing games.

HōL

Dirt Merchant Games logo.
TM Black Dog Game Factory
HōL: Human Occupied Landfill was one of the first role playing games to attack the pretentious 90s pesudo-intellectualism in role-playing games. Written and illustrated by Chris Elliott, Todd Shaugnessy, and Daniel Thron, HōL was hand written on stacks of computer printer paper with pen and ink. Errors, misspellings, and formatting issues from too much text on a page left gloriously in. Under the brand Dirt Merchant Games, they sold self-produced copies of the game briefly before they were acquired by White Wolf Studios in 1995.



Warning and 'Claimer page of HōL
Click to Enlarge
Rather than polish their design and presentation, HōL remained exactly the same hand-scribbled and chaotic creation it had been before. It looks more like a Xeroxed Punk 'zine from the late 80s.

The game opens with a warning and "'claimer" that lets you know immediately what kind of game you are looking at. It begins with profanity and jokes referring to the Satanic Panic-era claim that role playing games lead to mental illness and violence... along with jokes about child murder and Satanism.

The Claimer thumbs its nose both at the ridiculous claims of BADD, Mazes and Monsters, and Jack Chick, and at the same time suggests that gamers are not as innocent as all that.

In fact, it points out again and again that a lot of the fun of role-playing games is in acting out power and revenge fantasies, and imagining ridiculous, over-the-top violence The player and Hōlmeister sections are entitled "Killing Things" and "Things that Can Kill You." Role-playing, at least in the sense of dramatically acting out a character in dialogue, is hardly discussed...

...Or more tongue point it is discussed very poignantly in a single paragraph in the introduction.

"And for all of you anal-retentive who feel it would be heresy to go on without saying something about it, here: HōL is entirely made up of it, so all of you miniature-philes and tactical fiends can suck the pipe, baby. [emphasis mine]"

HōL very cleverly pointed out that funny accents, dialogue, and backstory are not, as was the belief at the time, the sole mode of role-playing. Just making choices and describing actions for your character is. No dramaturgy involved. Even choosing to make an attack roll is role-playing. Pretending that Role Playing Games are anything more is, as they say on the same page, "noise." Not everyone is Taliesin Jaffe.

Ultraviolence

HōL continuously draws attention to the bloody, violent, often anti-heroic way D&D is actually played. The Weapons are both rated by damage, and the anguish they cause. Bad guys with chainsaws for fingers, robots that attach to people's heads and explode, a skill to make people understand you by beating on them, and weapons that spray enemies with hyper-accelerated shrapnel called "babygrinders," are just a few gems.
Introduction to the Combat Section

In its one supplement, Buttery Whōlsomeness, strapping bombs to trained kittens is a common weapon, to drive the point home... Shortly in the book after  diagram of how big a hole a weapon would make in country singer Slim Whitman by Anguish Factor.

Because the setting of HōL is an all-men prison planet, references to prison rape are not just made regularly, but even depicted. Jokes about child-molesting priests are another staple. Back when that was definitely "too soon." One playable character, Brother Aristotle Studbasket, is not only a child-molesting priest, but having the power to summon small boys hiding in the ruins to come to him ("by making soft cooing noises") to serve as cannon fodder.

HōL attempts to strip the pretense of sophistication or intellectualism off the role-playing hobby by layering on horrible levels of gore and sex. And it constantly challenges you to ask yourself why you are still reading it, and what that says about you.

And at the same time, they also, somehow, stay consistently funny. None of the book gets so serious that you can't say it isn't meant in jest or as satire.

Rules Light

"Eugene Rules Lawyering"
By Daniel Thron, © 1992
 Dirt Merchant Games
The overall momentum of role playing games through the 1990s was towards Unified Complexity. In the 80s games were often kludges of disparate rules systems using different tables and rules sets for different tasks. A game would start with a character generation, combat system and a save system. Then long range travel, social interactions, skill systems, and exploration would be added  piecemeal.

In a quest to make games as "realistic" as possible, layer upon layer of systems got added to games. Anything you might want your characters to do would engage some system in the rulebook. Often, the only thing that the systems had in common was referring back to the same data in the character sheet, although using it very differently.

I lost count in Junior High how often so had to tell my players whether they needed to roll high or low on the d20 or whether they instead needed a d6 searches for secret doors, 2d6 to impress NPCs, or a d100 for thief skills while playing AD&D2e. Games were complex, but also scattered and confusing. Don't get me started on 2e's initiative system. They were hard to learn, and when edge-case rules systems came into play, the game could slow to a crawl.

