Sunday, March 17, 2013

Hulks & Horrors: The Interview

Apologies for any formatting weirdness, but I think this'll be readable.
Below is an interview with John Berry of Bedroom Wall Press, whose old-school-based science fiction game, Hulks & Horrors, is going gangbusters on the download chart this week (and I believe is still free through St. Patrick's Day).  We had a good chat about the inspirations for the game, the mechanics, and what's next for Hulks & Horrors (hereafter H&H).

me: To start with an observation...I'm one of those consumers who starts at the back of the book, peeking at handouts and tables (and index, where applicable). And I have to say that the character sheet caught my eye - I just love things that look like other things, and the H&H sheet in the book is a job application.
9:40 PM John Berry: Yup.
  Quite deliberately so.
  I wanted the guild forms to look like government documents. There was a definite inspiration from classic Traveller's sheets that all looked like old military personnel forms.
9:41 PM me: Absolutely, that conveys. The font choices help to fix the vibe in time, and I think that's a sound choice. Since we're talking about vibe, let me ask about inspirations. What games, books, movies, TV shows inspired the 70s Science! feel of H&H?
9:43 PM John Berry: Douglas Adams is a huge inspiration for me, especially with the alien tech. The Aliens films were another definite one. Starship Troopers of course.
  I wanted it to be very broad in influence, in much the way that D&D originally was in its day.
9:44 PM while now, D&D has practically become its own genre of fantasy, back in the day it was just about mashing together all the goodies, and so that's what I tried to do with H&H. To do for SF and Space Opera what D&D did with fantasy.
 me: The focus in the mash-up seems to be strongly on the hand-wave section of sci-fi, which was a great relief to me. There's no "hard" in H&H as written, really.
9:45 PM John Berry: No. I'm ... not much of a fan of modern hard SF.
 me: Nor I.
 John Berry: There's a point on the spectrum where hard SF stops being speculative at all, and that's not what SF is about for me.
9:46 PM me: As much as I appreciate science, I think some books, films, and rpgs go too far with the realism fetish. I don't want to do serious calculations for space combat, I want to do 3D bootlegger turns and fire all lasers.
9:47 PM John Berry: Yeah. For me SF is about imagining possible futures, and about commenting on today by reflecting through that futuristic lens.
  Even the transhumanist stuff these days isn't about imagining some impossible future, but about an almost religious vision of a very certain one its followers are convinced will come about.
9:48 PM me: Despite the horror of the Plague in the H&H setting, there does seem to be a focus on the "wow" of discovering Ancient relics and such. Would you say H&H has some of that sci-fi optimism?
9:49 PM John Berry: A bit. But also I wanted to convey a very "working class" kind of space exploration as well, especially in some of the writing. Surveyors are guys and gals doing a job, and so I wanted to find a balance between wow factor, absurdism, and danger.
9:51 PM me: You mentioned Traveller earlier, which has to be some kind of influence (towards or away) for any SF rpg designer, but when I was reading H&H I got a bit of a Star Frontiers feel in there as well. That might say more about me than about you, of course. What kinds of SF rpgs do you have a lot of experience with, or did you consult "what's out there" during the design phase?
 John Berry: Traveller was a huge inspiration, for certain. I've never actually read much of Star Frontiers.
9:52 PM Gamma World though, is another notable inspiration for sure, as is the 40K universe (if only in some superficial details). There's probably bits of Rifts and Phase World in there was well, and GURPS SF stuff.
 me: All those games mine common ground, so tipping your hat to one ends up being an homage to several, I'd imagine.
9:53 PM John Berry: Certainly.
 me: Let's talk mechanics a minute.
 John Berry: No problem.
9:54 PM me: H&H is based on an old-school D&D-style chassis. Was there a strong reason behind that choice? It seems weird to ask this now, given that H&H actually predates Heaven's Shadow, but did you consider doing H&H with MiniSix or something from the ground up at any point, or was it always "let's do SF D&D"?
 John Berry: It was SF D&D from day one.
9:55 PM H&H basically has two genesis points. The first was discovering D&D 3e years ago, and immediately wishing I had something with equivalent gameplay, but SF flavor instead of fantasy.
9:56 PM I've always been more of an SF guy, fantasy outside Tolkien himself seldom holds my interest.
