I have never really connected with any of the "old school" RPGs that I've come across over the last few years. I thought I kinda got it in the days of Castles & Crusades but eventually I just couldn't see the point - others could and that was fine, but it was over my head. However, there have been a few games that have piqued my interest and gotten across their purposes and systems solidly enough for even a dummy like me to grasp it. Interestingly, they tend to be more science fictional than fantasy, perhaps reflecting that I didn't connect that much to fantasy novels when I was but a boy and a beardless youth, but would chew through a H. Beam Piper story without realizing that the world was still turning and a girl may have been trying to talk to me. Sorry, Jeannie.
I backed Hulks & Horrors in its first incarnation (it was unsuccessful there), so I was thrilled to see it come across rpgnow and even more excited to see that it nailed down everything it promised.
Hulks and Horrors combines dungeon crawling with space exploration, two things which might not seem to go together at first - the advantage of dungeon crawling being a constrained environment with clear choices, and the allure of space exploration being literally infinite possibility in all directions. Yet for me, one of the drawbacks of dungeon crawling was that I couldn't envision most dungeons in some modules I played in as being real places with real functions (since that time I've come to appreciate the surreal nonsense of certain dungeons in their own right), and one of the drawbacks of space exploration games I've played has sometimes been the lack of clear objectives. Combining the two is an amazing idea because the dungeon crawl aspect gives a solid objective to all player activities, and the space exploration element puts it in a context that I can connect to.
In Hulks & Horrors, the player characters are Surveyors - basically looters and scavengers on a lawless frontier. They bring important data back to galactic civilization, but the real riches are in robbing hulks (potentially ancient starships), star pirates (piles of jewels!) and maybe even the mysterious artifacts of the Ancients. It posits a universe where the characters have primarily mercenary motivations and a situation where they can exercise that to the fullest.
Characters are disposable in this game - they're generated quickly and disposed of just as quickly. The deadly situations they will get into are almost certainly going to kill player characters, but the decidedly "old school" method of rolling 3d6 for a character's stats - each assigned in order, of course - before glancing at the list of classes to see what they qualify for, picking one, and getting going, makes it so that you can just give a battlefield promotion to some faceless member of your crew and be back playing again immediately. (The adorable "Redshirt" class, which you have to choose when you don't qualify for any of the real classes, is a great idea but it doesn't seem too likely to me that it will ever get used.)
Character abilities are very broad - even a character's equipment and tools have very broad applications. This means that players are encouraged to be creative with the uses of their abilities and tools, a key factor since actual confrontation with enemies, traps ("boy, the security systems on this thousand year old ship sure are reliableerrrrrrggghh!") and so on are very serious matters.
The simple, fast-moving system will keep the game moving along. Interestingly, the DMs section is largely dominated by random tables to assist in the creation of scenarios in different types of location and facing different sorts of monsters. The monster list is evocative, and actually tells you more about the setting perhaps than anything else, something I really appreciate since conflict with monsters that tells me something about a setting is always more interesting than just hearing a GM say it to me.
If I could pick one way to improve Hulks & Horrors, I might try to integrate more system notes and "cheat sheet" material onto the character sheet.. Because the system's so simple, there's no reason to take up so much of the character sheet with just a list of 6 numbers for stats when you could, say, have a die rolling precis or a combat flowchart or something. (But maybe that's an old school thing? Who knows.) The other suggestion I might have is to provide a sample complex or hulk for exploration. Although a random star system, uh, system has an example, there isn't one for the actual meat of play, which is the very specific facility or location that the player characters are exploring/looting.
Maybe the best thing about Hulks & Horrors is the Dungeon Mastering section (and yes it is called a Dungeon Master, get over it.) It gives a clear idea of what Hulks & Horrors play is about and what the job of the DM is. Yeah, I've been a GM for a long time, but it really helps a game a lot for me to understand where the creator is coming from.
The most remarkable section in Hulks & Horrors, unquestionably, is the "optional rules" section. While the game has been diligent about telling you how to design your own spaceships, characters, star systems, facilities and monsters, it also goes into detail on rules extensions, options and different ways that you can change the rules to fit your own style or goals of play. On the one hand, this is possible because the core system is so simple - but I also think it reflects a constant, relentless focus on customization of your game experience to your table, and it's a major asset to the game.
I'm really excited about Hulks & Horrors - I have been since that crowdfunding effort long ago. I'm almost certainly going to run it at this year's RinCon. If you want a fast-moving, action-based science fiction exploration/fighting/looting RPG, this is absolutely the one you want.
Oh, and forget the haters saying they don't like this RPG because there's no art in it, it's their loss. Wait, wait, ummm.....I mean, uh, there's no pictures in this really solid, really well-crafted RPG and I almost gave it five stars just on the basis that there were no pictures. WAIT, this keeps coming out wrong. What I mean is if you want there to be art in your RPG book, there isn't any in this one. And you have bad taste. AGH, I can't stop myself. I should probably end the review before I make more people mad.
[4 of 5 Stars!]