Through the 90s, the push was to stay complex, with systems that coveted as many edge cases as possible, but they also tried to make the games use a single type or style of die roll, so that at least players were always rolling the same kind of die and trying to roll the same kind of number. This reached a peak of complexity in GURPS and d20.

Most games also had exhaustive modifier tables to handle things that changed dice pools or affected rolls. Like this table from Shadowrun:

Shadowrun 4th edition modifiers table. Does your head hurt yet?
Given what other games were trying to do, one of the most radical things that HōL did was to reject complexity altogether, and boil their game down to three mechanics. Complex rules are at best a pain in the ass, and in many ways gatekeeping to keep people from engaging with the hobby or GMing.

The entirety of the dice section in HōL.

Almost everything was [Character Stat 1-10] + [Skill Rating 0-5] + 2d6 and try to beat a 15. Most things were modified by the difficulty or distance to the target by asking how you would describe the situation:

If something is "Really Not" far or hard, add +4 to the roll. If it is "Not Really" add +2. If it is "Kinda" far or hard +0. If a task is "Really" far or hard, then modify the roll by -2 or -4 for for "Really, really." And that was it. They suggested that if you felt that something not covered was a important, to use the same system. Worried about if something is hard to see? If it is Really Not Hard to See, add +4.;, if it is Really, Really hard to see, -4.

You might recognize this mechanic as the "DM's Friend" or the "Rule of +/-2" from the Later D&D3e and Shadowrun. Or you might see a similarity to the zone distance rule used in some OSR games like Tiny Dungeon 2e or ICRPG.

HōL was radical in just throwing out complexity, and noting that you didn't need much more than a skill system that was very broad (with skills like "Use Sharp things on Soft Things that Scream and Bleed" or "Withstand Bagpipes and other UnHōLy Sounds.") and one roll to handle nearly everything, as long as the Hōlmeister exercised some judgement.

While there were a few games like the Fighting Fantasy / Dungeoneer! System (Troika! is its retroclone) that were equally simple, HōL made a point of it, and openly lampooned complex systems. They were, in many ways, the start of the Rules Light revolution.

Eugene Spinkler

Eugene Spinkler
By Daniel Thron, © 1992
 Dirt Merchant Games
HōL did not initially include a character generation system. Instead, it had a set of pre-generated characters to choose from. The characters ran from the bizarre, like an immortal Elvis Presley and a parody of the Incredible Hulk, to the bitingly satirical, like a self-narrating hard-boiled detective and an ultra-masculine action hero, to the deliberately offensive, like a mass-murdering children's show host and the aforementioned child-molesting priest.

However, one of the most brutally on-point characters was Eugene Spinkler. Spinkler was a caricature of the kind of geek who most peopke thought of when Dungeons & Dragons was mentioned in the 1990s: scrawny, unkempt, disdainful of fashion, socially illiterate, and highly knowledgable in esoteric matters.

Eugene is utterly useless when the chips are down in HōL, he is incapable of combat. When extreme danger shows up in HōL, Eugene goes into a dissociative trance where,  by blind, dumb luck he automatically dodges all attacks while gently murmuring about his mother.

Eugene points out that, often, role playing games are a heroic power fantasy for people who have no ability or intention of doing anything heroic in the real World. That big talk at the gaming table - or the academy - doesn't mean a thing in reality. And that disdain for "Normal" people is often a shield for massive personal failings, rather than a mark of superiority.

Bugbears of the 1990s

Of course, HōL didn't solely target the role-playing hobby. It was perfectly willing to try to make the reader both laugh and squirm uncomfortably around a bunch of topics that were hot buttons of the time. Here is a short list of the notable ones:
"Bestialityry" By Daniel Thron, © 1992
 Dirt Merchant Games

  • Child-Molesting Priests, as discussed above.
  • The total callousness of the state to prison conditions and prisoner's rights.
  • Prison rape is a running gag with both monsters and factions built around it.
  • Violence against Children is omnipresent throughout HōL.
  • The fast rising illiteracy rates are alluded to in the Dickens Boys faction.
  • Video Games and their alleged toxic effects are alluded to in Eugene's bio.
  • Violence and Toxic Messaging in Children's programming is embodied in Captain Wackee.
  • Lack of representation of Women in Media is sent up in the character section.
  • Pollution is a major theme throughout HōL.
  • There is virtually no Separation of Church and State in HōL.
  • Religion as a Commercial Enterprise is a major part of the HōL Universe.
  • The setting in HōL is a Police State fooling people into believing it is a democracy.
  • The planet's vast dumps are mismanaged by Unions Gone Amok.
  • Kafkaesque Bureaucracy runs the Dump Technician Union.
  • In HōL, numerous planets are effectively Ruled by Corporations.
  • Biotechnology run amok is the major theme of the Fleshtenders faction.
  • Rorrin Nad is a Television Addict who schedules his life around TV time.
  • All of HōL is treated by the rest of the galaxy as a sadistic reality show.
  • The powerful influence of Disney and McDonald's are satirized mercilessly.
Just to name a few. With War Profiteering, Sunday Christianity, Irresponsible Corporations, and the Cost of the Military-industrial Complex getting honourable mention.

