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[Hell for Leather] Sh*tting on the ancestors - ADULTS ONLY

Started by Sebastian K. Hickey, March 01, 2010, 04:18:20 PM

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Sebastian K. Hickey

(Warning: Contains offensive ideas and offensive language... like the word cunt)

Last week I witnessed the most anarchic HfL playtest to date, a journey of debauchery and violence in old world native America. Loose, wild, and free to make gore, we waded onto the badly woven rope-bridge of cultural identity and tried to tell the story of four banished tribes people. It was the Lord of the Flies of roleplaying sessions.

We had Fleet As Monkey, the Arrogant Brave (Eoin), Hiding Turkey, the Cowardly Unwilling-mistress (Susan), Dancing Fox, the Abusive Wiseman (Daniel), and Soaring Bear, the Obsessive Buffalo Whisperer (ahem).

The Frame

Setting: Pre-colonial native America, many landscapes, people of the forest, brave journey
Adversary: Chief Running Hawk
Gore Threshold: 5
Connection: Family, last in line
Drop-Off/Objective: Bend in the River / Mountain of the Eagle God
Checkpoint 1: Pass through the Lands of the Raven
Checkpoint 2: Desecrate the Tomb of the Ancestors
Checkpoint 3: Kidnap the Dying High Priest

The road to hell is paved...

The game opened wonderfully. It seemed like there was a story to tell as Soaring Bear and Fleet As Monkey pecked for distinction, while Hiding Turkey lay against a tree, bruised from her lover's temper, and the old Wiseman chewed on a mysterious "dreamroot." The premise was simple. These four heroes, the last legs of the incumbent ruling family, were to be summoned for their execution. They decided to flee the tribe before they were called, and to make a journey to the great Eagle God to seek the oracle and speak with the spirits of old. Etc.

Checkpoint 1, the long story short: Race through the Lands of the Raven. Great forests. Frothing rivers. Buffalo charges.

But after that, filth and bile spewed forth from the narrative like a bad vomit. We murdered an old sage, showered in his warm blood—spilled from the arteries at his feet—and while the blood caked on our faces, we tripped out for three weeks on the poison of the local toads.

This went on for ages. I mean it. We wanted it to stop, but we kept failing Challenges. Over and over, all our characters were covered in more shit, piss and blood, drinking more and more poison, and doing more and more killing, until finally we could escape, strung out, quivering and stinking like dying dogs.

Kill the Pig, Bash him in!

All sense of our dysfunctionality was abandoned when Hiding Turkey slaughtered the children of the High Priestess before her, made her watch, and then slit her throat like a pig. To persuade the High Priest to co-operate, the Wiseman tore open the High Priest's innards and pulled out his liver—while he was still breathing—spitting "you're of no more fucking use to us now, you dying, old, fucking cocksucker."

I'm not a religious man, but Jesus Christ! You know the worst part? It was fucking hilarious. We were all crying with laughter, slapping our thighs, wheezing. It was horrific. Writing this I practically hear ourselves beating out a dreadful chant "Kill the pig! Cut his throat! Kill the pig! Bash him in!"

We got our comeuppance. Hiding Turkey had her head removed after trying to blackmail a tribal warrior with a piece of woven propaganda (a tapestry of a man with a tiny cock), Fleet As Monkey got unexpectedly savaged by a crocodile, Dancing Fox got a tomahawk embedded in his skull after challenging Chief Running Hawk to a duel, and finally Soaring Bear was peppered with javelins. He dropped to his knees, half of his head burnt off, shit and blood dangling off him in threads, laughing and screaming in total, debauched madness. Ghaaaarlllguglh...


All good fun. But sinister and unadulterated. There were more Fucks, Cocks, Shits and Cunts in this game than in any other we've played so far. It's rare that you get to play a game that is so dreadful that you get to offend yourself.

Ron Edwards

I think this was a valuable playtest. It's good to know what your game can do. I had a similar experience when playtesting a friend's game called Violence Future, and that led to a lot of Sorcerer games which ultimately culminated in the supplement Sex & Sorcery.

In More alphabet soup, Meg Baker distinguished between two kinds of Social Contract about play, "No One Gets Hurt" and "I Will Not Abandon You." Seems to me like you're discovering which one holds your game.

Best, Ron

Callan S.

To be honest as simply a reader I feel like an abandoned "I will not abandon you" player, since reading it pushed some of my buttons but it seems like you've summed the game up as offending yourself or such and that's it for thinking about it - it's not going to be pushing any of your buttons tomorrow, or perhaps the next day it'll cease to.
Philosopher Gamer

Sebastian K. Hickey

I have difficulty aligning with either of the two options (I will not abandon you vs. no one gets hurt). In HfL, all the button pushing is done to oneself. In that way, are buttons being pushed at all?

