Lessons learned from Hack Slash Crawl
Hack Slash Crawl is just one of the countless flash based Rogue-like casual games that litter the intertubes. It is probably not the best of the genre, but it’s darned good fun to play and a great representation of what this kind of game offers – random dungeons, characters that improve with experience and oh-so-cute monsters that you wish they’d make into plush toys. Ok, maybe that last one is just me.
What do games such as these teach us about Dungeons & Dragons? What can we, as bastions of the role-playing hobby (bet you’ve never been called a bastion in polite company before) learn from this upstart diluted version of the game we know and love? In short: what we they doing right, and how can we steal it?
Funky races are fun
These are the races in Hack Slash Crawl: Human, Atlantean, Vampire, Golem, Celestial, Demon, Dryad, Draconian, Werewolf, Kitilid, Minotaur, Skeleton. As with D&D, each race provides bonuses to stats or special abilities. For example, the Werewolf (my personal favourite) has better Health regeneration.
See what’s missing from that list? No Dwarves, Elves or Halflings. This is a list of oddball races that wouldn’t seem out of place in a Munsters episode. We have fishmen rubbing shoulders with Golems and Minotaurs, and (aside from the obligatory baseline Human) not a single classical fantasy race in sight.
This is dystopian fantasy more akin to Talislanta than it is to Greyhawk. The races are different to each other at fundamental levels rather than being measured by the pointiness of their ears, height or length of their beards. There are no half-breed races either – the races are just too divergent to interbreed.
Picture a campaign setting like this where Humans are hunted by Vampires and Werewolves, where Atlanteans rule beneath the waves and Celestial and Demonic rival City States vie for power. Insectoid Kitilids roam vast deserts and Minotaurs build labyrinthine cities underground while a Draconian Empire marches to war.
Use the Revenant for the Vampire, Warforged for Golem, Eladrin for Dryad and Shifter for Werewolf and you could be running a game of D&D just like this.
Admit it. You want it now, don’t you?
Funky classes are fun
Likewise, the Hack Slash Crawl classes are: Fighter, Wanderer, Duelist, Hunter, Juggernaut, Charmer, Reaper, Lightwielder, Explorer, Cursed, Necromancer and Magus. Again, each of these has rough analogues in D&D but isn’t is so much cooler to play a Werewolf Duelist than a mere Shifter Ranger?
And y’know what – you can. There’s nothing to stop you from calling the classes whatever you want. If you want your hero to be Kerrin the Werewolf Explorer rather than Kerrin the Shifter Rogue there’s nothing to stop you, and you’re making your hero just that little bit more special.
Wise GMs do this too in order to customize their game world. Rather than the Fighter class, offer the Dark Company Mercenary class instead. It’s exactly the same as the Fighter, but sounds so much more enticing. In this part of the world, perhaps Wizards are called Magi, Dark Pact Warlocks are known as Heretics and Clerics are Godswords. Want to play D&D in the modern day? Call the Fighter class “Close Combat Specialist”, the Ranger class “Sniper”, Wizard “Occultist” and Rogue “Stealth Operative”, and you’re more than halfway there.
The dungeon is its own reward
Hack Slash Crawl has no plot. There is no storyline. There is no written reason for your hero to be in that dungeon killing things. He just is, and that’s ok. Most D&D players and DMs would baulk at such a setup for their game sessions, but there’s nothing wrong with just providing a single-line reason for the PCs being there and starting the game with the heroes in the first room. This works especially well if you’re pushed for time and have a clutch of work-weary gamers who just want to step right up and hit something.
Here’s a few one-line session starters I have used in the past, just for inspiration. Invariably, the words I say following these are “Roll initiative!”
“The Lord’s daughter was kidnapped by blue-skinned humanoids. Your investigations have brought you here.”
“You are travelling the King’s Road when suddenly the ground gives way.”
“The last thing you remember is drinking far too much ale in the local tavern. Now, you wake in darkness covered in filth…..”
D&D is not a casual game
Hack Slash Crawl does not have a pause button. Provided you’re not fighting anything or being chased by monsters, the game will wait patiently for your next click of the mouse and your hero dude will stand in an empty room happily minding his own business. This is a game you can have open in a browser tab and play during idle moments, snatching the odd combat here and there as your time allows.
D&D is not like that. Role-playing is a game that takes several hours to play and requires advance planning and preparation. It’s not a game you can play during idle minutes of the day.
