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kill puppies for satan
Author: lumpley games (Vincent Baker)
Cost: $10
Reviewed by: Ron Edwards, 2003-11-13

kill puppies for satan is one of the fine products available at Lumpley Games, which is to say, Vincent Baker. Vincent has authored several games, including the phenomenal but not-yet-done Otherkind; all of them except kpfs are characterized by a strong central mechanic and a sweet, fun approach to role-playing, often based on mutual trust and friendship among the people at the table. I think he must be able to write these games because kill puppies got all the bile and rage out of his creative system. This game is to role-playing what Howl, by Alan Ginsberg, is to poetry.

This is the real-deal punk role-playing game, full of actual satire, actual contempt, and actual savagery. I'll present a comparison that illustrates what I mean.

HoL ("Human-occupied Landfill") is a role-playing game published by Black Dog Publishing. Its text says "fuck" a lot. A lot of it is hard-to-read scribble, but its expensive production belies the cheapie look of the layout, including high-quality print, cover stock, and art. It seems to mock icons of role-playing publishing, but on a second look, it's totally safe mockery: Black Dog is itself a sub-set of White Wolf, and Gary Gygax has had no corporate or authoritative role toward D&D for decades. The game is mostly setting and a funny back-story, using pregenerated player-characters, which is to say, "Be appalling like this."

My judgment: HoL is playpunk, certainly amusing in spots but with no bite or edge whatsoever.

The kpfs text similarly says "fuck" a lot, and the characters are similar crusty-underwear degenerates. However, there the resemblance ends. This game is easy to read with a crude but not scribbly font, and the production is genuinely "basement by hand" and looks it. The earlier version of the game had no art at all, and the current one only has a cover illustration. The content savagely mocks the World of Darkness, in full absence of any legal protection, as well as whiny play of all kinds, in so many ways and places that I can only say, "Read it." My favorite is the descriptor for the vampire: "A monster I am lest a monster I wankety wank wank." More generally and blasphemously, it hammers religion with great glee and accuracy, as with the holy-guy NPC abilities of "change oregano into pot" and "change saline into smack." After all, if water-into-wine is a miracle, then ...?

The text is composed almost entirely of system and play-resources, with no game-specific setting or history. Characters are generated by the players with rather up-front encouragement to do your worst, within the insignificant and snot-smeared context of the player-character concept. Finally, and perhaps best of all, the game's website is itself something of a punk-y social experiment, with its archive of hate-mail from people who happen across a link to the site and feel compelled to inveigle against Satan, puppy-killing, Vincent, something unidentifiable, or all four. Vincent cheerfully collects, catalogues, and posts'em all.

My judgment: kill puppies for satan is punk up your nose and up your ass, and what're ya gonna do about it?

What about the game?
Playing this game is unremittingly rude, rude, rude. I described the player-characters to some extent by comparison, in my review of Dread, where if anything I understated the case for how low kpfs player-characters are. "Unredeemed scum" barely scratches the surface. They are rotten, skulking little scab-pickers - the satan-cultists who are too lame even for the demons to bother cultivating. It's telling that Satan, in the game, doesn't care about killing puppies at all. These people are so trivial in their evil that they are not even worth Evil's time, and are merely being given something to do to keep them out of the way. It's significant that they are constrained from killing other people or from instigating sins in others in any way, as those things are the "real work" and not to be interfered with by such feebs.

Here's the core mechanic: when your character kills an animal, he or she gains points of Evil. How much Evil depends on how cherished the animal is and how atrociously it is killed. Amassed Evil can then be spent to perform all sorts of scary things, like transforming into a horde of vermin to escape a situation, or dumping loads of shit on someone, or imitating someone else's voice perfectly over the phone. There's a huge list of this sort of stuff, all of which can be done by any player-character as long as they have the Evil to spend.

What happens? Check out the several threads linked at the kill puppies website to actual play descriptions, including my own. Here's an excerpt from one of mine:

then trixie was convinced by hoccthulius, after he fixed her sucking chest wound and rammed her head up her ass, that she had to lead michele all over the place so darryl can cause as much mayhem chasing them as possible. meanwhile, hocccth. also gave darryl the ability to sense the earlier version of the tape, so as to get it back and make less work for him. but kimberly has the second version of the tape and called trixie for help with it, and they ended up going to the free clinic to fix kimberly's vaginal itch - oh yeah, but they collected michele one jump ahead of darryl and went to the boutique to keep her busy. but then mata showed up to kill michele, because she thought her mob boss boyfriend nicky was cheating on her with michele, and stan was following mata to frame her for the dumping of two tons of shit on nicky's blind brother tony, for which nicky was gonna kill someone. in fact, he already killed the porno director dandy dinmont with a coat hanger. but stan's real problem is that hocccthulius needs a scapegoat for the shit-dumping and stan really did it, so he's trying to frame mata instead.

