The Unintentional Comedy of HoL

The danger of comedy, particularly when it comes to parody, is that sometimes it can unintentionally reveal just as much about the attitudes of the comedian and their audience as it does about the things they are spoofing.

Take, for instance, HoL. A deliberately sloppy mess of a game, HoL was initially self-published by Dirt Merchant Games. The guys at White Wolf caught wind of it, and thought it was so funny that they reprinted it under the Black Dog Game Factory imprint, which they used for material too spicy for the White Wolf label like Montreal By Night. This is, in itself, pretty funny – because whilst much of the overt sniping in HoL is directed at other targets, some of the attitudes that creep in end up making it an accidental (but quite apt) spoof of game design fashions and the RPG zeitgeist of the time.

The titular HoL (pronounced “hole”, aptly enough), is the Human Occupied Landfill – a junkyard planet way out in the boondocks of a vast galactic empire (the Confederacy of Worlds, or COW), where ne’er-do-wells are exiled to fend for themselves amid the depredations of groups like the Fleshtenders and the Sodomy Bikers. It’s ludicrously violent and over the top, and is largely a spoof of the sort of ridiculous nonsense that the segment of the 1990s gaming scene that hadn’t gone utterly coco for Vampire: the Masquerade-flavoured coco pops was really into. Lots of cyberpunk stuff, lots of big guns and huge trenchcoats and katanas, and a big hefty spoonful of mockery directed in particular in the direction of Warhammer 40,000 (there is a page of armour illustrations where the main difference between the armour types is that the shoulder pauldrons get bigger and bigger to a ludicrous extent). On top of that, HoL came out in a year after SLA Industries, which is even more hip-deep in this sort of grimdark 1990s gothic SF aesthetic but actually takes it semi-seriously except when it doesn’t – SLA sometimes has trouble deciding whether or not it is comedy; HoL entertains no illusions. I can’t help but wonder whether HoL was at least partly inspired by SLA; certainly, you could dump HoL into the SLA universe without too much work.

On top of that, the profanity-laden text is handwritten and either not edited at all or presents an amazing simulacrum of a text that hasn’t been edited in the slightest, the designers go off on weird little tangents about the circumstances they are writing under, and there is no character generation system, with the sample characters being all you get.

That said, there’s a functional system in there, albeit one which deliberately or otherwise shows up the limitations of the “system doesn’t matter” attitude endemic in 1990s game design and particularly prominent in White Wolf. In particular, the system is set up so that if you are skilled at something you will pretty much always succeed at it, and otherwise you will almost always fail, unless you roll a botch or a critical success (which will happen 1 in 18 rolls); the bonuses you add to your rolls tend to be massive compared to both the size of the 2D6 randomiser and the bonuses or penalties the GM is encouraged to use, and some of the sample characters’ skills are set so that you will always be in the “success” range of the outcome chart before you even roll. This is a system which may be fine for some purposes, but it flies in the face of the tone of the game; just as White Wolf offered up fluff text promoting personal horror and a system tending towards superheroes-with-fangs in Vampire, HoL promises a Paranoia-style hosefest with PCs too competent to get hosed to that extent.

On top of that, there’s the bit where the designers explain that they haven’t included any women amongst the sample characters because they are good boys who disavow sexism, so they decided to not go there and declare that no woman has been stupid enough to get sent to HoL.

This is the sort of sexism by way of trying not to be sexist that a certain brand of clumsy geekboy has been practicing for a good long while. There’s all sorts of reasons why the pedestal treatment is off-putting and limiting to women and generally not helpful. In addition to that, by declaring that they haven’t included any female player characters because they don’t want to be sexist, the designers are effectively admitting that they couldn’t think up any ideas for such characters that didn’t amount to sexist jokes – which is enormously sexist in itself. Saying that and then presenting it as evidence of how enlightened you are rather than more directly admitting that you don’t trust yourself is pretty two-faced at that.

This isn’t the only bit where HoL shows a little hypocrisy. There’s a little one-page manifesto for the Black Dog line at the back of the book which declares that they want to produce stuff which glorifies or makes light of misogyny or racism and the like or uses any of that bad stuff for titillation. There’s a certain illustration in Montreal By Night which pushes close to the line on that, and the hyper-edgy “let’s be really fucking transgressive and swear a lot” style of HoL occasionally throws in content which sometimes gets too vile to be funny. One of the sample characters, for instance, is a child-abusing priest whose main character goal is to groom and abuse another one of the sample characters; frankly, there’s enough horror stories out there about gamers who use their PCs to rape other people’s PCs without this being an encouraged activity even in jest, and between this and the Sodomy Bikers the game seems rather ready to go for a rape joke if it will help meet the transgression quota.

HoL had a single supplement, Buttery Wholesomeness, which included a character generation system spoofing the lifepath-based systems of the era and Freebase, a spoof of the aesthetic presentation of early D&D materials which presents itself as the manual for a LARP played in real life where you burn your house down and become a homeless drug addict who mugs people for drug money. Neither adds much to a joke that gets tiring less than half of the way into the HoL core book. Perhaps the biggest joke of all is that Dirt Merchant could turf this out there and have a cult hit on their hands that got picked up by White Wolf, or that gamers willingly paid money for this (and I guess the joke is on me here too). It’s the sort of concept that is funnier in the abstract than in execution. I still take it down occasionally and giggle at it, but I’m not proud of myself for doing so, and I wouldn’t recommend people bust a gut trying to track it down or pay over the odds for a copy.

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