  The second genesis point, and the one that finally got me to just write the damn thing, was a thread on G+ that Jeff Rients started about B/X variants.
 me: Rients has much to answer for.
 John Berry: The idea was just to post a similar 4/3 split, 4 human classes, 4 non-human.
9:57 PM And just like that, in about 30 seconds consideration, I rattled off the 7 you see in the book.
  The only thing that has changed from that original conception and the print version was that earlier on I was going to make the Omega Reticulans more greys or reptoid/sectoid types, before I hit on the Amoeba idea.
9:58 PM me: That class structure is one of the features that makes H&H more "D&Dish" than some other recent SF games with similar mechanics, to my mind. There's a familiarity to it.
 John Berry: definitely.
9:59 PM The problem I have always seen with pasts D&D approaches to SF is they always toss out everything that makes D&D "D&D".
 me: So you never considered bolting on skills, then. Or are you referring to the dungeon/hulk crawl?
 John Berry: It's SF, so it has to be "serious", it has to be "realistic." So they start with D&D, but then it's bye bye classes, levels, dungeons, monsters ...
10:00 PM me: Right.
  H&H definitely has the "D& spaaaaace" thing going on, no doubt.
10:01 PM How mechanically compatible would you say H&H is with B/X or similar rulesets?
 John Berry: I think I briefly considered skills, but I'd been reading a lot of seriously old-guard "groggiest of the grognards" stuff that made me want to give another go at the "stat check" only approach I used in Drums of War.
 me: I'm glad you mentioned Drums of War, as I have a question regarding it later!
 John Berry: Compatibility wise, I've found from thumbing through older B/X modules and such that for the most part a lot of stuff should read straight across, with just a slight bit of interpretation on the DM's part.
10:02 PM The numbers and stats even line up enough that I think you could probably even drop H&H characters into a B/X or OD&D game without too much of a hiccup.
 me: I'm sure that will be tested before too long here.
10:03 PM Can you talk about why you decided to do your THAC0 the way you did?
  Is it because you're a 3e guy, essentially?
10:04 PM John Berry: Well, it came down to two things: 1) I wanted to do old school, and I don't believe ascending AC feels right for old school (nor do I care for the escalating values, descending has a more natural cap to it), 2) I actually always hated the math for the old AC/THAC0 systems, like many, and so that was why I hit upon flipping the die roll.
10:05 PM me: It's a compromise.
 John Berry: Sort of, yeah, but it also lent itself to a more natural comparison between stat checks and combat rolls.
  "Unified mechanics" weren't really a goal of H&H, I don't think they fit the old-school feel, but it was a nice bonus to have them match up for once.
10:06 PM me: There are a lot of nice little elegant touches throughout the mechanics - like the 2d6H damage. I want to steal that for my fantasy game for swords made of unusual materials. Pretty simple - the sort of thing I couldn't believe I hadn't seen elsewhere before.
10:07 PM John Berry: Yeah. I wanted a better way to differentiate between different weapon types while keeping damage within the same general ranges.
  So I just thought, well, if it's good enough for stat checks, why not damage?
10:08 PM me: The Science/Charge mechanic sets us up with scientists as focus-object-dependent casters. That was an interesting solution, as well as bringing in the tricorder and sonic screwdriver sort of thing.
10:10 PM John Berry: Yeah. Mechanically it's a bit of an obvious pallette swap, to the extent that my ex-publisher wanted me to rewrite it, and I did consider it, but at the same time, keeping it that way made it easier to provide clear comparison to other editions and break up the powers into roughly even advancements.
10:11 PM me: They wanted you to rewrite it? Did they think it was a lame palette swap? I think it makes it easy for an old-school-familiar GM to get a feel for what's right and what's too powerful for a given effect. I don't mind a palette swap if it keeps gameplay fast.
 John Berry: Ultimately the biggest change from playest to release was just instituting more scaled effects into them, as originally they were like OD&D spells, lots of flat values that never changed. I think the current system provides a nice balance between either extreme.
 me: Yeah, as written currently it's more than just "wait, that's a science fireball".
 John Berry: Yeah, he didn't feel it made sense that way, too much forcing the concept to work the mechanics, than the other way around.
10:13 PM me: Suppose I'm an OSR-type and I ask you "what kind of cool stuff does H&H have that I can easily bolt on to this other ruleset I'm into these days"?
