Garbage dumped in the marshes of Spring Creek in Jamaica Bay. US EPA, 1973, public domain.

[The dump] is where we should start feeling at home. Part of our daily perception of reality is that [garbage] disappears from our world.

Slavoj Žižek

All things on Earth only exist in different stages of becoming garbage.

Jerry Seinfeld

Garbage, trash, waste—they’re all general terms for something we don’t want in our lives, whether it’s a bad movie or an old milk carton. It’s a category of things that aren’t useful or edifying. Something becomes garbage when it ceases to have value.

But any archaeologist will tell you that humans’ trash is an information-rich record. It provides insight into how people lived in recent and distant eras. Something ceases to be garbage because it holds value—but, ironically, only because it was garbage.

So why can’t it also add value to and enlighten the way we live, here and now, in the moment? That’s one of RPGs’ most significant functions: to examine life in an abstracted, risk-free way. They can flip our perspective and focus on the things we usually pay less-than-no attention to in everyday life.

These four games do that dirty work.

Garbage Worlds

Some games make garbage a pretext for fiction and play.

Human Occupied Landfill

Human Occupied Landfill. Christopher Elliott, Daniel Thron, and Todd Shaughnessy (Dirt Merchant Games) & Black Dog Game Factory (White Wolf Publishing); 1995/2002

Human Occupied Landfill (HōL) is satire. It does this job so well that you can’t help but hate it. No summary can really convey what HōL truly is. It’s a genuine experience. Of garbage.

The game’s setting works double duty: it’s a landfill planet and a penal colony. Here, a star-spanning civilization dumps its material and social refuse: pedophiles, the criminally insane, a broad spectrum of undesirables all shoved out of sight and out of mind.

HōL places characters into a world of waste and forces them to live there, and it does the same to its players. The game is technically playable, but the mechanics are an obtuse critique of RPGs’ historical reliance on wargaming mechanics. Beyond the formal recalcitrance, players face an even steeper uphill battle: HōL the book doesn’t want you to play HōL the game.

Every page looks like this. Every. Page. Image © 1995 Dirt Merchant Games. Fair use.

The book contains only two typeset pages: the legal frontmatter and a page that just says “ling”. Every other single page is hand lettered, start to finish. It looks more like a working draft with illustrations than a finished book. And it is full of misspellings and other errors. The text frequently swings self-reflexive and mocks its own poor quality, denigrating its value as a product and needling the reader who was foolish enough to buy it.

In places, the designers use the holographic appearance to good aesthetic and expressive effect, but in general, it’s visually tiring, tedious to read, and generally devolves into an undifferentiated mess. To make matters worse, there is no table of contents, index, or even page numbers. Trying to find something particular is like—you guessed it—digging through a landfill in search of a (fake) diamond.

But remember: it’s intentional. HōL aspires to be garbage.

And it wants to drag everything else in the universe down with it. HōL spoofs and satirizes a broad spectrum of popular and consumer culture, social institutions, and of course Dungeons & Dragons. Nothing is sacred. Everything is profane. In the end, it’s all destined for the trash heap, and HōL delights in its own self-imposed fate.

You Got a Job on the Garbage Barge

You Got a Job on the Garbage Barge. Amanda Lee Franck with Aaron King, Dungeons and Possums, Sasha Sienna & Jonathan Sims, Scrap Princess, and Zedeck Siew; 2020

HōL puts players in the role of human trash, but You Got a Job on the Garbage Barge makes them more than inmates. They’re still unwanted by society, yes, but they’re also the curators of all other things discarded.

You Got a Job… isn’t a game in itself; it’s a scenario you can use with your system of choice. It’s not about fighting monsters and getting treasure (though you can and probably will). It’s not about a pre-defined narrative (though one will certainly emerge).

It’s location driven, and that means it’s garbage driven. PCs will crawl a trashscape containing dilapidated buildings, discarded colossi, and even a farm. They’ll encounter people, creatures, and cultures that call the barge home.

