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Author Topic: Hackmaster: The Postmodern RPG  (Read 12569 times)
Calithena
Acts of Evil Playtesters
Member

Posts: 336

aka Sean


« on: December 06, 2003, 05:54:27 AM »

OK, I've been trying to restrain myself on this one for a while, but since HM and KoDT came up in the Actual Play thread on Abused Player Syndrome, I felt a need to discuss the theoretical ramifications of the Hackmaster RPG. Some of you will be aware of what I'm talking about here already, so if my didactic expository tone is dull, I apologize.

David Kenzer and his crew are pretty sharp guys. (One of DK's past companies negotiated a 200K payment from TSR to stop making products!)One of the conscious, original design intentions of Hackmaster is not what it might seem - say, a sort of loopy, over-the-top, Gamist tribute to one kind of old-school D&D play, or a satire thereof.

No. Hackmaster as originally conceived was a LARP system, in which the 'game' itself is a prop. That is, when playing HM,

- The player 'plays', in LARP mode, a recognizable gamer archetype: the abused player, the killer DM, the rules lawyer, the worshipper of all things Japanese, the LoTR nut, the girl who just wants to talk to everything, etc. You take on a gamer archetype and play it to the hilt.

- Part of that 'playing it to the hilt' involves is employing this ridiculously baroque, D&D-inspired rule engine 'within the game'. The game itself is a PROP for the LARP - it enables various sorts of stereotyped, hackneyed gamer behavior in over-the-top fashion.

So HM is a game within a game, ironically reflecting both on the game it is inspired by and on the people who play it, and inviting players to participate in that process of ironic reflection. It's a truly postmodern design - built on the back of an absurd AD&D homebrew.

Now, I'm not saying 'this is what the game is' - the 'it's a crazy-ass D&D homebrew' and 'it's a parody of D&D' were also both there from the beginning and are very much reflected in the books. But this 'game within a game thing' is also there, and creates some interesting puzzles for the theory of gaming, IMO.

One issue has to do with Social Contract/Creative Agenda issues. Let's say you have six people sitting down to play HM. One wants a parody, two want to play crunchy D&D, and three want to LARP as gamers. (They are gamers, though. Another bit of postmodernism in the design.) In theory, all these people could play together, and with luck, they might even work it out, though there's a million ways this unstable situation could break down. But it's very logically puzzling: arguably the three are playing a different game from the two and the one isn't really playing a game at all! And yet they're all at the same table and engaged in the same social activity. Very puzzling.

Another slightly chilling issue is that lots of people take to the HM engine (which I am regarding here as a prop to the 'real' game, the LARP, even though I recognize that the game-text is ambiguous as to which is the 'real' one) as a game like fish to water - they don't see or care about the LARP mode because they are happy taking on a familiar and comfortable social role in their gaming and don't want to think about it that hard.

Well, I don't have the energy to carry this analysis all the way through right now, but I hope I've at least communicated the basic idea here. I wonder if anyone else has comments on this.
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Jack Spencer Jr
Guest
« Reply #1 on: December 06, 2003, 08:13:09 AM »

Interesting. I had to look up postmodern to see if you're using it correctly. Dictionary.com says it's a reaction to modernism (don't you hate dictionaries? To understand one word you must look up seven) usually by either revisiting traditional or taking the modern to the extremes. (modernism being a break with traditional) So, since HM does revisits AD&D almost haphazard design in the face of modern more organized design, I judge you are indeed very correct in the usage of postmodern. Yay.

Anyhoo. Thanks for the view of games like HM as a postmodern experience. Until I read this, I was looking at HM and other games like Munchkin et al. as a kind of self-cannibalism of RPG culture, making a kind of in-joke that only other roleplayers would get, and then only a certain percentage of roleplayers.

You have given me a new appreciation. Thank you.
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Bill_White
Member

Posts: 202


WWW
« Reply #2 on: December 06, 2003, 11:38:20 AM »

I get you.  The postmodernists' notion of how identity is "fragmented" is all wrapped up in your description of the HM-as-LARP gaming table.  Note further that it doesn't matter if HM was conceived as a LARP:  it's not the intentions of the author that matter, it's the use of the text by its audience.  The particularly ironical and recursive usage that you suggest is so pomo it makes one want to spit.