The ranting, bizarre tone represents how play actually feels, as well as the game text itself, although the latter is better written; witness:

being the gm is the shit, and also bullshit. the shit because you get to toy with peoples' little lives, bullshit because it's like the goddamn sims, their little bladder meter goes all the way to the red and they can't figure out for them stupid selves to get off the stupid couch and go to the stupid bathroom. no, you gotta click on the little thing, and click on the other little thing, and they spend so long in there that they miss their carpool and get fired, and then they come crying to you, wah wah wah. feebs.
right, but i mean your players. they think that if a. you didn't say so or b. it's not on their character sheet, then it's not true. which is a problem, because a. you can only say so many things, and you hope to god they're more interesting than "scooter, you really have to pee, do you go to the bathroom? do you make it back out in time for your carpool?" and b. there are only eight things on their character sheet, and one of them is that they kill puppies for satan for fuck sake.
so what you want to do as gm is make them responsible for their own pee. keep the good stuff for yourself, naturally, but give the bullshit away.

I can say this for sure: no one will ever doubt exactly how to run or play in this game, once they spend even five minutes looking over the text.

In many ways, kill puppies is very simple, almost to the point of stupidity. The characters begin with connections to one another and to some friends (I use the term loosely), and and they encounter hassles created by the GM based on these connections. They usually engage in some animal-killing to acquire some Evil, spend that Evil on some effects and opportunities in order to deal with the adversity. Since that really can't accomplish much besides upping the ante for the adversity, the next thing to do is rinse & repeat. So the details and events of play present a constant brutal, bloody farce, occasionally bootstrapping itself into satire. Don't look for where it's going, because it doesn't go anywhere else.

Ick, poo!
So what's the point of this sort of thing? To answer that, I'll address the two stumbling blocks people encounter when they consider playing or when they get started: (1) I emphatically don't wanna role-play killing any puppies, much less suffocating them in plastic baggies or making sculptures out of them using boiling wax; (2) the thought of playing a character who'd masturbate while cruising porn at the open tables at the public library (a fair assessment of a potential starting kill puppies character) completely grosses me out, and I can't wait see him or her get arrested and quite likely beaten to death by convicts. I'll start by saying that #1 and #2 represent my own personal precise response to the proposition of actually playing this game, however amusing reading it was. I'd be a little nervous around anyone who didn't have these reactions.

The first concern turns out to be surprisingly trivial in terms of actual play, although to a great extent that's because I was the GM and therefore (a) didn't actually role-play the atrocities and (b) was able to veil or cut away from scenes involving the activities. The second yields an even more surprising insight through play itself, based on the fact that the characters, by definition, cannot self-reflect on what they do and experience no particular remorse or internal conflict of any kind. Here's some testimony about both issues.

Maura Byrne:
Killing pets turns out to be the sort of thing that isn't really a lot of fun to plan beforehand or dwell upon afterward. I was also the character who ... ah ... let's just say I got into the pet store, and leave it at that. In fact, I didn't dwell on what I was going to do to generate Evil, and we glossed over that part pretty quickly. What I did was think of the violence done to the various animals as the kind of "puppet violence" done on "The Muppet Show." All kinds of terrible things happened to the various characters (a favorite visual trope was to show two boots being pushed into a monster's giant maw while you heard the victim scream), but usually it was part of the show or the characters would recover. So this is how I thought of those poor guinea pigs when they met their sad end.
Chris Lehrich:
I like the fact that you shouldn't tempt people to be evil (I also think it's hilarious that the demons will come kick your ass if you do that, because they're unionized and you'd be scabbing on them). You have no idea what you're doing here. If you do something really vicious and evil, people may actually turn to God, which misses the point. If you try to tempt people to be evil, then what you're doing has real meaning. Now that sounds like a good thing -- let's have our disgusting evil acts actually mean something -- but it goes back to the puppies. If your evil is meaningful, then what do the puppies mean?
See, if you start taking the whole process of doing evil seriously, then you have to take killing puppies seriously, and that sounds like a game no decent person should want to play. But if it's all just pointlessly brutal, and the only thing that really goes bad in a deep way is your own character (who starts out bad and gets worse), then you as a player can still have some moral sense about what's going on.
Paul Czege:
Killing puppies for "Evil" in the game isn't actually evil. ... It's pathetic. The puppies are defenseless. Characters in the game are losers, and their friends are even worse losers. The game is about being pathetic, and very desperate not to acknowledge that fact to yourself. The "empathy and conscience" aspect of playing the game that people are talking about is from relating to the player characters, who are in denial about how pathetic they are, and desperate to feel like they have a little power, that they're a little significant, and mostly not to feel alone.

