Games Half Remembered is an occasional series about old games. Some of these games I have played, others I have merely admired, but all of them have stuck in my memory for one reason or another. The rest of the series can be found here.
What if someone wrote a game in which the players levelled-up rather than the characters?
One of the absolute best things about modern RPGs is their willingness to break down the barriers between player and GM. For far too long, roleplaying games forced all of the creative responsibilities onto one player rather than allowing entire groups to share the narrative responsibilities and so build a game around a shared vision.
However, as much as I love the way that recent trends in game design have encouraged power to migrate from GM to player, there are other aspects of the GM/Player dynamic that are ripe for interrogation. First published in 1989 and supported through the early 90s with a series of fanzine-like supplements, the French RPG Hurlements invited players to imagine themselves as initiates undergoing challenges to learn the secrets of the GM.
Hurlements was a really weird game and it is one of my great regrets that I was only ever to play it a couple of times at conventions. The game came in a black box adorned with gold lettering containing two soft-bound books and a GM’s screen. Only 64 pages long, the first book was for players and it gave you just enough rules to create a character; a lycanthrope who had sought refuge from medieval society by joining a troupe of travelling actors. The rules were incredibly thin, barely functional because the point of the game was not to roll dice and overcome challenges but to roleplay, to drink in the atmosphere of medieval France, and to solve mysteries.
Intriguingly, Hurlements did not sell itself as a roleplaying game but as a game of initiation. The reason for this was that, unbeknownst to starting PCs, the acting troupe was actually a secret society and the point of the game was to rise up through the layers of the secret society and so learn more and more about the world of the game. Another of the game’s eccentricities was that characters did not all necessarily progress at the same rate and so you could have mixed-level parties where different members of the group were engaging with the mission on different levels. Perhaps my abiding memory of Hurlements in play was having my character tumble down a well and discovering an alcove full of weird objects that made perfect sense to the other players but not to me.
While it might be tempting to view this piece of table theatre as an Earthdawn-like attempt to rationalise the social dynamics of RPG sessions by building a world around them, Hurlements deliberately blurred the line between player and character.
Contemporary gamers may be familiar with the discourse surrounding narrative responsibilities and the power imbalances between GMs and players but they might not be familiar with the way that GMs back then tended to hoard knowledge about their game worlds. This started quite innocently with GMs preventing their players from learning about magical weapons or the contents of particular scenarios lest this knowledge spoil the surprise. The problem is that many GMs would extend this logic to all aspects of their game world, effectively treating their game books as weird holy texts that players were not fit to see. I even remember one dude refusing to let me join a game because he knew that I owned a physical copy of the game.
Hurlements interrogates this knowledge imbalance by transforming the knowledge differential into a series of initiatic levels that one had to pass through in order to gain a full understanding of the game world. In fact, Hurlements even indulged in that slightly odd thing of associating the GM with a particularly-knowledgeable character from the game world.
Looking back at Hurlements, it is interesting that so few games would explore similar GM/Player dynamics but I guess the hobby’s lack of curiosity may be down to the cult-like undertones of said power structure. I mean… we have all seen the Jack Chick cartoon where a teenage girl’s character reaches a particular level and so her player is said to gain access to ‘real magic’ and the satanic moral panic combined by the profound lack of curiosity displayed by most Anglo-Saxon gamers probably accounts for this failure.
Interestingly, Hurlements was not the last French RPG to use an initiatic structure. A few years after the publication of the last Hurlements supplement, some of the original writers reconvened to produce Chimeres, a game that was not so much a second edition as a sequel to Hurlements in which the players could learn new secrets as their characters learned new powers. I remember liking this game a lot less as it not only came with slightly more involved rules but also seemed to be guiding the journey towards the metaphysics spelled out in a completely different French RPG. Though well-reviewed and well-supported at the time, I would argue that Chimeres was a lesser game as it filled in a lot of blanks that were more evocative when left unfilled.
While Hurlements’ unique Player/GM relationship would not prove all that influential, I would argue that Hurlements remains one of the absolute foundational texts of French roleplaying in that, unlike Anglo-Saxon games which tended to focus upon combat, Hurlements stressed the importance of atmosphere and roleplaying. The game did have rules, combat, and even magic but the rules governing these things were just too thin to hold anyone’s attention. The focus of Hurlements was not to win battles and defeat enemies; it was to imagine oneself as someone else in another world. This vision of gaming as something that was largely about the creation and maintenance of atmosphere would loom large over French gaming for decades to come and it all started with a weird little slipcase with some golden lettering.