Example: I commit a 3 Star Felony—which requires me to narrate my character as the perpetrator of "cruel murder." I start to explore the options. My character is in a taxi. Do I kill the taxi driver? Is that kind of murder enough to warrant a 3 Star Felony? Not really. I'll have to describe something much more gruelling to get the 3 Star Felony. Okay then. What if I steer the cab into a bunch of school kids, using the ensuing mayhem as a distraction to evade my pursuers? Is that grim enough? Sure.

At this point, I've come up with something horrible enough to warrant the 3 Star Felony (and get the bonus dice). Now I must present this to the rest of the group. If it's not gruesome enough, someone will ask me to turn it up a notch. So I start to describe the event, running over the intricate details. Essentially I've been allowed to describe a taboo. Everyone knows I had to engineer something horrid, expected it, accepted it. The expression of the taboo is essential to the spirit of the game. Everyone knows they're playing a game in which they'll be asked to narrate taboos, and the spectacle of that is what makes it fun.

However, and this is important, at no point are players forcing issues on other players. Players are deciding on their own issues, their own taboos, and presenting them in a way that is comfortable and the same time liberating. It's a bit like showing off. It's the "look Mom, no hands" of taboo storytelling.

That being said, and this is the point I was trying to make with the playtest report above, once the game is over you sometimes get a little anxious as to what you are capable of enjoying. It's not the horrible scenes that upset me (if I could be called upset), but the enjoyment of those scenes. I came away feeling like a bit of a pervert. "Is that what I enjoy?" "Is that who I am?" And so on.

(P.S. But if I had to choose one camp, I'd say it tends to belong to No one gets hurt. Though the players are describing filth, they do it with black and white morality: What I am about to do is evil. In that way, nobody has to ask any serious questions about ethics. Nobody gets hurt.)

Callan S.

There's an excerpt from the book 'Neuropath' that I remembered
QuoteHe glanced at the front page of his neighbor's Times and saw the headlines he'd expected.



And of course,


    He found himself peering, trying to read the hazy squares of text beneath. The only words he could make out were 'vertebrae' and 'eviscerated.' He blinked and squeezed his eyes, cursed himself for giving in to his morbid curiosity. Thousands of years ago, when people still lived in small communities, paying attention to random acts of violence actually paid reproductive dividends. That's why human brains were hardwired to pay attention to them.

    But now? It was little more than an indulgence. Candy for a stone-age mind.
Philosopher Gamer

Sebastian K. Hickey

What a lovely passage. I'm relieved by it. Sighing, I realise that maybe I'm not such a monster.

But I've got to watch it.

Incidentally, the cross-post of this report (on RPG Net), generated a bit of a fuss. I can see where they are coming from, of course. I hope I haven't hurt anyone's feelings over here.

Ron Edwards

Hi Sebastian,

I think Callan illustrated the whole feelings issue perfectly in Forge terms: he stated that his feelings/reactions had been triggered for purposes of disclosure, but engaged with the thread and your desired topic as a prerequisite for posting. The requirement here is that posting is discourse; if someone disapproves of the subject matter to the extent that a post would be only reactions, then that person needs to find something else to do on the internet at that moment. I did not moderate your initial post because it fits Forge standards, and as it happens, you were very up-front about the content and explained why your language was relevant to your point.*

That's a fascinating issue regarding how No One Gets Hurt relates to graphic content, or more accurately, and to use my terminology, Lines. Emily and I discussed that at length at one point. If I remember correctly, it's easy to associate I Will Not Abandon You play with graphic and horrific stuff, and No One Gets Hurt with fluffy bunny stuff, but that can be misleading. Ultimately Lines' contents are a highly localized phenomenon, and so cannot be associated with one or the other. So your conclusion that you have a very graphic game built on No One Gets Hurt is really interesting and relevant.

However, I want to examine that idea more closely for your current, in-playtest rules set. I think that there is more communality, less encapsulation, in the system you're describing than you're concluding, summed up in this key line:

QuoteNow I must present this to the rest of the group. If it's not gruesome enough, someone will ask me to turn it up a notch.

The extent to which your upcoming narration is bordering on, or entering I Will Not Abandon You during the actual narration gets established in these moments of play, I think. Since in my experience the distinction between the two sorts of Social Contract is extremely marked, I think you might consider clarifying exactly what these moments, i.e, that particular rule, is for. To be specific, I think that if one person reads or understands that to mean one of those Social Contracts, and another reads or understands it to mean the other, grief may well ensue.