That's the neat part - the game is full of internal conflict and self-loathing, but it's directed from player to character, not character to character's self. You, the real person, have to cope with your own warped imagination using humor - and the coping is real. Playing kill puppies for satan is an exercise in self-discovery, and surprisingly, it's usually a positive one that I never would have anticipated. The effect turns out to be fiendishly deliberate on Vincent's part. To clarify the upcoming quote from him, the game includes a starting scenario centered on the characters' friendship with a ghoul named Gerald Stebbins. "Ghouls" as a term in the game refers to cannibal-fetish perverts, not to magical monsters, and Gerald is arguably the feeblest, most worthless person presented in fictional form, anywhere, ever. The scenario involves rescuing him from an asylum so he can attend his birthday part. Vincent says:

Our characters suck so very much that can we bring ourselves as players to finally hose them? Us:Them :: Them:Gerald Stebbins.

The shocking thing is that it works. Over and over, group after group, people have the same reaction: they discover their own personal morality by playing this game, by refusing to be as bad as their own characters, toward those characters. But this isn't apparent until after they get over the hump of the initial two forms of reluctance.

Talk GNS to me! Oh, God, yes!
So it sounds Narrativist, right? Theme? Light and fast mechanics? The answer is no. Kill puppies for satan facilitates intense and funny Exploration of a particular Situation, and Exploration by itself isn't Premise. In-play events and decisions provide no resolution or judgment to the Premise - the insights discussed above are all self-reflective, by the player upon himself or herself. It's Exploration "for its own sake" but in a very telling way, and powered by the cyclical Evil-puppies-Evil process of play, which turns out to be a Non-Reward system. It's wonderful Sim-design, meaningful Sim-design (with one significant flaw; see below), but not Narrativist.

One possible issue, although not too much in my view, concerns how much play one can reasonably expect to get from the game. In case any of the previous sections didn't make it clear, its content is akin to Meet the Feebles, Pink Flamingos, and maybe a bit of Survivor, all honed to kick "we have kewl powerz and oh-so-hip connections to the reel eevil of reality" role-playing squarely in the balls. As Elfs is to D&D tourney play, kpfs is to the World of Darkness or to any other role-playing about dark/occult superheroes with angst. But as such, and again like Elfs, it does only that one thing. I strongly suggest that a "real" kpfs game should proceed over several sessions, in order to get over the reluctance-hump and really twist up the in-game situation, and also to rev the Evil-puppies-Evil thoroughly. But once a given game's initial situation has played itself out, that's that.

Now for some System talk. resolution and actions are handled very simply, by rolling 1d6 for a given task to get equal or under to one of four attributes. It's pure task resolution, and that's it, without any ordering or means of determining the extent of effects. It's barely more system than The Window and in spots arguably less.

I would be remiss not to mention the Color element of the rules, which are funny as hell, absolute genius for well-turned phrases that slam the point home and head on without wasting time. Regarding attributes, the basic mechanics are the same for everyone, but they are named differently for different sorts of characters. All player-characters, for instance, have scores in Cold, Fucked-Up, Mean, and Relentless (incidentally, you're guaranteed to be piss-poor in at least two of these). But other character types, all NPCs, have the same attributes but named differently. Since they are too amusing to give them away here, you'll have to read them yourself.

But back to resolution stuff. The real glaring-absent feature in the game is any organization or clarity regarding IIEE, or, Intent + Initiation + Execution + Effect. This is a perennial issue in sketchy-fast Simulationist game design, the one thing that authors always cut but really shouldn't. It matters terribly. For example, should the player's goals for the stated task be made clear before he or she rolls? If not, then task-announcement becomes very limited in terms of outcomes. And if so, then how about knowing about the other characters' announced goals and tasks before I state mine and make my rolls? Who says what, when? How does that effect what I can or cannot announce?

