Monday, 20 January 2014

Review: Hulks and Horrors

Hulks and Horrors, written by John S. Berry and released by his very own Bedroom Wall Press, is a neo-retro game, designed specifically to be a game of "dungeon crawling in space". Its mechanics are partly derived from B/X D&D and, as a result, compatible with most D&D-esque games to a great extent. It provides an exploration-based game structure focussing on crawling through abandoned hulks, space stations, and ruins found in uncharted sectors.

Characters in Hulks and Horrors are explorers licensed by the Surveyor's Guild. Their duty is to explore and report about hitherto uncharted sectors of space; payment is based on the suspected profitability of the sector, and adventurers may keep valuable relics of the past they find.

The game system essentially treats every check as a stat check, which succeeds on a d20 roll lower than one of character's stats (chosen appropriately depending on the situation); attacks in combat are treated similarly, except that the target number is not a single stat but rather (attacker's to-hit bonus + defender's AC + 5).

As for the playable classes, there are seven of them (just like in B/X), four human and three alien:
  • Pilot: good with manoeuvring, pistols, and vehicle mounted weapons
  • Scientist: capable of executing programs with his multi-tool
  • Soldier: good HP and attack bonuses, favoured weapons bonuses
  • Psyker: able to use psychic powers
  • Hovering Squid: squids with four arms and multi-directional arms
  • Omega Reticulan: amoeba-like creatures, naturals in science and piloting
  • Bearman: bear-like warriors with innate psychic abilities
Scientists and Omega Reticulans are capable of using scientific programs with their multi-tools. Programs are divided into three levels with an increasing cost in Charge; both the number of available programs and Charge are level-based. Psykers and Bearmen learn psychic powers, instead; as they increase in level, they master new powers and gain more Psi points. Although powers are not divided into levels and have the same Psi point requirement, extra points may be spent in order to enhance their effects.

The equipment list is fairly expansive; it includes weapons and armour, grenades, protective devices (like gas filters), power sources, drugs, computerised devices, and other general equipment, as well as prices of the most common goods and services (like a strong drink or a hotel room). The latter seems useful in most games, although this particular game is premised upon characters exploring uncharted territory and excavating ruins; I am not so sure when these numbers would come into play (well, at least it does not take much space).

As in most sci-fi games, an entire chapter describes the players' options when it comes to designing their own spaceships. One notable thing is that there are three different ways of paying for the party's spaceship which has an impact on how freely they can choose from the options offered:
  1. The first method offers the party complete control but is the most expensive as well: the party has basically taken a mortgage and has to slowly pay back the full cost of the ship plus space bank interest.
  2. The second option is buying a used ship; the party still has to pay a monthly fee but the total amount is generally only half as much as it would cost brand new. However, not all of the gadgets and options detailed are available.
  3. The cheapest way of acquiring a ship is inheriting one. This, however, is a completely random ship, with zero chance of getting the niftiest stuff.
Needless to say, the monthly upkeep costs are pretty high in all cases; unless the party likes being broke, they really need to explore and loot uncharted sectors.

Spaceship combat is handled similarly to normal combat. The main difference is, naturally, its scale, and that there are clearly defined roles: (1) pilots manoeuvre, (2) sensor operators are responsible for avoiding being surprised and marking the target for easier hits, (3) weapon operators make attacks, and (4) engineers try to repair the ship.

Next, we find brief descriptions of the Surveyor's Guild, how to obtain a claim (an official paper detailing the duties and rewards for the exploration), plus simple rules for space travel. After that, a detailed sector generation procedure follows, which provides information about every system of a sector. As the most interesting (and gameable) results are ruins, the next chapter provides the GM simple guidelines and procedures for generating different types of ruins, (such as pod colonies, space stations, other complexes, hulks, and urban ruins), as well as dangerous hazards and loot.

The rest of the book includes a mediocre-sized bestiary and some advice on running H&H, such as how to approach sandbox gaming, how to prepare for the campaign and the next session, how to play monsters and NPCs, how to introduce house rules, new classes, powers, etc.

There are two other sci-fi games of the OSR that H&H is worth being compared to. First, Stars Without Number, which clearly has the advantage when it comes to providing resorces for and explaining sandbox gaming. While providing great freedom, however, SWN does not answer the question "What do we do?" in a satisfying way (but to be fair, Darkness Visible, Skyward Steel, and Suns of Gold all try to address that) , whereas H&H is premised upon exploring space and provides rules for exactly that (buying spaceship and equipment, travelling to uncharted sector, moving around and exploring sites, leaving and making profit).

The second one is Tales of the Space Princess, which is a space dungeon crawl game, very similar to H&H in gameplay, although Space Princess does not include rules for space travel beside escaping the Dark Fortress. More robust in rules, perhaps, H&H also has a far more detailed - and also very useful - section dedicated to game mastering, especially creating and populating different ruins.

The game is available in PDF and softcover formats on RPGNow and DrivethruRPG, and also in a bundle with Heaven's Shadow (here and here).


  1. You should also take a look at Machinations of the Space Princess, based on the Lamentations of the Flame Princess OSR Rules

    1. I surely will, but first I need to finish some other reviews.