Right. I’m playing this.
Page 14, Game 1: Saviors of Hogtown by Dissonance
It’s trite to sit here and muse “Gosh, tabletop RPGs sure have evolved a lot in my lifetime.” I mean, it’s not wrong, but it doesn’t even come close to the whole truth.
Dungeons and Dragons was published in 1974, two years after I was born. This pastime literally did not exist when I was born. By the time I was old enough to play it, to find people to play it with me, the evolution was well underway. There was already a sense of a guaranteed minimum competence developing, a floor beneath which even the shittiest of dice rolls could not sink a character. A safety net was clearly starting to take shape. To define your character’s all-important attributes, don’t just roll 3d6 in order; roll 4d6, and take the best three dice. Yeah, you can swap ’em around, why not. Naw, don’t bother rolling for hit points at first level, just go ahead and take the maximum on the die for that. And did you drop down to zero HP? Yeah, treating that as a death sentence IS pretty harsh, isn’t it. Know what? You’re just unconscious. You’re outta this fight, but as long as one of your buddies survives, you’ll most likely fight another day.
Thirty-some years later, D&D is very much a game of wish fulfillment, of the fantasy of power. Unless you deliberately work to sabotage yourself to Make A Point (and quite likely annoy the shit out of the rest of the table), you are guaranteed to be a bad-ass, it’s just a matter of determining the details of your bad-assery.
That’s not a bad thing. The real world is random, cruel, all to often deeply disempowering. So long as it’s in moderation, it’s nice to be able to retreat to a world that, while dangerous and potentially deadly, is on some fundamental level fair. A world where the Call To Adventure is guaranteed, where you’ll hopefully succeed but even if you don’t you cannot claim you didn’t have a fair chance.
But progress usually has a price tag. Something was lost — and it was already well on its way out long before I was even capable of appreciating it.
There’s an arbitrary harshness to True Old School D&D that makes victory, even small victories, something special. Good characters, strong characters, were a cause for celebration, because excellence was rare and never guaranteed. You were probably just gonna be, you know, average. Quite possible worse. At most, you went in with a loose idea of character concepts you’d like to try out; the dice would tell you what doors were actually there for you to open. When the dice broke your way, it was something special, because you knew the could have just as easily fucked you and saddled you with a character who honestly wasn’t that good at much of anything. Again.
The modern way is better.
But the Old Way has its charms.
Best game I ever ran in high school was a module called Treasure Hunt. It was a throwback, before I was even old enough to understand just what the hell a “throwback” was, let alone conceive of D&D having changed enough for such a thing to be possible. All the characters were Level 0. Even by the standards of the era, they were incompetent. They’d been captured as slaves, but their galley wrecked aground during a storm. Now, they had to escape an island where orcs and goblins warred with each other, equipped with nothing more than the clothes on their backs.
It was frightening. It was epic. I still remember a cataclysmic fight in a ruined temple where a single undead monster nearly killed the entire party (ghouls suck). The last man standing, played by my friend Forrest, finally clubbed the thing down what a chunk of splintered wood he’d salvaged off the ship. And as his buddies slowly came out from under the paralysis that had almost killed the lot of them, he sank to his knees and pledged himself to the service of the goddess whose temple they were now within. For surely, it was by Her divine grace that they had survived. His life was now Hers.
It was the most resounding journey to Level 1 Cleric I’ve ever seen at a table. What was that character’s Wisdom score? Dude, who the fuck cares?! No backstory I’ve ever contrived could possibly compete with an escaped slave on his knees in the wreckage of a one-time place of worship swearing devotion to the goddess he thought had saved him and his new friends from certain death.
And no, I was not a proxy for that goddess. It was a one-shot, so I was absolutely going to kill any or all of those fuckers if the dice said to. It was earned. Top to bottom, that moment was earned.
When they commandeered a sea-worthy boat and made their escape together, it was as glorious a victory as the slaying of a rampaging dragon, as mighty as thwarting any terrible lich-king seeking to unleash his army of the dead upon the world.
We have lost the glory of small victories. We have lost the games where there’s absolutely positively nothing special or remarkable about us, and we rise to the occasion and become big damn heroes anyway. We have lost the sense that we have emerged triumphant not because we were fated to, not because the gods had granted us power, but because we fucking well stepped up and earned it.
Welcome to Hogtown.
Saviors of Hogtown is a Level 0 adventure for Dungeon World. (If you’re not familiar with the ruleset, it’s a blend of old-school Dungeons & Dragons with modern indie golden child Apocalypse World. AW is an excellent ruleset; it’s a darling for a reason.) In it, the PCs will take the role of hapless fantasyland shmucks who are way over their heads. You’ll roll 3d6 in order for your stats and percentile dice for an occupation. Whoever among you, by consensus, got fucked hardest by the dice gets the coveted “Least Likely to Survive” token, and away you go.
The game mentions that you can, if you want, roll-up two or three characters apiece to play concurrently and see which among them survive. That’s … fine, I suppose.
You’re probably gonna die. Embrace it. Run towards the danger.
Aside from causing me to wax nostalgic about the Lethal Old Days, the module is extremely well-written and charmingly illustrated. (That’s no small thing; the artwork I’ve seen in most of these small-press TTRPGs has been … not good.)
I want to play this game. If it weren’t for the ongoing plague apocalypse, I would right now be organizing a session of this game. Once it’s safe to get a bunch of people in my house — at least 4-6, because for real, motherfuckers are gonna die here — this is absolutely hitting my table.
Enthusiastically recommended. I know I just spent way more words talking about what this game reminded me of than what it actually is itself, but it’s reminding me of some great lost shit here.
Is this next game going to make me see if I can find an old 80’s game module somewhere cheap online?
Page 57, Game 14: Space Mining Clicker by Cold Coffee Studio
“Welcome Director, manage your mining facility and survive to the geopolitical storm opposing the galactic factions.”
Hmm. Don’t think I ever played a game where I was trying to run a business in the midst of an impending war. I’m intrigued.