A funny idea.  Thanks for sharing it.
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Daniel Solis
Member

Posts: 411


« Reply #3 on: December 06, 2003, 12:44:44 PM »

It should be noted that one of the key concepts of plain ol' modernism was that the artist's unique thumbprint was paramount in her art. Inspiration was to come from her own psyche and imagination. To a modernist, an artist is a unique figure in human society. Often underappreciated, but nevertheless a priceless asset.

As a counter to this, postmodernism rejects the delusion that inspiration comes out of a vacuum. Art and artists emerge from an ultra-contemporary environment of interconnected ideas and appropriated concepts. Postmodernism celebrates the organic juxtaposition inherent in human society now existing in an age of light-speed communication and freeflowing information exchange. To a postmodernist, everyone is an artist. Art is not to be chained up in galleries where only snooty elitists can pretend to enjoy it while sipping cheap wine.

It's been many years since pomo's heyday and critics of modernism and postmodernism say both schools took their respective visions to unnecessary extremes.
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Meatbot Massacre
Giant robot combat. No carbs.
Callan S.
Member

Posts: 3588


WWW
« Reply #4 on: December 06, 2003, 04:01:07 PM »

It's funny, the PVP comic is doing somthing on exactly this right now
http://pvponline.com/archive.php3?archive=20031203

Anyway, what are all those people with different interests doing? They're forming a community. In real communities some people are interested in baking, some in making art, some in farming (farming XP?), etc. They specialise to the extent the community wouldn't survive if everyone was like them. But everyone isn't. Different types of people with different interests come together and form a community.
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Philosopher Gamer
<meaning></meaning>
ross_winn
Member

Posts: 53


« Reply #5 on: December 07, 2003, 08:53:15 PM »

An interesting idea, and not one that I have ever heard. From whence does this idea come to you? Or is it just an assertion (albeit a good one).
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Ross Winn
ross_winn@mac.com
"not just another ugly face..."
Calithena
Acts of Evil Playtesters
Member

Posts: 336

aka Sean


« Reply #6 on: December 08, 2003, 05:56:16 AM »

If it's original to me, I'm more creative than I think I am. I got these ideas

(a) hanging out on the Kenzer boards, where many of the HM design principals hang out (although they are _very_ careful never to say on the boards exactly what Hackmaster is 'supposed to be')

(b) when they were more or less explicitly stated by a fellow named Colonel Hardisson, who you might encounter on Enworld or the Necromancer Games Message Boards, among other places  - though he said that he had come across this in conversations with others elsewhere too, and therefore disavowed originality on his own part as well - except the good Colonel didn't connect them with 'postmodernism', but the idea was there

(c) when I happened across the game "One Die To Hack Them All" websurfing: http://www.rdinn.com/show_topic.asp?which=721

(d) when I ran Hackmaster myself, in the 'retro AD&D' mode, and realized the game had other possibilities

Just to reiterate one of the original claims: I believe, though my evidence is circumstantial, and depending on your theory of textual meaning the fact may or may not be relevant, that when David Kenzer et. al. designed this game the LARP/TTRPG hybrid mode was among the conscious design intents of the game. The absurd "dice appendix" of the HM Player's Guide is one of many texts that might be adduced to support this - that appendix is to help you in the LARP.

I also think that the HM community was taking on a life of its own in which the game was being played as a sort of competitive D&D with somewhat absurd rules, with the LARP aspects receding into the background. But I haven't been hanging out there for a while since I realized I was too old for games with as many rules as HM, whatever their independent interest.
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Calithena
Acts of Evil Playtesters
Member

Posts: 336

aka Sean


« Reply #7 on: December 08, 2003, 12:20:55 PM »

People interested in this should note the recent thread

http://pub123.ezboard.com/fnecromancergamesfrm26.showMessage?topicID=541.topic

in which I clarify my memory about where I learned what with Colonel Hardisson, who had a similar idea first. There are some links to some old threads about this there as well.
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Calithena
Acts of Evil Playtesters
Member

Posts: 336

aka Sean


« Reply #8 on: December 08, 2003, 12:46:26 PM »

Actually, this is apparently old news, at least if you read between the lines.