There was practically nothing people were wringing hands over in the 90s - except race - that doesn't get an uncomfortably funny joke or two in the game. It passed well beyond edgy into deliberate, self-aware ridiculousness. It embodied a core idea of the third-wave Punk beautifully:

Edginess for the sake of edginess is silly at best, and stupid most of the time.

A Note on Black Dog

At the time, White Wolf was the leader in the game industry, trading on edgy counterculture themes and content in their World of Darkness and Exalted game lines. They founded a subsidiary, Black Dog Game Factory, to push content for their games that was even more shock-heavy. A separate imprint ensured that their most controversial material would appear on separate catalogues to avoid having mainstream White Wolf content being banned and censored.

HōL was one of the initial offerings by Black Dog, and it made it appear as though White Wolf was poised to become self-aware of its needless angst and endless game of counterculture bingo. This turned out to be, at best, hilariously ironic.

After HōL, Black Dog became a humourless attempt to turn up the dial on the shock. It's Clan Book: Giovanni and Clan Book: Ravnos titles were puerile attempts to make their flagship product, Vampire: The Masquerade, appear more edgy in response to its declining popularity and accusations of it being trite. Both books were rightly described as racist caricatures of Sicillians and the Romani, complete with obsessive descriptions of incest, necrophilia, sexual abuse, and ritual violence.

HōL became the joke Black Dog shared, but clearly didn't get.  The guys at Dirt Merchant Games have since parted ways with Black Dog and have returned to self-publishing HōL.

The Dawn of the Punk RPG Revolution

HōL opened the way for a new way of thinking about role playing games. DIY, Rules-Light, and sometimes  irreverent games ranging from clever satire to what 1d4-chan terms a "fun, foul-mouthed time-waster" all became a clearly articulated possibility for players who had, until then, mostly focused on hunting for the right RPG from what was available on the market, or building the game they wanted from home brew and house rules using a game that was a close starting point.

In effect, HōL threw out the idea that a work needed to be a polished, complex masterpiece to be legitimate for the RPG community in the same way zines, raves, home studio tapes and pirate radio had done for other media. And did so just before the World Wide Web made mass distribution without the publishing industry a possibility and then the norm.

Cover of the 2002 revised ed.
© 2002 The CaBil
HōL has become, itself, obscure, it's last (expanded) publication was through a small self-publishing services outfit called The CaBil Creative Services.

I doubt it could be updated and released by a large publisher in today's milieu. The shock counter-culture of the 90s not only failed to snap the West out of its intellectual torpor, but eventually helped build the intellectual ground for the current, vapid, Political Correctness movement by making it necessary to conflate "offensive" and "harmful" to attack an ideathat  you don't like. Now it would seem that no one of influence in the public square can tell stupid shock from purposefully over-the-top satire of shock. And probably don't care to differentiate if they can. HōL would be a political and PR nightmare.

It is certainly unlikely that Black Dog's current parent company Mödiphius, would be willing to do so.

Despite its obscurity, it is significant in the history of the hobby. It was the first infusion of Punk and DIY ideas that made the OSR movement, the Forge, and the DIY RPG possible. Had it not happened, it is likely that another Internet-based use might have done the same a few years later. But the timeline and shape of those movements would have been very different.

4 comments:

  1. Thank you for this! This was a fantastic read.

    ReplyDelete
  2. O.o wow. Got here belatedly from Ben M's newsletter. Really nicely wraps together the look at -that- rpg and the 90s stuff. And yeah wow imagining trying to get away with some of the things gotten away with then now made me laugh.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I am blown away by HōL every time I reread it bnow. It seems like an artifact from an alien world. One of beings far more intelligent than the life we have on Earth...

      Delete
  3. *sigh* I meant the newsletter from Ben M Questing Beast...I very likely put some random combination of letters...

    ReplyDelete