The game you never heard of
Posted by Ron Edwards
Readers who remember the Forge will recall my insatiable appetite for obscure role-playing games, and my frequent anger at RPG culture for unforgivably ignoring their accomplishments. I have Paul Czege to thank for cluing me into the unforgettable Heroic Do-Gooders and Dastardly Deed-Doers by Mathew and Wesley van Dinter, 1995, and this post is intended to bring its virtues into the light, in the service of the greater good.
Most self-published games are immediately recognizable in their raw, driving energy, especially from the 1990s. In this case and atypically, the energy is punched home further by the excellent, focused, and impudent writing. Even the equally-recognizable 1987-1992 humor works because it’s placed so well into context.
The art is so good that I am scattering a bunch of it at random through this post; the book is filled with it, so trust me, what you see here is only scratching the surface of unmitigated inspiration. Not one image is explained, which I call an immense plus. Look at that scene to the right: what’s going on? Who’s the good guy? The bad guy? Is the gunman the main character? What will happen now? Is there some reason the victim guy’s eyes are like little sphincters – is that because of the bald dude’s horrible powers or is that something to do with this guy’s powers? Do you see the bald dude’s freaking hands? Whatever is happening, it’s fascinating. I want to be in a game where my character is one of these three guys, and this develops from play.
Its procedural design is both pure and insane. There are 1000 to 1500 fiddly little points to spend in making your character. There are secondary attributes full of complex averages. There are cost breaks based on percentages that yield indeterminate decimals. Credit to the designer, it looks thoroughly baked through actual play, but I know at least one long-time veteran of role-playing with me who’d hit me like that lady with the frying pan if I tried to pull this shit on her.
OK, snark aside, what this really is, is distilled from primary RPG design trends of the time, especially if you came up hard via Champions and Villains & Vigilantes. Various details like the character point-structure and the Speed-based order-and-action chart look like refinements of the former, and the general “you know physics, here’s far and hard it goes, now play!!” procedures come right out of the latter.
Now pay attention to these other things though: the rules for Luck, Gizmos, and Acrobatics, and also the power Cheating Fate, all of which throw huge monkey-wrenches into the ordinary, relatively standard task-based resolution. Using them amps up both the Color (imaginative zaniness, vividness) of the immediate actions and also throws in more extreme resolutions and changes of outcomes.
These aren’t just add-ons or meta-bits; they’re tied directly to the game’s explicit design which denies story-outcome control and session-planning to anyone. Not very many RPGs predate my Sorcerer in doing this, probably less than five. This one is just pre-contemporary with Sorcerer‘s earliest version and deserves a true nod for that.
“Sounds kind of quirky,” you’re saying now, and I say, yes it is! Quirky is good! I love the crazy-ass action inspired by the resolution system and expressed in the cheeky art. What is his deal with blunt trauma? With comb-overs? I really wish Mathew did some comics.
This feature plus the general slightly-cynical, spritely tone of the text has led me in certain directions when making characters using its rules. Because of course I did so.
B.Itch is the muscle, a Human Thug, gaining 210 extra points for Blonde, Honesty, and Loyalty. Her Thug cost breaks apply to her Brawn and Boxing. The cost break for Human is customizable, and I split it into 5% each on her powers Ouch!, Nickel Deposit, and Contact! She has to pay extra for Intelligence but I don’t buy her much anyway. So we’re looking at a likeably vicious super-strong bruiser who absorbs damage and delivers it back twice as hard with her next punch.
S.N.Atch is the brains, a Human Gunslinger with 300 extra points for Greed, and Gunslinger cost breaks on Agility, Gunplay, Munitions, and Damage Resistance. I put the whole cost break for Human onto her most expensive power, Stretching. Plus she pops out two extra and equally-stretchy arms when she wants. Getting the picture? With Plastic Man style neck and four arms, each supplied with a pistol, she’s surreal mayhem in a can. I buy her an MBA for extra fun.
If you’re like most role-players, you’ll be asking about now if not before, “what’s the setting?” Wait for it: there isn’t one, not like the way you mean. From the introduction:
… HDG’s reason for being is not simply to add another derivation on the many role-playing games already out there. Unlike those games … HDG doesn’t exist in its own world, it exists in yours (or at least a facsimile).
The setting for Heroic Do-Gooders and Dastardly Deed-Doers is a contemporary one. Shopping malls, convenience stores, apartment complexes, cruise liners, military bases, and an occasional prison all set an unlimited stage. The real power of playing in a late-twentieth/early-twenty-first century context is that every participant has a wealth of experiences to bring into the adventure. Everywhere you’ve ever been, everything you’ve ever seen (whether in movies or on the evening news) has a place in HDG, and HDG’s rules can handle the strain.
They call it Earth Now. Please click-and-read the PDF. It’s the best expression of the way that I GMed Champions (at my best), especially the concept of playing here-and-now, both in logistic terms and in what is this about terms. Every word and line is of a piece so it’s a crime to extract anything, but since I am suspicious that you’re not click-and-reading, I’ll do a little:
The spirit of HDG is an Existential one. You have to have your character do things, just as someone in the real world has to act in order to make anything happen. For HDG to be played to it’s [sic] potential, players must interact in the operation of any adventure. They must contribute to the gameplay by driving adventures with their input. There is no sitting back in your chair and waiting for the monsters to come to you, literally. Players must have their characters act, do, be.
[to the Game Operating Director] There is an incredible level of freedom that comes with playing in an Earth Now setting. No longer is your existence guided by maps and modules. No longer are you burdened with the responsibility of articulating every nook and cranny of a fictional world. No longer are you the only source of creativity and excitement. … Because players have the knowledge and background to contribute …, to outline settings …, to understand things without needing drawings or lengthy descriptions …, because all this is instantaneously part of your’s [sic] and their mutual understanding, role-playing takes on a whole new dimension.
There it is. There it is. That’s how Stan Lee wrote Marvel comics in the 1960s, and how Roy Thomas, Steve Englehart, Gerry Conway, Steve Gerber, and many others wrote them through most of the 1970s. It wasn’t a fictional universe, not the way that fandom construes the term, and definitely not the way that Mark Gruenwald spearheaded the “official Marvel Universe” as editorial policy in the early 1980s.
Earth Now means exactly that – not a simulation thereof, not an alternate version. You write it for today, and proactivity in today’s world is the driving force. Here’s my snarlingest, most iconoclastic, angriest self saying: if you idealize that official Universe, then you can’t understand this and are a whole dimensional step away from the one thing that made Marvel comics most great.
In role-playing, this is tied as well – and confounded a bit in the van Dinter text – with open-ended, emergent plots, as opposed to canned experiences and encounters and outcomes.
In comics, that’s where the New Universe went down the wrong road even from the start, and how all those other similar attempts followed. Although I speculate that Jim Shooter did know what he meant by “the world outside your window,” it’s grossly obvious that the Official Handbook-suckled editors and writers he was working with did not.
Places to get it: Biblio, Amazon, Abebooks, and probably lots more just a search away. The next con or gamer get-together I attend, I want to see someone (else) with this rulebook, ready to GM something. I’ll have B.Itch and S.N.Atch ready to go.
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