The game you never heard of

hdgReaders 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.

hdg9The 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.

hdg4OK, 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.

hdg2Now 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.

hdg7

hdg3“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.

hdg10They 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.

and

[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.

hdg6There 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.

Next: Fill in the blank

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About Ron Edwards

Game author and publisher via Adept Press / Biology author and former professor

Posted on January 24, 2016, in Supers role-playing and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 7 Comments.

  1. Mathew van Dinter does have a graphic novel called Unearth. It’s on Amazon.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. The only thing that kind of sucks about an Earth-Now setting is that, once in a while, you *want* to have the Inhumans or Atlanteans or whoever show up, because they’re fun. A a good writer says, “Hey, you know, this isn’t a problem, I’m writing the story, I want these guys to be here for this issue, shut up about why they didn’t show up three issues ago.” I imagine that’s what a lot of the best creators did.

    But if you’re not as talented–or, if you’re a fan in your own right–you might say, “Goddamn, Counter-Earth is fuckin’ boss. [No one has ever said this, ever.] I really wanna do a blockbuster story about Counter-Earth.” And that’s a potential problem! You’re not writing about people or issues or things actual humans care about; these are the territory of a good writer. You might cram those things in after the fact, but at its heart your story’s based on a fan’s attachment to an imaginary bit of fluff. This *might* end up being a good story, but odds are stacked against you.

    (It might be a popular or well-selling story in the current marketplace if there are enough fans of Counter-Earth, and thank god there aren’t; but it’s not likely to be good.)

    One of the things that I’ve noticed as I’ve gradually dipped into Marvel’s more recent comics (say, Bendis’s New Avengers till the present) is the gradual disappearance of ordinary people, and thus, ordinary problems.

    Once in a while, I don’t mind–I still highly recommend Remender’s “Uncanny X-Force” because it’s got huge, modern-day-relevant ethical issues at the heart of it, even though everyone is a freaky mutant from the future or something.

    But for the most part, it seems that ordinary people simply no longer exist. To the point that Fraction and Aja’s “Hawkeye” was (deservedly) beloved for stepping back from crazy nonsense to present something ordinary readers could relate to.

    (If you haven’t read Hawkeye and that particular run of Uncanny X-Force (like maybe 2010-2012?) I strongly recommend both.)

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    • (banging head on wall) Nothing about Earth Now obviates fantastic elements. That particular confusion dogs fandom so bad I want to beat it all to death with a bat.

      Bring in the aliens. Invent superpowers. Bring in the dimensions. Bring in the “science” that doesn’t in any imaginable fashion work. Do whatever. Justify nothing. Realism and plausibility have nothing to do with what I’m talking about.

      As long as what’s happening is interesting in terms of Earth Now, in this story, and as long as the next story remains Earth Now, that stuff is wonderful. It’s especially there to make Earth Now more vivid, more powerful, more fun, more everything. It’s why superpowers “work” in 60s Marvel Comics and why they don’t in the New Universe no matter how well or badly justified – the former is about how they relate to the world we know, and the latter is about how they relate to themselves and to meta-talk about previous depictions.

      The Van Dinters knew this perfectly and said so in almost exactly these terms in their introduction.

      Where did I put that bat? Oh wait. The rest of your comment is right on target. Well then.

      It so happens that I just read the first three trades of Fraction’s Hawkeye, after umpty-ump recommendations of “OMG best ever” from friends (which I ignored) and after reading some very good text by Fraction and Aja about their creative process (which is why I bought it after all). Yet again, I am aggravated when a comic gets lauded as OMG Best Ever when its virtue is that it’s simply good. The “man in the street” stuff is definitely good … until we get this endless repetition of movie street gangsters (the “bro” guys) and the occasional Bond nonsense. The best stories hands-down were issue #2 and the moving-day one with the flood, for exactly the reasons you’re saying.

      I confess the business with the Thomas Avengers photo made me sniffle and love the whole thing.

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      • Maybe talking past each other? my thing is: Earth-Now, or a hypothetical reboot of the New Universe, or whatever, should be, as you called it elsewhere, “journalism.” Maybe even, given the zany powers and stuff involved, “gonzo journalism.” But it’s gotta be about something other than motherfuckin’ Counter-Earth, alone and central.

        Like, look at Kirby’s Asgard. Or Simonson’s Asgard. Superficially it’s about the most opposite to Earth-Now as you can get. But it fucking works because when these guys do it, it’s not a story about Asgard-as-Asgard: it’s a story about honor, or friendship, or true love, or parenthood, or whatever you wanna write about, that happens to be taking place in Asgard.

        Sure, it’s a little bit out of the way, but fuck it dude, road trip–plus we get to see the Executioner with those M-16’s.

        As an example of something that’s bad that we both know….. Hmmm….. Speaking generally, because I haven’t read every Inhumans story ever, would you agree that most Inhumans stories are pretty bad? ‘Cuz I do. I don’t recognize, or have interest in, any of the Royal Family as individual people. (Okay, Lockjaw is cool.) I don’t find the setting of mysterious, quietist, semi-feudal super-humans thrilling. So far as I can tell, the Inhumans are not ABOUT anything except themselves, at least during the 60’s and 80’s.

        One could probably fix this several different ways–busting up the caste system, playing the Royal Family against each other as a blood opera, and so on. But the classic, “Hey it’s Blackbolt and the Gang” take on the Inhumans mostly sucks.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Actually! I hate to say this, because I LOVED this as a kid, but Claremont & Adams’ “Asgardian Wars” is pretty much as close to pointless as you can get. It’s an excuse to throw the X-Men and New Mutants into the Asgardian setting with some really flashy art. But there’s no STORY there. It’s not about much of anything beyond, “Hey guys, what if Sunspot tried to lift up Volstagg?”

          (The precursor to “Asgardian Wars,” Claremont & Neary’s “X-Men vs. Alpha Flight,” is in my opinion rather poorly done, but at least has some kind of dilemma at its core.)

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