What will they find? What conflicts will they face? That’s up to the players and the GM. You Got a Job… gives them a mobile mountain of garbage and lets them make of it what they will. They can either wallow in their fate, or they can repurpose it and reclaim its value.

Like the book says: “You might find something you never realized went missing.”

Garbage in the World

On the other hand, some games let you play with real garbage.

Vessel of the Garbage God

Vessel of the Garbage God. Orion Canning (designer/writer), Robert Bruce (safety and respect), Jeremy Canning (art), Jason Morningstar (layout), Just Housing Olympia; 2020

Vessel of the Garbage God inverts our normal way of thinking about trash. Waste disposal is religious ritual. Sanitation workers are spiritual champions. Landfills are temples. All are dedicated to you: the garbage god.

In the game, the garbage god’s spirit possesses a mortal body, the player—a nice conceit for the magic circle of play, and one that’s implemented well with the introductory prose. With their cognitive grip secure, the garbage god compels the player to worship. Trash becomes loot, and the more you collect and offer up at their altars, the more you please the garbage god.

The players’ reward is displaced outside the game itself. The goal is to collect a certain amount of trash, and players do so in camps lacking garbage pickup service. The game’s value is purely extrinsic: helping people in need.

Although the game valorizes garbage and waste, it does so ironically (and sometimes scathingly). Vessel of the Garbage God ultimately isn’t about the value of physical garbage. It’s about seeing people who’ve been discarded and showing them they still have value.

Goblin Cleaning Crew

Goblin Cleaning Crew. Richard Kelly (Sprinting Owl Designs); 2020

Goblin Cleaning Crew’s title pretty much sums it up. You’re a goblin. Most of the other players are also goblins—a crew of goblins, some might say. And together, you’re going to clean something.

That “something” is whatever area the host designates. Whenever a goblin cleans something within or removes a piece of trash from that area, they earn a point. In true goblin fashion, finding something extremely interesting earns 3 points.

When a goblin is supervised by another goblin, they earn extra points. But when the host supervises, they keep all the extra points for themselves.

Points obviously are valuable, but they don’t determine a winner. It’s all or nothing in Goblin Cleaning Crew; the space either gets cleaned, or it doesn’t.

Instead, points have in-game utility—but that game isn’t Goblin Cleaning Crew. In any other RPG, though, you can spend your goblin points to modify rolls, reroll, or save a character from certain death.

Of course, the GM you’re playing with will probably look at Goblin Cleaning Crew and ask you, “What the hell is this garbage?”

Meditations on Trash

HōL and You Got a Job… are founded on a traditional RPG experience. (HōL rebels against this, sure, but it couldn’t exist without it.) By making trash a central concept in that experience, they cannot help but make an argument about that concept.

HōL is nihilistic. It knows it’s trash because it knows everything is trash. That attitude liberates it to embrace its dark humor and irreverence, both in content and form.

So You Got a Job… is more whimsical. It holds out hope for redemption, even if that redemption comes from life in a heap of garbage.

Vessel of the Garbage God and Goblin Cleaning Crew are lyric games that specifically focus on and incorporate trash as gameplay components. Whereas HōL and You Got a Job… make us think about trash, the others force players to actually engage with garbage. Incorporating real interaction facilitates a real change in thinking. Both games turn cleanup into play that reinforces the desired behaviors and perceptions.

Vessel of the Garbage God encourages us to be more mindful of what our society allows to become invisible. Whether object or person, neither stops existing just because we can’t see it.

Goblin Cleaning Crew also wants you to pay attention to garbage. Find the value in it. Don’t let it just be trash.

All four games ask us to contemplate trash in a different way. HōL and You Got a Job… restrict that thinking to the game world, but Vessel of the Garbage God and Goblin Cleaning Crew attach it to reality. In doing so, they encourage us to be more mindful of discarded things’ presence, impact, and potential value.

To recreate, if not beauty, then aesthetic dimension … in trash itself: that’s the true love of the world.

Slavoj Žižek

Liber Ludorum is entirely reader-funded. Please consider lending your support.

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