Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Sandman: Map of Halaal - a weird art project of an RPG

I remember seeing advertisements for Sandman: Map of Halaal back in 1985 but it wasn't until I got a PDF copy of the game last year that I really got to figure out what it was all about. (And, just to get this out of the way, it has nothing to do with the comic book that would come out a few years later and be really awesome) 

You see, the gimmick of the game was that it was a role playing game that didn't require any prep work. The idea was that you could just sit down with the game and get playing right off the bat.

Sandman did this by using pregenerated characters, pregenerated adventures, a very simple rule system and by having the game master do every last bit of heavy lifting. Seriously, the players don't even get to see the character sheets. That's all being handled by the game master.

Part of the gimmick is that everyone is an amnesiac. You don't know who you are or what you're good at. The game master gets to reveal that to you if the opportunity comes up. Oh, you're firing a gun? Guess what, you might turn out to have the gun skill. The game master is even stuck keeping track of everyone's hit points.

So, Sandman was set up so that everyone BUT the game master could sit down and play without any kind of preparation. I'd hate to think of how Sandman would go if the game master went in cold without looking at the game. And, frankly, game masters are the ones who really have to do all the prep work in the first place.

And the adventures were all serious railroads, with instructions to kill the characters if they don't make the right choices. Honestly, there's no flexibility for either the players or the game master.

All of that negativity said, I do have to say that the actual storyline of Sandman was pretty interesting, if not to say completely trippy.

I really don't know if I'd ever run Sandman and I can't really play it because I've already read all four adventures. But I did get a kick out of reading it. As far as weirdness is concerned, Sandman: Map of Halaal is in a class all its own.

In the first of the interlocking adventures, you end up in Casablanca. No, not the city. The characters end up in the movie. They will have encounters with Humphrey  Bogart and Ingrid Bergman and so on. From there, you end up in a traditional Arabian Nights adventure. With Nazis.

That is the normal adventure.

Things good increasingly bizarre in the later adventures. Planes flying out of 1940s and landing in the Middle Ages. Tinker Bell helping the players flee from Chicago gangsters to Never Never Land. Psycho drama versions of fairy tales hosted by thinly disguised versions of Disney's seven dwarves. Albert Einstein flying a spaceship out of Ancient Greece with a robot Dionysus.

Sandman reads less like an adventure game and more like an experimental student film. Which, undeniably, did make for some fun reading.

You'll commit punchline is that we never get to find out what this is all about. Sandman was the first in a series of boxed adventures. However, they were never able to publish the rest. What is going on, who the characters are really, The mysterious Sandman that is trying to kill them is, none of that ever gets answered.

My personal theory is that the entire adventure is taking place in the mind of a schizophrenic in a coma, which explains all the pulp culture elements and why time and space don't matter. But it could just as easily be that everyone is dead and in purgatory or its all a computer simulation or maybe the gods are just crazy.

As genuinely fascinating as Sandman is, I have to say that I ultimately viewed as a failure, particularly for at goals. The idea of it being a role-playing game with no preparation needed is frankly a lie. The game master really needs to be familiar with the adventures.

And, these days, the idea isn't nearly so unusual and it is a lot easier to find no preparation games done well. For instance, Lady Blackbird is a game that uses a simple mechanical system and the plot written out in broad strokes. However, unlike Sandman, the game isn't a script with a player somehow need to follow almost perfectly. Instead, it is wide open outline that everyone gets to develop.

Sandman: Map of Halaal is a fascinating experiment. It has some very bizarre but fascinating writing and a laudable objective. Unfortunately, it is far too restrictive.

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