 John Berry: "All of it." ;)
10:14 PM But more specifically, there's a lot of fun monsters based on classic SF tropes or original that would drop in nicely in even a fantasy game, and the system generation is almost completely system independent and could be used in any SF game really.
  So long as you're not expecting realism, anyway.
 me: The system generation stuff did jump out at me as being easily translatable to that other D&D-derived SF game . I feel like I shouldn't mention your competition or something, which is silly.
10:15 PM John Berry: There is also what I hope to be some good advice on how to run sandbox-ish "premise over plot" style games, that might be old news to most old guard but hopefully helpful to people returning to OSR gaming.
10:16 PM me: Yeah, I thought the DM section was quite nice. Especially the bits where you talk about alternate concepts, pushing the rules in new directions, that sort of thing.
 John Berry: Oh yeah. That was an absolute goal with the system.
 me: There's enough implied setting to get you going, but you could do anything with it. It has to be a toolbox if it's going to match that old-school goal, I suppose.
10:17 PM John Berry: I think the strength of D&D is that it presents a solid core gameplay concept, but can be bent to other wills easily, and so while much of the game is built around surveying, it should hopefully adapt well to other concepts easily.
  As a proof of concept, I posted up a pulp vigilante class in the system on the BWP site the other night.
 me: Let's talk about spaceships a bit...
10:19 PM The spaceships in a SF universe have a huge impact on what sort of universe it is as far as gameplay, expectations, etc. How much of a role did ship-to-ship combat play in your playtests? I'm guessing minimal, since the playtests were probably focused on surveying hulks and such.
10:20 PM John Berry: It wasn't a huge portion of things, and to be honest, if there are any kinks to be found they're probably in the way the weapons play out, but I felt the game just wouldn't be complete without them, and that it was also important to present the ship itself as a core unifying space for the play group.
  I think that in all honesty, the range band system probably breaks down for much more than small duels, which is part of what led me to including optional minis rules in the game.
10:21 PM me: I'm looking forward to trying out the ship construction subsystem and doing some space combat with it, that's for sure. Space combat is hard to get "right", I think - you have to have a goal in mind feel-wise and make sure the whole thing is contributing to achieving that goal. I expect there's room for someone to hash out some variant spaceship rules as well. Or...mecha. There, I said it.
10:22 PM John Berry: Ship construction itself though, was very rigorously tested, because every single sample ship was built directly from the rules.
  I actually still have the text file I used to calculate them.
 me: There's nothing worse than reading a game and realizing the rules don't allow you to build the sample vehicles!
 John Berry: I know!
10:23 PM I fudged some numbers a bit with some of the monsters to make them fit closer to type, but for ships I wanted all of them to be exactly legal, not least because it makes the math easier if groups want to just modify a stock vessel.
  You can start with them as baseline without concern becuse every one is 100% rules legal.
 me: That's a standard trope, it's good for it to be solid. Everybody wants a custom ship.
10:24 PM I did notice there isn't much about ground vehicles in there. Was that a conscious choice? Imitating SF where you land, then walk? (which is itself pretty common)
10:25 PM John Berry: I think it was definitely something I just didn't expect to be much of a concern most of the time. Any more than I included would've potentially required a whole new subsystem that I didn't feel was iconic enough to the core gameplay to be necessary.
 me: Fair enough.
 John Berry: So for the most part, I treated ground vehicles as horses, basically.
10:26 PM If I get to do an expanded set or revision, I could see making combat ground vehicles an option, but it just didn't seem like it fell within the milieu of what the players would be doing in the default game style.
10:27 PM me: Good segue - I presume right now an expanded edition is in the "someday" bucket rather than on the drawing board per se.
10:28 PM John Berry: Originally I had planned on the Basic Black Edition to be partly just about raising attention to the game for a second run at a Kickstarter for an expanded and illustrated book like I had originally intended to create.
10:29 PM me: Gotcha.
 John Berry: I still really want to see a Tim and Evan illustrated version of the rules, they both do such fantastic art, but I also kind of want to let the game be what it is for a while, and not leave it feelling like some rushed out ashcan game, but a full game in its own right.
10:30 PM me: Oh, absolutely. About the art... everyone seems to love that art you used for the kickstarter, but it isn't in the Basic Black Edition. Was that a layout decision, or was BWP's ownership of that art contingent on the KS?
