Sunday, May 17, 2020

Punk RPGs from HōL to Death is the New Pink

The Evolution of Punk RPGs:

from HōL to Death is the New Pink 

Cover, HōL
by Simon Kono
© 1994 Dirt Merchant Games


Cover, Death is the New Pink
by Angie Groves

© 2017 DIY RPG Productions

The Rundown

HōL and Death is the New Pink are two examples of what I term Punk RPGs. HōL was one, if not the first game of this genre, while DitNP is a very recent example of one. The come from different times, different milieu, and have different aims, but also have significant commonalities that provide an important insight into the hobby of Table Top Role-Playing and into the broader culture.

DIY and Why

"DIY RPG Logo"
By Angie Groves
Open Culture License
Both HōL and DitNP embraces strong DIY aesthetic. HōL is entirely hand drawn and written, completed with errors and Art more reminiscent of underground comix than a role-playing manual. Death is the New Pink uses simple layout based on home desktop publishing methods and spray-style art. Both use straightforward language heavy in slang,

The DIY Aesthetic has several functions. 

Firstly, the games are seeking independence from the traditional gatekeepers of the industry: publishers, agents, and editors. One of the greatest traps of being any kind of content creator is waiting for one's work to be "discovered. " 

Many creators sit for years on complete, unpublished work because they believe that it is only by being discovered, contracted, marketed, and paid for by an established publishing company (or equivalent for the medium) that a work of Art and the Artist are legitimate. Waiting for this legitimacy leaves work to languish while the creator undergoes years of routine often soul-crushing rejection.

The legitimacy of the publishers are complete illusion. Whether an audience reaches thousands through a publisher or dozens through DIY self-publication means very little if the work is appreciated and the creator is compensated for their content. Often, with the massive cut publishers take, it is more financially rewarding to self-publish. Especially early works.

Secondly, to maintain creative freedom.  Most corporations have, in the past been cautious about publishing content that is controversial or shocking - unless it is marketed specifically to an audience that they know enjoys shock, and will not garner public scrutiny. 

In the case of HōL, it was self-published until it was picked up by Black Dog Game Factory. Black Dog specialized in marketing shock material, and briefly published HōL as a flagship product. But it did so entirely because it wanted to sell Shock, and was created as a studio to hide the more controversial releases from the company from censors and casual browsers. HōL was effectively a marketing ploy for Black Dog to establish its credentials. Once the imprint came under scrutiny, HōL was discontinued. It is now self-published by its original creators at Dirt Merchant Games. Being DIY allowed HōL to survive the huge fluctuations in market and culture.

For Death is the New Pink, going DIY is possibly the only sensible choice. With an open online marketplace like DrivethruRPG, creator Mike Evans can put forward ios own creative vision without worrying about it being censored and modified to something more marketable and less like the world's he feels deeply compelled to create. He captures his rationale for DIY almost perfectly in the introduction to his DCC RPG setting book HUBRIS... he has ideas that he needs to put out into the world, and when dealing with even a small, niche press like Goodman Games he can never be sure his work will be allowed to be made.

Thirdly, DIY creates space for experimentation. Large, established role-playing games can only make incremental adjustments without risking alienating a large player base (as we saw in the D&D edition wars.) They also are already trying to market to an audience with play preferences. Sales becomes an obstacle to innovation. And where sales do not, the cost of trying new things can be prohibitive when you have a team of developers. 

Consider WotC's Unearthed Arcana blog. It is effectively WotC's play-testing lab - it offers free material in hopes of garnering feedback on experiments for D&D5e. They clearly put some effort into design, layout, promotion, and analysis, but it is also clear that it is not very well play-tested in house, if at all. UA often needs to go completely back to the drawing board once they have tested it "in the wild." I suspect the cost of outputting UA is prohibitive, and a month of testing in-house would so counteract the player buy-in it creates in actual dollars as to be no longer worthwhile.