Except, of course, that is exactly how we play D&D. We dream up new scenarios during the day, and daydream about flying castles or fighting dragons. We spend our idle moments working out which Feat to take when we reach the next level, doodle heraldic symbols in the margins or even (heaven forbid) write blogposts. Just like Hack Slash Crawl, D&D doesn’t have a pause button either.
No, D&D is not a casual game. Except it is.
Super fast character generation
Here’s how you generate a character in Hack Slash Crawl:
1) Pick a Race
2) Pick a Class
Or hit Random and play whatever the dice give you. Either is good.
Here’s how you generate a character in 4e D&D:
Except you can’t generate a character like that unless you have a D&D Insider account (more on those, below) which is seriously screwed up, and means you have to generate a character like this:
Now, I love 4e D&D character generation, but sometimes I would like to be able to create a character by just picking a race & class and hitting the ground running. Essentials classes are easier to create, but there’s still too much of a time investment when (for example) you have an unexpected additional player at the table or a PC dies and you need a replacement, fast. What I’d like to see is something like the Random Character Generator that comes with the excellent Mutants & Masterminds GM Kit – roll (or pick) a Race and Class, roll (or pick) a preset set of options, and you’re ready to play.
More on the Mutants & Masterminds GM Kit in a full review, another time.
The free to play model works
You can play Hack Slash Crawl as much as you want, for free. This isn’t a demo or time-limited version of the game, but the real deal. If you wish, you can buy extra goodies and enhancements but you’re under no obligation, and there’s very little in-game advertising or enticement.
Imagine if D&D was the same.
What if there was a freely downloadable “Red Box” version of D&D that included rules, monsters, full character generation and advancement, as well as a simplified character generator (modelled on the excellent Gamma World one) and new free monthly adventures (why the D&D Encounters adventures aren’t available for free download after they’re been played at the FLGSes, I don’t know) on the site waiting for you. Imagine if you could enhance that experience by buying Real Books ™, Adventure Packs or Digital Downloads with Wizard Coins which can be purchased at your FLGS, via Paypal or as a monthly subscription. Add in hooks into Facebook where you can boast that your character has advanced or you have run or participated in one of the official adventures, and you have a version of D&D that will just fly off the shelves.
We’re not privy to information about how profitable D&D Insider is, but it is fair to say that is has been profitable enough for them to carry it on. If it wasn’t, it would have been cancelled by now. The problem is that Insider is a paywall at a time where paywall mechanics are repeatedly being shown to be deeply unprofitable, unpopular and disliked by the paying public. Monthly subscriber lock-in puts Wizards of The Coast entirely beholden to their subscriber-base and a single unpopular action (such as retiring the Offline Character Generator, for example) can result in a wave of subscriber cancellations. The net result is that exciting and creative innovation of the game is curtailed and the safest route is taken for fear of upsetting too many subscribers.
Picture this scene: Dungeon publishes a modern vampires Twilight style Campaign Setting for D&D behind the D&D Insider paywall. Some Subscribers complain this isn’t what they want from D&D Insider and threaten to cancel their subscription. Some actually do, but the damage is done anyhow. Wizards decide it’s best not to rock the boat, and future alternative campaign settings are cancelled.
Now this scene: Wizards of the Coast releases a modern vampires Twilight style Campaign Setting for D&D for 7,500 Wizard Coins ($7.50, in real money). Those who want it buy it. Those who don’t, don’t. Wizards profit and promise to release more settings like this in future. The game as a whole benefits, and expands.
Wizards of The Coast is home to some of the best games designers in the industry, and what I want from them is new and exciting ideas. I want floating castles. I want experimental rules and innovations. I want things that set my own imagination on fire. I know that some things will appeal to me, and some will appeal to others – and I want to be able to pick and choose what I do and don’t want.
Is that really too much to ask?
The world is craving for D&D
Look, there’s load of D&D inspired games out there that are being played by millions of non-hardcore gamers every single hour of every single day. We’re not talking about the XBox & PS3 owners whose thumbs twitch in their sleep, but the countless Facebook-playing casual gamers who wouldn’t be seen dead inside a computer game store and think World of Warcraft is documentary on the History Channel. These are people who play games like Hack Slash Crawl and are in need of some D&D in their life.
Even though they might not know it.