Prisons are under used as a setting in any fictional medium and that is a crying shame. One of the secrets to the construction of a good drama is trapping your Characters. There is no better way of trapping your Characters than locking them up!
Though somewhat under used the set up has created some really good stories. Not just the American stuff most Roleplayers would be familiar with but throughout the English speaking world shows like Blake’s 7, Porridge and Scum have used the claustrophobia of prison (or in Blake’s 7’s case a ship full of escaped prisoners) to great dramatic effect.
As a fan of the prison setting it gave me great pleasure to read Abandon All Hope by Dominic Covey and Miguel De Dios. It is an American game by American authors who, by the list of inspirations, may not even be aware of the British prison or trapped settings. It does however feel like a cross between Porridge (yes there are some funny bits), Blake’s 7 and Red Dwarf with a side order of classic American supernatural horror in the Lovecraft vein.
Anyone who’s read any of my Shadow World stuff knows I have real trouble taking supernatural horror seriously however as it was prison set I was willing to give Abandon All Hope the benefit of the doubt.
So how does it fair? Is it a veritable Grouty, a conniving Fletcher or just the prison bitch?
Let’s find out!
The story of the Prison Ship Gehenna is neatly albeit briefly explained in the opening few pages. It’s a typical rise of dystopia story that we’ve all read lots of times before yet it is, I believe innovative in who it is that takes charge after the interplanetary nuclear war that destroyed the old ways is concluded.
The Panterran Meritocracy is not particularly political or even religious. Its sole concern is its own strict moral code. No reasoning behind this moral code beyond the maintenance of order and everyone just getting along.
Not so much Mary Whitehouse or Jack Chick in charge as their pushy offence culture left wing secular equivalents. Not sure which is worse to be honest? In either set up I’d be screwed!
Anyway I kind of like this stylistic choice. Takes it away from the usual frothing loonies and instead points out the supposedly “reasonable” side of offence culture is just as bad.
What I would have liked more is a little more clarification on specific points. Is homosexuality a vice offence for example? Within the Panterran Meritocracy set up it could go either way. I understand the desire to “play it safe” a bit but making a firm decision on the controversial stuff makes for a more coherent setting view.
The solution of the Meritocracy to its “moral collapse” is to export its entire prison population on colony ships bound for deep space, the first of which is the Gehenna. This resonates with me and my recent research into Transportation as a punishment in the 18th Century. I can totally see it working in a Science Fiction setting especially when you can automate the guards as with the Gehenna’s Custodians.
There is plenty with this set up to run a decent game on its own but… oh no Covey and De Dios insist on taking us to Hell… LITERALLY!
Okay fair play… like all good horror writers they never specify if it really is the Biblical Hell rather they describe it as an alternate dimension populated by beings that feed on Guilt, Despair and Insanity.
This is supposed to be the Prisoners’ story however and to the Prisoners they are in Hell and Demons are after their souls!
As I said the supernatural bit can be done away with if you prefer but personally I like the idea of beings like these demons haunting a prison. It’s a veritable banquet for them!
Overall though it doesn’t go into great detail the setting is thought provoking, evocative and above all captivating. A real achievement for the pair of them!
This is where Abandon All Hope falls down in my opinion.
I have two main areas of criticism. The first isn’t particularly valid for a general audience as it is simply a personal bugbear of mine: The fact that multiple die types are needed.
Maybe it’s because I started with Paranoia and nWoD rather than the more traditional entry game of D&D but I really can’t stand the use of multiple die types. I find it needlessly fiddly and rather irritating in that there are more specialist polyhedrals to lose to my natural clumsiness.
As I said that is a personal preference, maybe you like that in your games, I don’t. What I’m sure you all like in your games though is clearly presented and laid out rules.
I’m not going to mince my words here the way the rules are presented is confusing and lacks the logical process I’ve encountered in most other books. Roleplaying Games can, at times, seem very formulaic but they are so for a reason. The formula works for getting across the rules in a concise manner.
Whilst most games devote a few pages or even a whole chapter to explaining the core mechanic Abandon All Hope relegates it to a sidebar in Character Creation.
There are also inconsistencies from the later chapters to the earlier chapters as to whether a higher dice type is a good or a bad thing and although Character Creation is well explained and the Armoury well stocked (with justification as to how dangerous prisoners got hold of such deadly weapons) it’s just the core mechanic presentation that lets the whole thing down.
It is a crying shame because from what I can make out of the system it is quite sound and I am particularly fond of Guilt, Despair and Insanity as game mechanics that influence the manifestation of Demons and Psychic Powers.
It remains disappointing that it wasn’t better explained though.
This is where Abandon All Hope redeems its lack of mechanical development. Gehenna feels like a proper prison. So often in artistic work prison is sanitised to be more palatable. Not here! They’re not so tasteless as to put in an off colour joke about showers but you really get the atmosphere of dangerous criminals and non conformists thrown together and struggling to survive.
The supernatural element doesn’t jar with this at all, connected as it is with the key psychological effects of prison life. As I explained I didn’t quite get the rules but from what I can tell the Guilt, Despair and Insanity mechanics are an aid to establishing the atmosphere rather than a stick to ram it down your throat as it can be in other horror games.
Overall the Atmosphere of Abandon All Hope is spot on its setting and a real inspiration to those who want to write their own prison games.
Artwork in Abandon All Hope is reminiscent of old White Wolf stuff but without any of the corniness associated with some of its publications. This may seem a bit “old school” for a game with a brand new system but then again so is a brand new system with multiple dice types so go figure!
As a Setting Abandon All Hope has a lot of potential and for all I’ve whined about the System having reread it again and again for the purposes of reviewing it I’m sure with better presentation it would be an awesome game for some groups.
Alas not mine but I’m sure there are groups out there who’ll love it.
Diversity is one of the best aspects of the hobby. Even when it gets on your tits!