By contrast, HōL had nothing to lose. It was four guys sitting around in an IHOP with a package of Xerox paper and some art supplies. They had no idea who would want it... but did know that the TTRPG hobby needed a good dose of satire. Given they were doing this as a creative exercise with a low capital investment, they could afford to also experiment with creating an ultra-light rules set that reflected their philosophy of games.
The entire section on dice in HōL: Human Occupied Landfill

Death is the New Pink uses the lightweight and open license Into the Odd engine and desktop publishing tools to allow maximum focus to be put on creating a game experience that captures a genre and aesthetic of post-apocalyptic survival movies, comics, and video games in a TTRPG format, where most games that have tried have failed to do so. An upcoming edition will replace Into the Odd with Mike Evans' Open Culture Powered by the Middle Finger engine.

Shock and Art

While the reasons for DIY remain the same between 1994 and 2017, the reasons for retaining the rest of the Punk Aesthetic between the games absolutely has not. The culture around Shock in media is radically different.

In the 1990s, Shock was considered by a large chunk of the Arts and the Academy as the best antidote for the West's descent into anti-intellectualism and cultural malaise. The reasoning went that people were inured with banal television and music designed to make them comfortable and thoughtless (ex.: television shows like "Friends" and "Seinfeld" or musical bands like The Backstreet Boys.) The only way to get them to think again is to slap them in the face with something that made them uncomfortable, and forces them to question their cozy, pat worldview.

Being shocking backfired on the counterculture. The average everyday person wasn't so much shocked into thinking as they were shocked into changing the channel. They had no interest in hearing any message delivered with a slap in the face. A small subgroup of the Intelligentsia saw they were losing the battle, and tried to return to a more reasoned approach. When that failed, they decided that the only way to save the counterculture from Shock was to make Shock ridiculous.
The Warning and "'claimer" page
Frmo  HōL: Human Occupied Landfill
© 1994 Dirt Merchant Games
Click to enlarge.

HōL was a part of this attempt to out-shock the shock-jockeys as it was manifesting in TTRPGs (earnest attempts at Shock RPGs like F.A.T.A.L. were begging to be parodied.) It presented an ultraviolent, extremely offensive, and studiously dumb role-playing setting that included some razor-sharp insights into both the good and the bad of the role-playing hobby, as well as sex, religion, politics, media, and Law

Shock as a tool of Art did not survive the Noughties. Not because guys like the people at Dirt Merchant made their point. Rather, it became so unfashionable to be personally offended that people started hiding offense under the claim that media that they didn't like hurt people... usually minorities or women, who tended not to to call people out on framing them as thin-skinned. It became acceptable to publicly pillory and censor shocking art as "harmful to minorities" or "X-phobic." and Shock-artists either honestly accepted the idea their work was hateful or harmful... or decided the backlash against their creations was not worth it.

Counterculture, Counter-Counterculture and Anticulture

The counterculture of the West was at the heart of the best and most interesting Art and Culture of the 20th century.

At the turn of the 20th we changed what we thought an artist was from an artisan who made pretty things for a patron to someone who revealed the flaws in our culture and could tell the Truth even when it was unpleasant. Very quickly we discovered that some artists were cautious about the problems they would address, and would become popular, and possibly famous and wealthy. Those who pointed out much uglier problems without a sugar coating faced backlash, censorship, and infamy.

The Obscenity charges brought on William 
S. Burroughs over The Naked Lunch  and 
ensuing trial defined the idea and value of 
Shock in modern Art and Literature.
For a certain type of artist, this was a perfect invitation. They could go to war with the banality of mainstream culture as bluntly as they like, and then strike out against the censors in court. This is why  Shock became a weapon of choice starting with William S. Burroughs' The Naked Lunch,  whose stated mission was "to show America what they were consuming, naked and wriggling on the fork in front of them."

Shock, however, not only didn't work, it led to cultural fatigue, a surge of anti-intellectual conservatism, and the dawn of victim culture. The people who tried to turn the counterculture away from Shock with excess and satire, like the authors of HōL, were briefly termed the counter-counterculture,  until both fell into irrelevance in the noughties with the rise of intersectionality critical theory.

