Not every dungeon crawl has to take place in medieval fantasy ruins…Hulks & Horrors: Basic Black Edition takes the classic roleplaying structure and transplants it into a sci-fi setting.
WHAT YOU SHOULD KNOW: Hulks& Horrors: Basic Black Edition is a retroclone that takes D&D and places in space, with the PCs playing space travelers exploring the ruins left behind in the galaxy by a horrible Virus. Hulks & Horrors is available in PDF for $10 and print for $20 at RPGNow. This review is based off of the PDF version, which was provided to me for review purposes, and the affiliate link provided may provide this blog with a portion of all sales through it.
Hulks & Horrors keeps to simplistic layout reminiscent of early roleplaying books, which – I would imagine – is both cost effective and evocative.
You are probably familiar with character generation: Roll 3d6 six times, once each for Strength, Dexterity, Constitution, Intelligence, Wisdom and Charisma. From there, you pick a class. There are four Human classes (Pilot, Scientist, Soldier and Syker), as well as three alien classes (Hovering Squid, Omega Reticulan and Bearman). Interestingly, the last one is the only of the three that is human, as the Reticulans are amoeba and the squids are, well, squids.
The classes only go to level 6, and each class has a requirement. Pilots are built on Dexterity, and have a decent weapon and armor selection. They also get bonuses for using computers and attacking with ranged vehicle weapons, as well as getting to roll two 20 sided dice when making piloting maneuvers and taking the best of them. Scientists use a Multitool that allows them to perform extraordinary feats, and are Intelligence based. Soldiers use Strength and Dexterity and are the all purpose combat monsters, but get a bonus to stealth checks as well. Psykers use Wisdom and have Psychic abilities. Hovering Squids have a Dexterity requirement and a Strength *maximum*, can survive in water and have multiple arms that they can bring to bear on their opponents. Omega Reticulans are akin to Scientists, but with better weapon and armor options. Bearmen are a lot like Wookies...with psychic powers. Scary, huh? If you somehow don’t manage to qualify for any of the classes? You can be a Redshirt.
As mentioned, a couple of classes have Science! powers and a couple have Psychic powers. Science powers include Skin Graft (your basic healing power), Targeting Display (a bonus to hit), Smart Drone (think “moving landmine”), Create Nutrient Pill (so your whole party doesn’t starve while out exploring), Micro Wormhole (short range teleportation) and Neural Disruptor (which can KO opponents without harming them). Science uses Charges based on the level of the effect used.
Psychic Powers use a pool called Psi, and include abilities like Mind Trick (“These aren’t the droids you’re looking for”), Pyrokinetic Assault (“Burn!”), Levitation Leap and Mind Blank (which makes you invisible to organic foes).
Equipment runs the gamut of “basic” weapons like slug throwers and shivs, on up to laser swords and particle beams. Armor uses the descending armor class of older editions of D&D, and the various suits of armor serve to protect your PC from the environment as much as from damage. Other equipment includes shields, grenades, motion trackers, wrist computers…as well as synthetic rope, 10 ft. collapsible poles, backpacks and electric torches.
The basic mechanic is a d20 roll under stat check. Penalties are applied to the stat, not the roll. A Natural 20 is an automatic failure and a Natural 1 is an automatic success. Opposed checks go to the person that rolls the highest while still rolling under the relevant stat. Saving Throws are based on Dexterity, Constitution and Wisdom. Environmental effects like Temperature, Radiation and Gravity take on a larger role here than in the games Hulks & Horrors was based on. When leveling up, at levels 3 and 6 you can increase a stat, gain more hit points, apply your new attack bonus and (if applicable) pick new Psychic or Science powers.
Combat is handled along the lines of pre-d20 D&D, complete with “To Attack Armor Class 0” (or TAACO) numbers and charts. Morale rules are also included.
Spaceships are important here, with Spaceships divided between Landers and Orbiters, with the smaller Landers able to enter the atmosphere, while Orbiters remain in space. The three methods of acquiring a ship are mortgaging one (which gives you more options, before is more expensive), buying used (cheaper than mortgaging, but you’re not always getting what you expect) and inheriting a ship (it’s yours, clean and clear…you just may not get what you want, and you may find the upkeep to be outside of your budget). Ships are defined by Hulls, Armor, Main Engines, Weapons, Thrusters and Additional Systems (waste recyclers, fighter bays, cloaking devices, Ground-Penetrating Radar, Sickbay, Gaming Room, Microbar, etc). If you buy new, just pick what you want and pay for it. With Used, you take the best of random rolls and with an inherited ship, you completely roll the ship randomly. A selection of sample ships is included. Ship to ship combat is included, but it seems like it would leave non-pilots on the outside looking in.
The chapter on space exploration wins points for a Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy reference (when traveling through subspace, things may go wrong…like making a sperm whale or bowl of petunias appear out of nowhere).
I’m a big fan of random charts, and there’s an extensive section that allows you to randomly generate star systems, on down to a planetary level…complete with what kind of civilization exists (or existed) there. A helpful worksheet is provided for this. Of course, once you have detailed the solar systems and the planets, you have to decide what kinds of structures are present to be explored, from Pod Colonies to Urban Ruins to Hulks, which are giant ships left floating in space. Random charts are provided to add “flavor” to the exploration, as well as loot tables. Random tables for the weapons can provide beneficial, and humorous, special abilities…from bonuses to damage against vertebrate life forms to built-in MP3 players. Extra special armor might have Cloaking Fields…or it might… “vibrate”. Some of the higher end items include The Meatpuppet (a suit of armor made from flesh) and The Axe – part guitar, part weapon.
The bestiary includes four random encounter charts, depending on the environment the PCs are exploring. Monsters include Blind Trolls (who are difficult to battle in melee, due to the cloud of diseased filth that surrounds them), Centipods (12 foot spider-centipedes), Gorilloids (purple apes with poisonous horns), Living Weapons (who are every bit as terrifying as they sound), Seeker Drones (dropped onto the planet to destroy anything that moves), Skinless (who will try to strangle you with their own intestines), Space Whales, Toxic Ooze and more.
The GMing chapter has a lot of common stuff in it, but it also reminds the reader that no room should ever be “empty”, even if there is no monster or loot (remember, you are exploring the dead remnants of intergalactic society…these places had reasons for existing). A little information is given on gearing the game towards a different type of space game over exploration, as well as alternate character generation rules and rules for extrapolating the character classes above and beyond level 6. There are also rules for converting from older editions of D&D (which is awesome, because I LOVE using monsters “out of genre”), as well as non-Psyker and Scientist players learning Science! and Psionic abilities as well.
WHAT WORKS: I love the random charts. I *always* love the random charts. The Redshirt option for characters that don’t qualify for a character class is great as well. I do like how the classes have been balanced for the game, instead of just doing a straight renaming of the D&D Classes. Some of the tongue in cheek effects for various pieces of loot are also great as well.
WHAT DOESN’T WORK: I’d prefer a d20 chart over a d12 chart every time. Less chance of repeating an option. The space combat rules seem like they would leave non-pilots in the cold…moreso than non-Pilots will be left out on the ground. Contested checks are just clunky (rolling higher than the opponent but under your stat).
CONCLUSION: I’m not a big fan of the older school D&Ds, and I think that’s where I wind up displeased with some of the mechanics here. That said, I actually like the premise of exploring space hulks and dead planets more than I do straight up dungeon crawls. The extensive use of random charts is always a plus, and I do like that there are multiple options for acquiring a ship. If you’re a fan of old school D&D and you want something more than a different coat of paint on it, then definitely check this out.