I know that I, faced with that particular rule, would be very attentive to each other player's narration and judge it according to my Lines ... and nudge the other players to go over my Lines a little, in order to see whether they really were my actual-honest Lines, or a pretense that needed exploding. And on my turns, my initial narrations would be directed toward that same issue in the people I was playing with. That's strongly I Will Not Abandon You oriented. I have no doubt that someone who'd bought into your description:

Quote... at no point are players forcing issues on other players. Players are deciding on their own issues, their own taboos, and presenting them in a way that is comfortable and the same time liberating. It's a bit like showing off. It's the "look Mom, no hands" of taboo storytelling.
(P.S. But if I had to choose one camp, I'd say it tends to belong to No one gets hurt.

... would soon be distressed when playing with me, and I'd be frustrated with them because they'd be softballing me.

Perhaps it's best to go to the videotape. Let's examine this exact game you're describing here, and what happened. How was that particular rule utilized? Let's focus on two things: (i) when you were narrating, and someone else said, "That's not enough, kick it up a notch"; and (ii) when you said that on someone else's narration. Is it possible simply to list those events here?

My goal would be, after having done that, contrast the play-experience as you see it in those cases with the play-experience in which the narration was self-contained.

Best, Ron

* If you ask him nicely, Vincent will hold his nose and point you to a particularly bizarre festival of reactions to a Poison'd actual play account at

Ar Kayon


Does anyone *ever* make it out alive?

Does it matter?

Or is having their character die in spectacular ways far more exciting to the players?

I think you've hit upon a grand scheme here, because even if the players lose, it seems like they still win.

I wish I could help you more with feedback, but this has got to be my favorite independent rpg idea of all time (unfortunately, it doesn't translate well to online play so I cannot play it because I don't know any real life rpg players), and it inhibits my capacity to look at your game with a critical eye.  Ok, there's something: do you have any alternative ideas for the dice target thingy, so that online play is possible?

Callan S.

It's not the subject matter that's really any sort of issue - it's the plausibility of that subject matter. How it fits us all too well. How much it fits our modus operandi, when you strip away a little bit. Which obviously isn't Sebastians fault for what is ugly truth. But it just seems to be being engaged like a recreational drug - a bit of fun, stir the stone age brain up on edge, then wander off.

I dunno, maybe it seems fun because it seems like a ghost house that when you finish, you leave it. And so since it's not all the time, it's fun.

I think it raises truths that we could deal with together - except the other guys walking off, as if they've had some sort of fun that ends now and they have some sort of exit to this truth that they can leave by.

Meh, I just sound soppy. I thought there was an impetus here to deal with that, but on reflection I can't find one.
Philosopher Gamer

Sebastian K. Hickey

Quote from: Ron EdwardsPerhaps it's best to go to the videotape. Let's examine this exact game you're describing here, and what happened. How was that particular rule utilized? Let's focus on two things: (i) when you were narrating, and someone else said, "That's not enough, kick it up a notch"; and (ii) when you said that on someone else's narration. Is it possible simply to list those events here?

I've learned (from writing this post) that although it is understood that there are rules to veto clashing themes and severities, no one ever uses them. So, perhaps this rule either a) determines unseen boundaries that players have contractually agreed to abide to, or b) there are other mechanics arranging the contract. This is something I need help clarifying.

I don't have any examples of (i). I'm contaminated by purpose. There's a lot of "it's his game, he knows what he's doing," being thought. However, I can give an example of when I made my own internal ruling. But before I do, I think I need to outline one of the game mechanics.

You're presented with a challenge by another player ("There's an old Wiseman guarding the tomb. He hobbles over, announcing, 'you are not welcome here.' How do you deal with this?"). To improve the odds of success, you might commit a Felony ("I commit a 3 Star Felony"). Felonies have three grades (1, 2 & 3 Star). Having determined your success (by bowling dice), the narration must then be coloured by the Felony's grade. In a nutshell: 1 Star Felony = aggravated assault + abuse. 2 Star Felony = murder of henchmen + splatter gore. 3 Star Felony = murder of innocents + squirm. There are longer term ramifications for committing Felonies, but that's not useful to describe right now.

For my own, internal, ruling, when presented with the challenge of dealing with the Wiseman, I needed to know whether or not the other players thought of this character as an innocent. I asked, "is the Wiseman innocent, do you think?" "Yes!" was the resounding reply. Therefore, to kill him, I had to commit a 3 Star Felony. "I commit a 3 Star Felony," I said. I then rolled my dice, scored a success, and devised a way to narrate his murder. 3 Star Felonies are supposed to make you squirm, so I detailed how we used his arterial blood for...blah blah blah.