The Counterculture lost the war for the Western mind. Conformity, self-censorship, and banal, inoffensive, pop-art have become the cultural orthodoxy. People that dissent from mainstream narrative don't face infamy and censorship, they face mobbing, dismissal from work, life-long electronic branding, and the digital obliteration of their work.

But none of this new form of censorship is done with governmental power or force of law. Instead, like the censorship of RPGs in the 1990s, it is done by a vocal minority of moral crusaders leveraging the power of social media to create virtual lynch mobs with the collusion of cowardly Social Media and IT firms. 

One can choose to simply refuse to acknowledge the busybodies'moral authority. If you are willing to go DIY to create you content, use open platforms (like Steam and DrivethruRPG) and rely on the support of a small community, you can create things that stray as far from the New Orthodoxy as you wish. You will reach a limited audience, and making an impact on the larger cultural milieu is unlikely: the idea of the Artist or Art that actually has a chance to transform Culture has all but vanished.

Instead of a counterculture we now have an Anticulture, a growing number of people who realize that the only way to retain intellectual and creative freedom is to just walk away from the idiotic mainstream. To make a range of appealing alternative cultures for dissenters until enough people join them in walking away, and the Crusaders lose their relevance and power base.

Death is the New Pink, p.21
Death is the New Pink is an example of an anticultural RPG. It is created with an in-your-face DIY design and feel. It takes no interest in demonstrative virtue or politicking. It aims primarily to be a good role playing game. If there is a grand statement to DitNP it is "I can make an awesome RPG that is twice as fun as D&D5e for a fraction of the cost and none of the sanctimonious bullshit."

What is Role-Playing Anyway?

One of the two strongest commonalities between HōL and DitNP is their approach to role-playing.  Both games spend very little time addressing Role-Playing. HōL spends its entire "What is Role-Playing" section talking about how pointless and pretentious such sections are, while saying simply "HōL is made entirely of it." While DitNP encourages players to enjoy sowing chaos and destruction, and to keep the dice rolling.

This is a deliberate choice on both parts. Partially, it rejects the pretense that often comes in games that are trying either to be High Art or to check enough boxes to be considered a good game by the New Orthodoxy. Partially, it is a refusal to waste space, time and energy. 

More importantly it is an acknowledgement that the game designer has no business telling the reader how their game should be. That they are as free to modify, change and DIY the game as the creator has. There is no room for policing rules and players in an indie game.

"Robo-Killer" by Kelvin Green, from Death is
the New Pink, © 2017 DIY RPG Productions 
And finally, it is a rejection of a creeping redefinition of "Role-Playing" that emerged in the late 80s and early 90s. It is a belief that to be "role-playing " instead of "roll-playing" you have to act in-character. That Role-Playing is a performance Art that needs to include dramaturgy.

It doesn't. Role-Playing, as we are reminded in DitNP and HōL, is done every time you imagine yourself in you PCs shoes, and make a choice as to what your character does that fits. "I will fire my babygrinder at the Necrodoodle!" is as legitimately role-playing as the tearful back-story reveals on Critical Role. Every time you worry your character is about to die and choose to hide or take cover, you have made a masterful play in your role. 


Another commonality to Death is the New Pink and HōL is the over-the-top violence in the game. This is another point where both games make a simple point about role-playing games. They are meant to be fun, exciting ways to pass the time with friends. Often danger, death, and combat are a big - maybe the biggest - part of that fun in RPGs.

I am certainly willing to engage in a nuanced discussion of Combat as a Fail State in RPGs, and make room in the hobby for games about survival, crime, sex, or romance. But the majority of the time, TTRPGs are a slug-fest. Embracing and enjoying that, rather than pretending it is not the case is dishonest... and often un-fun, as well.
"Dual Wield" by Jeremy Duncan, from Death is the New Pink,
© 2017 DIY RPG Productions  

Pop Culture vs. Cult

HōL is rife with pop culture references, often ones that were deliberately stale at the time: referencing Three's Company, American Bandstand, Star Wars, Silver Surfer, and The Mickey Mouse Club. They could often feel jarring next to then-contemporary issues like child-molesting priests and fast-food addiction. 

