Human Occupied Landfill, revisiting a weird RPG from the 90s or I’m past thirty so nostalgia is part of my life

A lot of gamers coming up through the ranks these days might not remember the 1990s and what it
HOL from Black Dog Factory, the an imprint
 of White Wolf for the more adult orientated games
& supplements.
was for tabletop roleplaying games. Others might simply have tried to blot it out of their memory because, well, in an age of big splashes and fantastatic hits there was also a lot of weird stuff to wade through. At any rate, let me set the stage a little. TSR still had Dungeons & Dragons (at least until 1995) – specifically Advanced Dungeons & Dragons 2nd Edition, and possessed a broad library of books for more campaign settings than there was time to play! Even after it was purchased by Wizards of the Coast, it wasn’t until 2000 that 3rd Edition D&D hit the shelves, changing everything. Vampire The Masquerade had been published by White Wolf in 1991 and with it, the importance of narrative became a force in roleplaying games. On the shoulders of the titans of the decade stood countless other roleplaying game publishers. Iconic products such as Rifts (1990), Deadlands (1996), Legend of the Five Rings (1997), and 7th Sea (1999) saw first editions in this decade. As did numerous liscenced properties such as Men In Black (1997). Within this space, RPGs seemed to be flourishing (at least until affordable home computers made PC-based roleplaying more accessible, prompting a decline in popularity) and so many successful publishers went to… oddball… places with their games. That is not to say that oddball RPGs are not produced these days. No indeed, but they’re often found in what one would consider the small press circuit. The difference is in the 1990s, established publishers made some weird stuff. And a lot of it got lost, forgotten or fell into the niches of book shelves. You have to remember – this is before the internet made it into homes in a big way. So a lot of stuff grew to legendary status through word of mouth!

One of those oddball RPGs I just keep coming back to is HOL or Human Occupied Landfill (try explaining to your partner why that phrase is in your search history). Released in 1994 from Dirt Merchant Games and again in 1995 from White Wolf (under the Black Dog label, a third a new edition was released in 2002, but quite frankly it’s a hand drawn and written book, so the differences besides a few pages isn’t vast). 1995 also saw the release of a supplementary book - Buttery Wholesomeness (or Butt HOL) – from Black Dog Game Factory. As you can imagine from the title, HOL instantly stood out. The book looked and felt rugged and brutal. The hand-scribbled text was sprawled across the pages at irregular sizes and intermittently broken by scratchy, expressionistic sci-fi imagery. Set on the galaxy’s most remote penal colony and interplanetary landfill, players took on the role of the various outcasts and criminals either sentenced to life on the planet or else born there! In terms of rules system, HOL was appropriately straightforward. Players rolled two six sided dice for their characters, and added the suitable statistic and any applicable bonuses. If the total of all numbers was above 15, it was considered a pass. Anything below, failure.

The concept and system were quite refreshing. Indeed, you have to remember, at the time of
HOL interior page. Pre-made character.
publication, the vast majority of roleplaying games assumed the players to be the good guys. Sure, Vampire The Masquerade muddied those waters but it also balanced the evil that player characters would do with a morality system. HOL had none of that. But what also really helped HOL standout and become the weird little cult gem its become is the cynical, bitter, inappropriate gallows humour that populated the game. The comedy ranged from juvenile (the phrase “fuck” frequently used in its pages), to satirical (depicting critiques of Marvel characters like Hulk or Silver Surfer) all the way through to cringe-worthy vulgarity (one of the pre-made characters is a priest of questionable pursuits). It wasn’t exactly laugh out loud funny (though that element was there with skills and their implications like “Balloon Animal Construction”). Rather, it’s the kind of humour that relies on shock value and transgression to deliver its punch-lines, focusing on breaking the rules of what can and should be said. To use a television comparison from the decade, the humour of HOL is was more comparable to South Park than, say, the clean humour of those tragically hip New Yorkers on Friends.

From a retrospective point of view, the biggest enjoyment I get from HOL these days is as a historical curiosity. A book to flick through and understand that it is the sort of game that just, to be quite frank about it, would not make an impact these days. In an era of kickstarters, of vector-art filled three (Australian dollars) figure core books, of glossy paged enormously thick hardcovers, of international play-testing to the nth degree, of an increasing dissonance between small-press and big publication the oddball stuff just doesn’t fly like it used to. There is something very specific about HOL, it’s a relic from a time and place in roleplaying that had its moment, hit the high watermark, and then moved on. When you play HOL, you don’t get the experience of one of those perfectly balanced and typically seriously minded roleplaying games of today. This isn’t the fifth edition of that popular game with the dungeons and the dragons that was produced by a production crew comparable in numbers to that of a small film and play-tested globally for the perfect balance of structured play and flexibility. This game is what is conventionally referred to as “broken”or “unbalanced” and that is a good thing because it sees HOL carry a sense of characterfulness that is quite unique.

Dr. Nicholas William Moll is a lecturer and researcher at Federation University Australia and a freelance game designer. His interests include science fiction, tabletop games and literary tropes.
Human Occupied Landfill, revisiting a weird RPG from the 90s or I’m past thirty so nostalgia is part of my life Human Occupied Landfill, revisiting a weird RPG from the 90s or I’m past thirty so nostalgia is part of my life Reviewed by Nicholas William Moll on Tuesday, November 07, 2017 Rating: 5
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