10:31 PM John Berry: The art that was used in the original pitch was done pro bono, and I didn't have any more than what was used in that pitch, and I didn't have the funds to pay to use even that out of pocket.
  No funding, no art, basically.
10:32 PM me: I see - I wondered if something like that was the case. I'm sure I wasn't the only person wondering "gaaah but the Bearman! Where is the Bearman!" But good art isn't cheap, that's for sure.
 John Berry: Nope. And my belief is that if I can't afford to do something right, it's better not to do it than to cheap out.
  I can't stand books with awful art.
10:33 PM me: I concur about doing it right.
 John Berry: I think more games should save their budgets than forcing themselves to buy half-hearted clip art or poorly drawn amatuer stuff.
10:34 PM me: I guess it comes down to a taste thing for most people. Getting back to publishing plans... can you tell me about this FTL stuff?
  And then we'll get into Hackerscape, of course.
 John Berry: FTL was, basically, a lark that actually came through.
10:35 PM me: It's somebody else's universe, right?
 John Berry: I was a backer for them on Kickstarter from the offing, and it's a great game.
10:36 PM I got to talking to some #rpgnet folk about how easy it would be to run FTL with H&H, and then in a moment of sheer "what the hell" I emailed the developers and asked if I could have permission to post some rules for it.
 me: So it's a PC game? I hadn't heard of it until you mentioned it on the BWP blog.
 John Berry: Yeah.
10:37 PM me: That's some neat synergy there. TRANSMEDIA!
 John Berry: The quickest way to describe it I think is that's it's rather like if Battlestations got a PC version with random maps and missions and such.
 me: The forthcoming FTL posts will cover the tech and factions and all that, then, I take it?
 John Berry: That's the idea.
 me: More toys for the toolbox.
10:38 PM John Berry: It'll also introduce some new optional rules variants for even players not into FTL itself.
  A combat version of Daredevil, energy shields, new weapon types, an engineer class, and I'm even thinking about doing the races AD&D style.
10:40 PM me: That'd be cool. What's the deal with Hackerscape? Or maybe I should call it Hackerscape 198x. Which, by the way, totally gets the point across. Is Hackerscape H&H-as-1980s-cyberpunk the way default H&H is 50s-70s SF, then? Or am I reading too much into it?
 John Berry: No, that's pretty much it.
10:41 PM Hackerscape is about making a very 1980s, 8-bit vision of cyberpunk, using the H&H core rules.
 me: I'll need to dig out my Information Society albums, then.
10:42 PM John Berry: :D For sure.
  My plan is actually to illustrate the entire book commodore style.
 me: Oh sweet mercy.
10:43 PM John Berry: 8-bit art, and the header fonts are taken straight from the C128.
 me: I thought the banner looked somewhat familiar. It certainly brings the brain back to those days (although we were a C64 household). The aesthetics of a printed game make a huge difference in setting the tone of an rpg.
10:44 PM John Berry: Certainly. The other advantage is I actually do have a shred of talent at pixel art, and it sets a lower visual bar, which means I can actually illustrate this one myself.
  I seem to really like being a one-man show. No one else to rely on but me.
10:45 PM me: Speaking of the one-man H&H Strictly John's Baby, or would BWP consider doing a "compatible with H&H" type thing for supplements or adventures?
 John Berry: I have been brainstorming ideas for a logo licensing set up.
10:46 PM me: That's good to hear.
 John Berry: The idea is that basically I want to figure out a way for that H&H logo to mean absolute compatibility and cross-reference possibility.
 me: Of course, the mechanics in the Basic Black book are OGL anyhow, but it's nice to have official stuff going on.
10:47 PM John Berry: Yeah. My idea for a logo license is that it would be as close as possible to what you'd expect from an in-house work. So getting certified means that your supplement is absolutely compatible with the core rules, and it's been OGL'd itself so that other logo developers could use it.
10:48 PM I will probably also consider allowing direct use of the non-OGL fluff for logo license stuff.
  I'm still working on details though, so none of this is certain yet.
 me: Interesting. I expect you'll see H&H-compatible stuff churn up on some blogs before too long, as people start running with the game. Dare I ask the Drums of War question now?
 John Berry: Sure.
10:49 PM me: Drums of War was - and correct me if I'm misrepresenting here - a Warcraft homage built on d20. Any plans to rework it into something closer to your current H&H-type system?