"Archer" deliberately mixes Shock, Ultraviolence, stale
cultural references and deliberately confusing 
anachronisms to make its comedy feel intentionally dated 
and unfashionable in order to mock Shock entertainment itself.
In part this was to disturb: putting blood and violence next to wholesome and nostalgic American Institutions was a common Shock tactic meant to make those institutions feel un-wholesome and invite the viewer to look for deep underlying flaws in the culture that produced them.

In part it comes from the same impulse as sharing dank memes on the Internet: to make something absurd with ironically executed nostalgia and an intentional lack of appeal to current fashion. It deliberately takes away the critical edge of the work, rendering it silly. Put alongside Shock, it renders the Shock silly, too. A tactic of the counter-counterculture that was perfected in the Adult Swim programs Robot Chicken and Archer.

But Pop Culture references also eventually do more than just date the work, they render it irrelevant. While as a reader in 1997, I could roll my eyes at jokes about Dick VanDyk or Slim Whitman, a younger audience might have to make a dash to Wikipedia to interpret the joke.

Death is the New Pink isn't interested in Shock much one way or the other. The only cross-textual references are made by way of its Ludography. It's setting is an attempt to emulate a genre rather than create a statement or backdrop for humor. It's art, setting, and structure are trying to recreate an experience for a "Cult" fandom.

Dissonance and Unity

The aims of HōL and DitNP are different, and because of it, there are radically different design considerations that come into play.

HōL is foremost a satire and a comedic creation. Consistency is not a major concern, nor is making sense. In fact an amount of jarring and confusing information, helps enrich the satire. HōL is meant to be a loud, jarring experience. What better way to point out how Ill-considered some role-playing design is than to make it blatant in your own work.

Death is the New Pink, is trying to create an experience that is equal to - or better than a mainstream RPGs using only DIY tools, a vision, and an honest philosophy about what role playing is, what makes it fun, and how it is achieved. Where HōL could afford to be scattered, DitNP need to ensure that rules, language, narrative, art, and engine all make the play experience better. Unity of design is necessary for it to succeed in its goal.

Stupid Punk vs. Art-Punk

The Ramones "Pinhead" logo is a prime
example of Stupid Punk; An image that
intentionally associates the punk band
with being a fool and a freak.
In the 90s, punk counter-counterculture appropriated the term "stupid" to describe an element of their aesthetic. They often were intentionally lowbrow, nonsensical, and our time on purpose to satirize the counterculture that took themselves way too seriously. While the counterculture positioned themselves as the moral and intellectual superiors to the masses, The counter-counterculture punks aped them while emphasizing the dumbest, most vapid elements of the counterculture.

In the case of HōL, the over-the-top violence, ridiculous setting, inane focus on blood, gore, and sex was there to make the game, its designers, and by extension, the more pretentious elements of the TTRPG hobby look childish and gratuitous. It was aimed at deflating the idea that role-playing was an innately intellectual hobby.

Stupid Punk has lost its cultural milieu, however. The Internet makes satire hard to identify. And with the profusion of voices, spotting intentionally dumb satire from merely dumb proponents of a view is difficult unless it is extremely blatant.

The signal-to-noise problem created by the Internet and Social media doesn't just reduce Stupid Punk, satire ineffective; it redefines how independent artists have to engage with the marketplace. A creator that wants to ensure that their content reaches the right audience has to make sure that they stand out by being unique, innovative, or having a strong voice.

In absence of corporate production teams, the creator of something like an independent RPG such as Death is the New Pink, it has to add something unique to the hobby or have a compelling creative vision and presentation. The DIY Punks of the Post-Internet age have to be either Artists or Innovators, and they have to be passionate about creating for the sake of the creation, with no guarantee of success. They have to, as the early 20th century theorists put it, "want to create art for Art's sake." or, in this case, "create RPGs for the sake of contributing the the RPG hobby."