Mata (an NPC) was trying to blow up Kimberly in the dressing room of the boutique, Trixie was setting off the sprinkler system with her lighter to stop Mata, and Stan was also trying to subdue Mata mainly by leaping at and around her with his arms full of taffeta. Which attributes were involved were easy: Mata rolled Mean, Trixie rolled Cold, and Stan rolled Fucked-up. Now, in all cases, one or more of the actions was opposed, so whoever rolled higher succeeded and the lower failed, no problem. But it mattered a bit who did what first, you see. Does the explosion go off? Does Mata get subdued? And so on. Without even effectiveness outcomes to go by, much less any ordering system of actions, it's all up to me.

How to change this? Any way at all, just something, anything. Here's an idea: roll 1d6 at the beginning of a conflict with multiple actions. 1-2 = cold, 3-4 = fucked-up, 5-6 = mean. It doesn't matter what's being used; this is totally arbitrary. But that's the attribute which determines the order of *announcement.* After that, proceed as normal. Is this my Perfect Fix for the game? No, it's just one rather arbitrary and clunky solution, whose sole virtue is that it works during play, as opposed to "Work it out based on how you guys work anything out," and hoping for the best.

The problem is that extremely significant outcomes are going to be determined "because I say so." Since the game has no Effect mechanics whatsoever, although success or failure is dice-directed, all outcomes are actually GM fiat. For example, it's awfully easy to kill player-characters. One hit with a gun, and according to the guns section, and given the GM's complete power over outcomes, the character is dead. For example, early in our game, the NPC Darryl shot Maura's character Trixie at point-blank range with a big pistol. Now what do I do? I can say, "OK, Maura, that's it for you. Stop playing." What kind of kpfs fun is that?

What I did was decree that she went down in a heap with a sucking chest wound, and used that event to bring in a demon NPC who (a) healed her and (b) demanded, with no possible negotiation, that she get down to performing a few tasks. In other words, I used my "mercy," GM-wise, to railroad the player into participating in the scenario in a certain way. This full GM-control over outcomes needs some guidelines to produce fun instead of "you're dead" or similar railroading at every successful gun-toting NPC roll. Wait, though, there's more. More generally, Darryl was an NPC, and both he and a related NPC made all the decisions which flung player-characters into action, or rather re-action. The only player-character decisions came in the final session. This is so off-typical for me and my group, in terms of our preferences for play, that it's extremely obvious to us when the system forces such a thing through omission of mechanics. All of my choices as GM regarding the sucking chest wound as well as practically any other outcome during play were purely arbitrary, and after six or seven such decisions (and the corresponding uber-control over the events of play), I'm tired - I need some guidelines so my play can springboard from the system in action.

Therefore, whatever "story" emerges in kpfs, or to put it better, whatever happens in play that links player-characters' hassles together, or resolves them in any way, is fully under the GM's ongoing managemen and whatever social dynamic governs that management for the particular groupt. Perhaps in Vincent's games, how that occurs is utterly painless and limpidly clear, but the game text is silent on this point.

Vincent's comments?

"Not enough system, but that's okay because we get along and all, was exactly my philosophy when I wrote the game." So, I'm not surprised [at your observation], and I'm glad you get along. Otherwise, yeah, it wouldn't support.

All this allows me to make a Big, Big Point: what you and your group accomplish quickly and easily without thinking about it, is exactly what you need to explain how to do in your game text. It's arguably the most difficult issue and most widespread flaw in role-playing design.

Closing anecdote
To my own self-bemusement, I actually bullied a guy into buying kill puppies for satan, during GenCon 2003. He wandered into the booth space and gave me diffident answers about role-playing, and he was all togged up in black-clad rocker kind of clothes. So I put the game into his hands, and he smiled some when perusing it. I then took it off the shelf after he'd put it back, told him he was buying it, literally made him get in line by standing in the path of quickest exit from the booth space, then gave the book back to him and stood there until he'd reached the front of the line and paid for the book. At one point, he said, "You're actually going to stand there until I buy it, aren't you?" I smiled very much like your favorite high-school teacher (that's an in-joke for people who've read the game, by the way) and said, "Absolutely." He looked like he thought it was kind of funny, but also like he was a bit nervous I'd spring at him. And he ponied up and bought the book.

As I say, the game lets you know some things about yourself.

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