10:50 PM Or is it pretty much BWP's "student film"?
 John Berry: It was an original system, actually, but similar to D20 in many respects, as well as the CODA system.
10:51 PM Ultimately I decided to let DoW sit in its present version, and it's unlikely I'll return to it in the future unless by some miracle I made a bazillion dollars and actually got the WoW license.
  I don't even link it to BWP or consider it a BWP product for legal reasons.
10:52 PM me: Makes sense. I presume there were lessons learned in that design process that informed the way you worked on H&H and Heaven's Shadow.
 John Berry: Certainly. In a lot of ways, while I love the game, it's pretty much my last gasp of D20/4e style design, the "lesson learned" that helped push me to a more old school design direction on H&H.
10:53 PM Put blunty, that style of design is not fun for me at all, least of all for free.
 me: That's interesting. I know you've expressed a lot of satisfaction with mucking about with the old-school design.
 John Berry: there's something about working with old-school D&D that is incredibly liberating as a designer.
10:54 PM me: Preaching to the choir. And it isn't just the familiarity, I think.
 John Berry: I can do what works, not what's "elegant" and "unified" and "balanced", and that is freeing and fun and I think makes for much more fun games as a result because the designer is having fun.
 me: Putting that sense of fun in a game can be infectious. Some writers forget that. Others have 'Master Chief' as a level title!
10:55 PM John Berry: fiddling with numbers to get that level 10 spell balanced just right against 10 other classes was the kind of thing that gives me a fuckin' aneurysm, and it's that kind of design that I think produces a lot of damn work, for a game that's not necessarily anymore fun than a much more flexible approach like I took with H&H.
 me: Absolutely. To wrap up, I'll ask what games you've been running and playing lately.
10:56 PM John Berry: To be honest, I've mostly been wrapped up in non-tabletop gaming lately. I played through the entire Assassin's Creed series recently in part to help inspire my Heaven's Shadow work.
 me: That'
10:57 PM That's heartbreaking.
 John Berry: I'm just finishing up my last term at university, so I've been consumed by homework and such and haven't had the time or motivation.
 me: Ah, okay. We'll give you a pass, then.
 John Berry: But that ends on Tuesday for good, and I'll be a writer full time for a while, so I intend to get on the ball with some BWP games soon. :D
10:58 PM me: Awesome. Hopefully you'll get some time to play as well!
 John Berry: I've actually been idly musing with a new rule in which I'm no longer allowed to buy games, only write them. ;)
 me: That might work...just don't become a chef who never eats.
10:59 PM John Berry: I recently had to sell off most of my RPG collection in preparation for my upcoming emigration to Finland, so my collection now consists only of games I wrote, Fallout PnP, DC Heroes 2e, and Classic Traveller.
  Plus whatever I have in PDF, of course.
 me: DC Heroes 2e? Oh, my. We'll have to chat about supers sometime.
11:00 PM John Berry: It's a complete boxed set! I even have the original dicce somewhere.
 me: Maybe you can hook up with some Finnish gamers who dig math and play some DC Heroes!
 John Berry: :D Perhaps so.
11:01 PM me: Well thank you so much for taking the time to chat about Hulks & Horrors. And best of luck with BWP's future endeavors.
11:02 PM John Berry: Thanks. I'm just pleased as punch that people are enjoying it. Someone messaged me to thank them for a great session today, one in which a player apparently set a dinosaur on fire. It was a proud moment.
 me: Nothing motivates like hearing stories from play. I'm sure you'll be getting more of those in the coming months!
11:03 PM John Berry: I hope so! It's been doing very well so far, despite the publishing snafu, quickly becoming one of the most popular old-school variants on DTRPG.
11:04 PM me: Congratulations - soon the masses will demand the Hulks & Horrors Companion.
 John Berry: :D
  One can hope.

Watch this space for a full review of Hulks & Horrors next week.


  1. It was my pleasure to put a dino in place to be burnt. I have to point out that the same dino ate two characters in two turns, and they were played by the same guy (one was an extra from a guy who had to leave early).
    We did have a lot of fun, there! Thanks for a really great rules system.

  2. A terror lizard is a frightening opponent to encounter even at 6th level! I'm not surprised he made a lunch of several characters in the process. :O