If you link to the threads:

http://www.dfforum.org/forums/viewtopic.php?t=2882

http://www.kenzerco.com/forums/showflat.php?Cat=&Board=HMGeneral&Number=275678&page=20&view=collapsed&sb=5&o=&fpart=1

Note especially my onlnie friend Allan Grohe's comment on the Kenzer thread: "Colonel H, you have shone a ray of understanding between the plates of my skull about HM  I had never once thought to equate HM with more literary and immersive rpgs (such as Dying Earth, Ars Magica, Storyteller, etc.)---I thought that most of the "silly humor" derived from KODT (which is not my cuppa), rather than from any additional role-assumption."

I suppose in light of reading these threads (which I hadn't seen before) I suppose my only real contribution to all this is the explicit invocation of postmodernism, irony, and self-reference in the course of the discussion. Still, I've gotten a lot of fun out of these thoughts, so I hope you do as well.
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ColonelHardisson
Guest
« Reply #9 on: December 08, 2003, 01:08:55 PM »

Well, I think it's pretty significant that you did bring postmodernism into the equation. It's an angle I hadn't really thought about in relation to the game (or any game, for that matter). It's interesting, and I hope you pursue it. Plus, up until I posted my essay, I'd never seen anyone address the issue at all, which indicates that some of the various posts agreeing with the points I laid out may have been more along the lines of "me too!" posts, and not indicative of any previous consideration of the subject.
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Daniel Solis
Member

Posts: 411


« Reply #10 on: December 08, 2003, 04:23:08 PM »

Quote from: ColonelHardisson
Well, I think it's pretty significant that you did bring postmodernism into the equation. It's an angle I hadn't really thought about in relation to the game (or any game, for that matter).


Unknown Armies has the concepts of postmodernism well-ingrained into its magic system, going to far as to have a whole supplement called "Postmodern Magick." That's at least one example of explicit use of pomo in a role-playing game, though in a less roundabout manner than in Hackmaster.
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Meatbot Massacre
Giant robot combat. No carbs.
Calithena
Acts of Evil Playtesters
Member

Posts: 336

aka Sean


« Reply #11 on: December 09, 2003, 09:49:32 AM »

On a tangential note, check out

http://forum.rpg.net/showthread.php?s=c77463e32f6c0e473d170e84d022f2f2&threadid=90361&perpage=10&pagenumber=1

Postmodernism among gamers appears to be running rampant. A mention of Sorcerer in that thread as well...

In retrospect I think the genesis of ideas about HM here goes like this: Colonel Hardisson deserves credit for coming up with the double immersion idea relative to the KoDT universe, while I was the one to realize that this applies more generally into a full-blown postmodern gaming situation, as adumbrated in my initial post and amplified in Bill White's response.

I think it's possible that the Kenzer crew had some of this vaguely in mind, especially the immersion in the HackVerse as a meta-game around the game, but I don't think the full consequences of this approach were thought through until first the Colonel and then I posted on it. Of course, if David Kenzer or one of his crew ever comes by the Forge, they're welcome to set the record on this straight one way or the other...
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Funksaw
Member

Posts: 13


« Reply #12 on: December 09, 2003, 09:11:25 PM »

Quote from: Calithena
OK, I've been trying to restrain myself on this one for a while, but since HM and KoDT came up in the Actual Play thread on Abused Player Syndrome, I felt a need to discuss the theoretical ramifications of the Hackmaster RPG. Some of you will be aware of what I'm talking about here already, so if my didactic expository tone is dull, I apologize.

David Kenzer and his crew are pretty sharp guys. (One of DK's past companies negotiated a 200K payment from TSR to stop making products!)One of the conscious, original design intentions of Hackmaster is not what it might seem - say, a sort of loopy, over-the-top, Gamist tribute to one kind of old-school D&D play, or a satire thereof.


