21 January 2012

Gaming for Grownups: Homicidal Transients

imageWe backed a Kickstarter a while ago for a new little RPG called Homicidal Transients.  Despite a name that seems designed to engender a sort of shocked and somewhat self-conscious amusement, the premise is heroic fantasy roleplaying distilled down to its finest and most basic element: You and your friends are roaming the countryside, killing people to get stuff.  The actual setting of this really doesn’t matter.  While the game as it’s flavored lends itself to a “railroad barons and dust bowls” sort of feel, there’s nothing laid down to say that’s how it has to be. 

I’d flipped through the game rules (13 pages, including table of contents and acknowledgments) a few times, trying to piece things together on my own.  The layout is fantastic: all sticky notes and index cards, with headings like “Watch out this stuff will eat you” and “Who the hell are ya?”.  The text is sparse but adequate to explain the effects of skills and abilities; there’s no wasted fluff talking about how to think or how to play in Homicidal Transients.  This is a game made for people who know all about roleplaying games and have played enough of them to recognize a certain basic symmetry. 

I frequently refer to myself as “having a steep learning curve” with regard to rules: after playing D&D for years I am still frequently out-lawyered by my players, and I regard all new systems with a certain trepidation.  I flipped through the rules, and back through the rules, and I thought I had a feel for how to make my character, but I really didn’t feel very confident about it.  The rules are terse and self-explanatory, but for someone accustomed to the “Pick race.  Roll stats.  Pick Class.  Pick Select X items from Y skills” chapters on character generation, it felt like there ought to be something else that I was doing – something I was yet missing. 

Turns out, I had it all right, right off the bat.  Characters, like the rules, like the game itself, are distilled versions of Ye Olde Hero – so there’s really not much to them.  There’s your Homicide style, which is the specialized way you kill things; there’s your Transient style, which is the specialized way you interact with everything not immediately capable of being killed.  One of them is primary – either you are a killer or a talker – which determines the order in which you are going to receive bonuses to your abilities.  There’s your Health, which is always at full at the beginning of combat, and then there are your skills.  There are no random stats in Homicidal Transients; everything is reduced to the skill list, which reads like a list of everything that most adventurers do in any case: Drudge (for when you need muscle), Impetus, Talky Bits, Tamper, and Scrounge.  

Once I actually made a character, the creation process crystallized, but it is not quite intuitively obvious from the rules as they stand how to put everything together.  I understand the principle behind the way Homicidal Transients is arranged: it strips out all of the “how to roleplay” fluff and limits itself to just the rules.  It just doesn’t work for me as well as I think it could.  The biggest help for me in clarifying this would have been a character sheet, which would make the simplicity of the design just a little more evident.  During last night’s game, I mocked one up which met with Creator Miles’s approval, so hopefully that will help with future newcomers to Homicidal Transients.

We live in the middle of nowhere, so getting a gaming group together for playtesting is always a difficulty affair.  Fortunately, as part of the New Year, New Game initiative, Creator Miles hosted a game over Google Hangouts and we had a chance to participate.  Despite an issue with my sound drivers which resulted in me only hearing about half of the game, we had a great time.

Gameplay – another thing I wasn’t certain I understood – is as simple as it sounds.   You use one die (any size, as long as everyone has the same size) and roll, add half your level (round down) and any bonuses.  Your opponent does likewise.  High roll wins.  Ties go to the defender.  Uncontested rolls are against a target, difficulty anywhere between “Very Easy” and “Very Hard”.  The mechanics are simple enough to stay out of the way of the narrative, which is really what it’s about anyway.

Speaking of narrative, it went a little something like this:

In a fantasy world – no, wait,the height of the Dust Bowl – no wait, someone said Sweeney Todd, let’s do neo-Victorian (“I can totally rock those fingerless gloves”), three (and occasionally four) raggedy semi-protagonists escaped from a factory and wound up on the docks in front of a would-be press gang.  After a little discussion, mainly involving the name of the press gang’s employer so as to know where we could find work, we went at the other gang with broken two-by-four and stolen knife and hobo stick.  By the end of the combat we had one dead transient (that would be me, forgetting to Defend), a name, a plan for getting some money and stuff, a set of goggles (+1 Scrounge!) and a couple of eyeballs on a stick (“That’s a proper Mangle, that is”). 