Doing so effectively also means throwing out the idea of creating something with universal appeal, and concentrating on making that one creation that puts you forward in hopes of connecting with people that find your signature appealing. You have to ignore or hold in contempt what the mainstream seems to want, which is the core ethos of the original Punk Movement. "Never mind the bollocks, here's my Art."

Dissent and Integrity

HōL is an exercise in dissent. It is not so much an argument for anything, so much as it is an argument against a pretenses of RPGs at the time: the impulse to create pointlessly "edgy" content. To pretend role-playing is some manner of sublime experience, and to demand that it be a complicated performance art. It tries to deflate the idea that playing Dungeons and Dragons showed that you were smarter than everyone else.

It offers little in the way of a suggestion about how to improve the hobby in any way. It has no idea how to make it more honest and more approachable. The only thing that it offered to the hobby was one of the first "Rules Light" systems, and it appears to fail to see the significance of this contribution.

Dissent is critical when a hobby or a movement goes wrong. It has to be expressed loudly. But it also has to be constructive, or it will fail to affect change. HōL was the first of the Punk RPGs, but it is rarely remembered as such. It opened the way for "Rules Light" games, and was the likely origin point of the fixed target number rollover mechanic and abstract range zones, but I usually see those mechanics attributed to more recent creators.

Its message about what role-playing is, however, only really resonates with a small minority of players who are likely to be playing DIY Punk RPGs already themselves. It was not the course-correction that it should have been. The mainstream culture of role-playing games has, by-and-large, embraced the ideas that it fought.

Death is the New Pink doesn't much care to change the mainstream of RPGs, and doesn't buy into their philosophy. It doesn't try to compete in the mainstream arena, because it realizes the futility of doing so. It is built with the understanding the audience that will enjoy the kind of experience it aims to create will be found in niches through the Internet. It is made and marketed with for that audience and that experience in mind on a smaller (DIY) scale.

That changes its considerations. Rather than trying to make itself appear mainstream acceptable, it tries to create a game where all the parts come together to make one unified experience. It doesn't waste time trying to be salable as a corporate product, but instead focuses on having the Artistic Integrity to include only what it needs. Even if that might paint a target on the creator's back for not bowing to the cultural orthodoxy.

DitNP also actively encourages others to change share, hack, and discuss it freely, because if everyone did the same, then the mainstream, the corporations, and orthodoxy would cease to matter within the hobby.


Burn This DVD

This final section is entirely tangential to the discussion of Punk RPGs. I wanted to link to "DIY or Die: Burn this DVD" It was one of the most influential works on myself and much of the post-Internet DIY Punk movement. If you are even remotely considering making your own RPG, it is the most important thing you could possibly watch.


  1. I kinda miss the attitude of the 90's sometimes.

    1. Me, too. Nobody trusted anybody to tell them what to think.

  2. When everyone started attacking Blood in the Chocolate, and Kiel later attacked his own book, saying it was racist, I, as a Mexican (chocolate being a Mexican product in origin), had to raise my own voice. I didn't feel offended by it, because it's a satire that depicts racism and colonialism, not an apology of racism and colonialism. Also, I have my own voice and don't need white Americans to put their own christian-value inspired words in my mouth, not even to defend me or protect me from harmful media.

    Did anyone of them even aks us, Mexican and South American how we felt about the adventure? Did they even care? No, they didn't, they once again infantilized us or turned into little helpless animals that must be saved, and didn't think we can think on ourselves.

    In the end, we served them as an excuse to attack a product they dislike and envy (Lancer, I'm seeing you), and to attack a publisher they dislike and envy.

    1. Nothing offends me more than people who assume they are so superior they should get to decide what is best for the rest of us.

      Many advocate groups use "minorities" ("marginalized groups" or whatever the lingo of the week is) as pawns in a game that is all about treating everyone like idiot children.

    2. Lol. I made the joke the other day. They are changing the orcs in D&D because they're offensive to white people.