What you might be missing is that roleplaying games, in a broader contest, are a entire tribute in toto to postmodernist thought.  They've only developed in a post-modern era.  

I mean, think about it.  Improv Theatre mixed with tactical miniature mixed with derivative works of a (poorly) copied mythos.  D&D developed in the late seventies - right alongside postmodernism.  

(I'm really interested in what the rise of the "new modernism" or "neomodernism," "post-postmodernism," or "post-modern modernism" of the 2001 will do to RPG development, but that's another post.)

Instead, instead of saying that Hackmaster is postmodernist - perhaps it is - but it's not unique in that regard.  

I like to view postmodernism - to make it more accessible - as a rethinking of the way art is constructed.  You can build it up, tear it down, move it around, scramble it.... but one of the ideas of postmodernism is that nothing, in the end, has real meaning. Let's just play!

 I would go so far as to say that the original vision of the game (that Calithena describes) is Constructionist D&D, the game as published is deconstructionist D&D, and the game-line as evolved is reconstructionist D&D in a completely different way.

Constructionism - well, my take on constructionism anyway - adds elements to an existing framework.  While abstracting the roleplaying a second level (gamers roleplaying gamers roleplaying Hackmaster) then there becomes an added element onto the core of D&D.  

Deconstructionism - WMTODA - takes the elements, breaks them apart to reveal the ugly ones.  The ones which don't really work without the context of the whole.  The ones which seem absurd - then it exaggerates them.  This is the idea of Hackmaster as vicious satire and crass parody.  Hack & Slash, hypercomplex killfests, promoting the worst in player and GM alike.  Nothing good stays, nothing bad escapes the cruel eye of the designer.  Like a scapel, the designer tears away all that is decent to reveal the ugliness underneath.  In the case of parody, the designer then invites the audience to point and laugh at the ugliness.  

Reconstructionism - WMTORA - takes the elements as faithful and merely examines them from a new angle.  Once Hackmaster was established, the idea of hack & slash hypercomplex killfests were examined as something good, decent, and perhaps even a bit "innocent," or "nostalgic."  As such, it was redesigned as something to be cherished.  (I think this happened around the time of the Origins Awards of 2001.)

Hackmaster takes the elements of D&D - Basic and AD&D to be exact - and takes them down to core elements, and exaggerates them.  Complexity becomes hypercomplexity.  Multiple supplements for price-gouging become an extreme number of suppliments for price gouging.  Even over-specific tables become hyper-specific (Pizza Topping Tables?)  The end result is D&D with all of it's elements exaggerated.  Where D&D 3e would "round many of the corners" of AD&D, Hackmaster "sharpened the edges."  

Keep in mind that Hackmaster, as originally envisioned - even before there was a game - WAS D&D.  It was the game with the serial numbers filed off, for use in KODT.  Sure, "+1 sword" became "+1 Hackmaster Sword" but other than that, it was similar in most ways.  It took on a life of it's own, however, as a satire, and one of the great ways satire makes a point is through hyperbole - exaggeration for comic effect.  

What happens, then, when the exaggeration is no longer for comic effect?  What happens when hyperbole becomes the real thing?  

I find Hackmaster fascinating.

-- Funksaw
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Currently looking to write non-fiction book on the art of RPGs.  Private-message me if you want to point out a good editorial or an interesting thread.
eyebeams
Member

Posts: 93


« Reply #13 on: December 13, 2003, 02:30:31 AM »

I don't think Hackmaster is any more postmodern than, say, turn of the century Greek revival in the US. Like it, Hackmaster is a reification, not a reinterpretation (and like it. it's an erroneous reification of the values people think were around back then). Certainly, Hackmaster not only lacks a critical mode of play, but its community explicitly disavows it.

Lots of people like throwing the term "postmodern" around. You can use it for lots of things, but there's a limited set of things that its actually useful to attach the moniker to. Certainly, media--aware culture makes it easier to make games like Hackmaster; it's an artifact of its time.