We picked up the only mostly-dead transient (“You get one pass”); the goggles went to Matt, who was a Bum Slayer type and therefore good at Scrounging, and off we went to find Frank the press gang leader and get a job as shanghai artists.  Along the way, we encountered a toff in nice shoes but no cane and no cape, by which we were to know he was only sort of a rich toff.  He offered us a job.  This engendered some more discussion, seeing as how the words “Job” and “Transient” are somewhat exclusive in nature, but it was finally decided that as long as it was an odd job that we would be willing. 

It was a very odd job indeed.  We were sent to find Tom, who was not at his home, and return with either the man or – failing that – with proof of his demise.  We started at his home, despite – or perhaps because – he was not going to be there, which is where we Scrounged up a diary.  There was some discussion at that point about whether or not we could, in fact, read at all (“We’re transients!  Who needs to read?”  “You can if you want to be able to…”) which resulted in everyone looking at the guy in the goggles.  “He’s got glasses.  He can read.  That only makes sense.” 

So the Professor read the diary, which told us that there were two choices for what to do next: go seek out the pirates that Tom had traveled with, or go to the library.  That led to basically no discussion at all; off we went to see the pirates.   They didn’t know where Tom was, but they knew where he’d been: here and there and everywhere with the pirate captain, all around the world.  Forget Tom.  Let’s be piratesIt appealed to the homicidal and to the transient among us.  Problem was, the pirates weren’t hiring, not even if we killed off three of the less-necessary crew members.    Not even if we killed off three of the more-necessary crew members.

We went off to the library, instead.  They also didn’t know where Tom was, but they did have his collection – which we couldn’t see.  And they wouldn’t tell us anything at all, really, and as we were facing off against some kind of library sub-administrator with bloody 2x4 and eyeball on a stick and resurrected knife-bearing Slaughter Grifter, someone mentioned “You know, we really haven’t done any homicide lately.”

There wasn’t much stuff to be gained by killing the sub-administrator, so the conversation naturally drifted back to pirating.  See the world, they said.  Kill people and take their stuff, they said.  It really did feel like an occupation custom-designed for a bunch of homicidal transients.  It was decided that the best way to get around the hiring freeze on pirates was to kill some extra pirates and take their ship, then press gang ourselves a crew. 

It was unfortunately about this point when real life attacked: midnight in the Midwest combined with gamers who have kids (I told you it was terrible, getting older) meant the subsequent carnage will have to remain in the strictly theoretical realm.  Despite the shortened session, we had a good group and great fun.

Overall impression: This is a streamlined system that, despite the surface appearance, is fairly setting-agnostic.   The game rules could be easily adapted from trains and hobo camps to almost any locale, with minimal changes in the names of things.  It’s all about paring down roleplaying to its roots: killing things, getting stuff, and moving on. 

The rules are completely free of fluff and laid out in a nonstandard fashion, which makes them a little intimidating at first read and can lead to some confusion about their implementation.  Don’t give this book to someone who isn’t very familiar with roleplaying games – it’s not for beginners.  In stark contrast to initial impressions, though, actually playing the rules was intuitive, and there was little to no interruption of gameplay for clarifying questions.  This is a game that is, in its current format, best understood by just grabbing some dice and playing.

It is also a portable RPG that could be played, for example, in the ludicrously long will-call lines at your Favorite Gaming Con.  The core rules cover only five pages of the PDF (the rest is setting, bestiary, and loot suggestions); your character will fit on a sticky note (I made six character sheets on a page, comfortably); and the group could make do with just one die if need be.  Character generation is quick and painless – no rolling up stats, no purchasing gear – and leveling is by GM fiat, which is just the way I like it. 

In short, this is a game for when half your gaming group bails on you, or for when you’re sitting around drinking and get the urge to roll dice (this is always a dangerous combination), or – as was decided last night – if you’re running a bit of a fever but it’s not quite high enough to see purple elephants.  It’s quick and brutal and pared down to the barest bones: not a system that I would want in a campaign, but a lot of explosively violent fun on its own merits. 

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