Lesson learned from this breakdown: there is an obvious contract. I am asking, since everyone knows the rules, "is the Wiseman a 3 Star Felony?" The resounding "Yes!" meant "we agree to a 3 Star Felony and accept what is about to happen." This was the first Felony of the game. After that, the shit hit the fan. It always does. I call it the laxative.

For (ii), I can't give a direct example. Nobody was asked to dial it up a notch. However, the idea was explored by implication. Here is an example. The four Indian reprobates (our characters) had arrived at the High Priest's camp. Inside the hut, the High Priest is dying. His wife and children are with him. I challenge Susan with something like "The woman backs away from you sobbing 'you can't take him now! He is dying!' " The idea is that she is preventing Susan from kidnapping the High Priest.

Susan: Hmmm. (Picks up extra dice)
Me: Are you committing a Felony?!
Susan: Of course. (Looks thoughtful)
Daniel: 3 Star! Come on! Do a 3 Star!
Susan: If you're going to do a job, you may as well do it right! 3 Star Felony. (Rolls, gets a success. Looks thoughtful.) If I kill the mother, is that enough?
Daniel: It's up to you.
Me: Whatever you want. The rule is, you have to murder the innocent. That's the difference between a 2 Star and a 3 Star. One's for goons, the other's for innocents.
Susan: Okay, so I...(describes how she murders the children first, etc.)

I'm not sure what happened here as far as the contract is concerned. She could have taken the mother, but instead she took the children (and then the mother afterwords). Was it because of a perceived tier of debauchery? The previous Felonies did X, so I should do X+1? Or was it my stating "That's the difference between a 2 Star and a 3 Star. One's for goons, the other's for innocents." Did she read that as "kill the children?" I'll have to ask Susan about it.

Guys, before I babble on needlessly, is there anything you can take from this? What sort of contract do see going on? It seems to me that, assuming everyone is aware of the rules, players agree to the HfL contract (murder = extra dice) when they start play. As it stands, I'm still siding with NOGH (though I'm less sure—I'm feeling cerebrally overwhelmed by these fresh concepts). Everyone agrees to play by specific rules (including the classification and grading of evil) and the tough stuff is encapsulated by chunks of autonomous narration. Having said that, I'm now asking myself would I play the same game with a bunch of strangers? If not, why not? What sort of agreement would we need to make before play begins? And if we have to make any agreement, does that mean HfL is actually IWNAY?

Help me to understand!

Sebastian K. Hickey

Ar Kayon, and I'll post a little more on this in the mailing list, I do have a solution for online play.

Callan, I see what you mean now. I'm very childish with my posting habits. A lot of the time I don't know how to pose a discussion. For example, with this thread I wanted to exclaim, "this game can do that to me." I really hadn't thought it through. I should have approached it by asking"why can this game do that to me?" I think I can use that lesson.

As for "recreational drug," I'm very sure that Hell for Leather is as shallow as that for most people. I'd like to talk about the game in your context (anarchy under our skin), but I feel like I'd just be putting spin on it. There must be games that deal with this raw issue intentionally. HfL does it, but it's accidental. If I talked about it like I'd designed that effect, I'd be lying, and I don't want to come off as dishonest.

However, that's not to say I don't want to learn about the game. If you can teach me about it, especially about the shifting of ethics, social contracts, and so on, I'm enthusiastic to learn. Ron's questions have really got me excited. I've found it very hard to follow some of the threads on the Forge before now because I am not good at seeing through other people's games. Now that there is an issue that affects my own game, I feel like I can contribute, or at least digest.

Ar Kayon

Is philosophical discourse necessary for a pen and paper rpg?  Think about it: many of us play morally ambiguous video games all the time - games that are far more graphic than pen and paper - and many of us enjoy them greatly, but it doesn't turn our world upside down; we still understand the difference between fiction and reality.  I think we enjoy these things not because we inherently want to hurt real people with real feelings, but because they put us under the illusion that we have power and control - something most people have little of in real life.

Sebastian K. Hickey

For me, especially in this late stage of writing, I'm looking to find out Things That Get Done At The Tabletop. That is, I want to find out what's making Hell for Leather fun when I play it. Mechanically, I'm clear, but socially, I'm confused.

If I can find out that there is a specific kind of silent contract being understood, I'd like to make it more explicit so that first time players will have a better idea of a) what they're getting into, and b) how best they can enjoy that contract. In short, I want to learn about social mechanisms. So, yes, I agree that talking about games in terms of morality is conservative and less informative.

Ar Kayon

If players see "HFL: where murder equals extra dice" and still don't know what they're getting into, then there's something fundamentally wrong with opposed to people like us who enjoy murdering priests and bathing in their blood.

Sebastian K. Hickey

Yep. Them folk who don't like spunk and guts in their faces are brainally upset. It's always the quiet ones.