A genuinely postmodern game, where the premise it open to radical reinterpretation (as a fucntion of its design, not as an accident of it) and carries the seeds of critical play/subversion is something that's very rare, indeed. Mage throws around the word "postmodern" from time to time. Even this light treatment makes is a thoroughly loathed game in certain cicles.

People don't like playing games that make them question the validity of gaming.

Other games that might fit in this category (and more strongly than Mage, I think), are:

Over the Edge
Powerkill
Violence

Unknown Armies is an odd duck, because it provides a thoroughly objective setting mechanism for why postmodernism exists and why it matters to magic.

There are other games that are postmodern in terms of genuine juxtapositions between things that would never crossbreed if we didn't have the postmodern, simulacra-building situation in full force, like Delta Green, Aberrant and Torg.
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Malcolm Sheppard
Calithena
Acts of Evil Playtesters
Member

Posts: 336

aka Sean


« Reply #14 on: December 13, 2003, 04:01:17 AM »

I agree that the term 'postmodern' is often used indiscriminately. I do not believe I am using it that way, however.

First let me cede Eyebeams' point that many (though not all, as he appears to believe) members of the HM community have no interest in the kind of self-reflective play the game can support.

Then the question remains: what is the possible mode of play I have identified here, and why is it postmodern in character? Colonel Hardisson posited that the game allows for double immersion roleplaying, where one is steeped both in the KoDT universe as a metagame feature and in a whacked-out version of D&D.

KoDT is a parody and homage to 'gamer' life in general. So this, along with some other things, led me to generalize Colonel Hardisson's line of thinking.

What if we just play HM as a LARP? I adopt, in the LARP, a stereotyped 'gamer personality' of one kind or another, and use the HM books as a prop to support the LARP, a game within a game? What sort of gaming am I doing then?

1) It is ironic, insofar as I am mocking myself and my community through the stereotypes I'm exploring.

2) It is self-reflective, insofar as I am someone who has particpated in the D&D culture, and a gamer.

3) It allows for fragmented identity, both at the player level (I have at minimum two different actor stance perspectives to choose from, one in the LARP, one in the 'game') and at the community level (as in the example play situation I constructed where you have three postmodern Hackmaster players, two people who think they're just playing a version of D&D, and one who regards the whole thing as a parody and is basically just participating in the LARP aspect of the game).

I think there are some other recognizably postmodern tropes I could establish in the proposed mode of Hackmaster play here identified, too, but this should be sufficient to at least minimally establish my side of the debate: to whit, that HM supports a unique and distinctively postmodern sort of play, which can be used to question rather than merely reify the values of a segment of the RP community. (All of 1-3 can in fact be employed as tools in getting people to question those values; but question doesn't mean reject; some may come from the postmodern HM experience ready to revel in Grimtooth's Traps and the like with a new awareness of what they are doing.)

Certainly, HM is not the only possible postmodern design, and there are others. But HM does occupy a specially postmodern niche, because it confronts the D&D-rooted gamer with his or her own identity, reflecting it back in a fractured, distorted mirror in a way that invites questioning both one's self and the 'validity' of one's own experience.

This interpretation has the great additional virtue that it makes almost everyone miserable. The unreconstructed D&D grognards who make up a sizable fraction of the Hackmaster community will be threatened, uncomfortable, and annoyed by just this reflective process, while the postmodern hipsters in the indie design community and elsewhere in the self-reflective wing of gaming-dom will have to deal with the fact that the most disturbingly postmodern RPG, the one which is capable of functioning most deeply to distort and ironically reflect upon the gamer's identity, is a stupid AD&D knockoff. As a deeply perverse human being, I can't imagine a happier state of affairs.

I also want to emphasize that this is all somewhat tongue-in-cheek - how postmodern of me! - but I wouldn't bother typing it up if I didn't think the game-within-a-game and postmodernist tropes here weren't in some sense worth taking seriously - though now, by invoking seriousness, I've stripped myself naked and shown that I'm not really so postmodern after all.
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