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The Outer Presence
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The Outer Presence
Publisher: Kort'thalis Publishing
by Thilo G. [Featured Reviewer]
Date Added: 11/01/2016 10:41:51

An Endzeitgeist.com review

This module/system for very rules-light investigative horror clocks in at 45 pages, 1 page front cover, 1 page inside of front cover, 2 pages of editorial/introduction, 2 pages of space for notes, 2 empty pages, 2 pages depicting the Kort'thalis glyph, 1 page inside of back cover, 1 page back cover, leaving us with 33 pages of content, so let's take a look!

We begin this book with character generation, which is pretty simple - we begin with choosing a profession from a list of 20, though adding new ones is heartily encouraged. For purposes of determining cohesion and identity within the world, 10 organizations and 6 possible relationships with said organizations can be found. A total of 8 different basic motivations and drives that push the character forward are similarly included and the system also assumes that you must pick one of 20 character flaws.

This background, mostly dressing, as you may have noticed, is in service to the very simple and important design paradigm that everyone is average until proven otherwise, which ties in with conflict resolution and basically anything. The system presented is based on the VSd6-engine also employed by other books by Kort'thalis Publishing, though with a modified focus towards the subject matter at hand. To reiterate: You usually roll a dice pool of 2d6 and consult the best value. Advantages on your end let you roll 3d6, disadvantages/slim chances are represented by rolling 1d6 and the worst cases require the rolling of 2d6 and taking the worse result.

The latter is particularly important if you wish to play a "Special" character - whether you're psychic, a sorceror, an alien or other weird entity or just hard to kill, the decision to become special has a serious drawback, namely that you either must take 3 flaws...or just 1 flaw. If you elect to pursue the latter option, you, alas, suck at your background and thus reduce your dice pool for related tasks by minus 1d6...which can accrue a lot of flack fast. You see, while the backgrounds mentioned before don't look like much on paper, they are your guideline to determine what you get to do and how many dice you can roll...

Dice pool interpretation is simple: 1 is a Critical failure, 2 is a failure, 3 a partial failure, 4 a partial success, 5 a success and 6 a critical success. I'd strongly suggest going with the optional rule, which lets you change your fate when rolling doubles, allowing for quirky twists of fate. Combat is also based on the dice pool system and the respective system: Even a roll of 4 wounds your victim and 2 wounds equal being rendered unconscious; 5 already knocks the foe out in one hit and 6...well. Instakill. It doesn't take a genius to determine that combat with this system is very lethal. Here's a very important aspect, though: You do get a bonus die per session, which you may use to increase your chances of success...and each session survived nets you another one. You'll need them. Trust me.

Encountering the truly weird, i.e. the insanity-inducing, pretty much is an instant efF-U for the poor sap of a character, who rolls a d6 and may immediately be converted to basically cultist status, assume fetal catatonia, begin ranting and raving, faint, develop a phobia...or, on a roll of 6, just shake it off. Yeps, a 1 in 6 chance to remain basically in control. You won't do a lot of fighting versus the weird (without dying horribly) in this system - a general notion I like as a fan of purist Cthulhu-esque games. Similarly, killing the basically unkillable is subject to GM-fiat more than just rolls and as such, can lend itself to appropriately bleak scenarios. Initiative, just fyi, is assumed to be handled via "common sense" - which may just boil down to rolling and going by results, but whatever works for your groups is fine. After the first combat, players won't be so keen to begin one anyways...at least they won't be after some of their own have died horribly.

Anyways, this is about the extent of the rules array; told you it was simple, right?

Anyways, the bulk of the book is actually devoted to a rather significantly-sized scenario, which lends the title its name. It is set in the 1970s (obviously) and begins when Dr. Karl Steiner and his expedition-force with rival Dr. Zachary Stevenson, assistant Vanessa Hargreaves and crony/lackey Elliot Richelieu and the student Jasper Johnson is lost in New Guinea, supposedly on an anthropology trip to study the Meepie tribe (which generates associations of "meek" and "sheeple"...at least for me) a random 12-entry table lets the GM easily determine what characters were doing when they got the class, for they are off to New Guinea on behalf of Miskatonic University!

...and this is as far as I can go without diving into SPOILER-territory. Players should jump to the conclusion.

...

..

.

All right, only GMs around? Great! So, basically, while the system looks like it is geared up for bleak, purist Cthulhu-style horror, the scenario herein is actually somewhat of a Frankenstein-entity, which is a good and a bad thing, as far as I'm concerned. Even in the introductory scenes at university, a missive from Steiner can be found, which bespeaks already his madness and if that alone did not send your alarm-bells a-ringin' - well, then you probably haven't see the movies and read the books I have. Anyways, the first section of this module boils down to a bow before the exploitation classics like Cannibal Holocaust...or, if you'd be more literally inclined, "Heart of Darkness", one of the most misunderstood books ever written. The travel to the Meepie tribe, is, surprisingly, glossed over for the most part, which really surprised me, considering that Heart of Darkness is all about the progressive changes and the effects on the human psyche. Anyways, you may well insert and emphasize the journey - though the association with the aforementioned exploitation flicks becomes immediately obvious upon making contact with the Meepie - who are now lorded over by Dr. Steiner as a kind of god-king, leading them ever further into depravity.

The PCs will probably want to kill the Kurtz-ian villain that Steiner has become, but this is where the weird begins - for he does not perspire, victim to his self-inflicted, own horror and psychological devolution, but rather find out that the 7-eyes beast/deity Zor'raev Tsog is protecting the bestial man. Worse, his crony Eliot is very willing to kill. Let's hope the PCs keep their composure for now, for there are things to be found in the Meepie village - Jasper's journal, for example...as well as a scroll and a weird skull...but yeah. Between the feud with another tribe, the Kahli, and Steiner's atrocities, it should be possible to slip away and move towards the temple that seems to be Steiner's obsession - if the PCs manage to not be eaten by a giant snake, they may encounter an intriguing vignette here - the mountain does contain a weird, jellyfish-like thing, worshipped as deity by local tribesmen; examined by another expedition...and hunted by a large game hunter and his team, making for an intriguing dynamic...I just wished it had a bit more room to shine for its dynamics; at just one page, it feels like a captivating insertion and one you can easily cut in e.g. the convention-circuit. I think it could carry its own module...but onwards.

The second part of the module would be the exploration of Nafu Aata, the temple of dark secrets. The complex comes with a lavish map in b/w, though no player-friendly iteration can be found. Yes. Dungeon-exploration. With these rules. PCs will die. Horribly. The complex begins by throwing giant spiders at the PCs...thereafter, the hapless fools can find a statue of Zor'raev Tsog - who is lavishly-rendered in b/w...thogh, alas, in its obvious, awakened form. Pity that we don't get the non-fool-grabbing art to show the PCs...the artwork is amazing, but now will only be used when PCs are stupid enough to tinker with it. The rest of the complex's challenges, from water to strange, star-shaped entities, are surely sufficiently diverse...and include a battle of cultists of Zor'raev Tsog and teh Outer Presence sealed within the complex - both of which arrive from strange portals, ending in a combat of laser guns versus curved, magic daggers. The finale, ultimately, deals with the horrific-insight-granting, living black tentacle-studded relic. You see, the eponymous Outer Presence and Zor'raev Tsog don't really see eye to eye regarding the extinction/enslavement of humankind. Tsoggie sounds bad...but see that cover? That's what happens if the presence isn't stopped...which is nigh impossible. Thankfully, both Meepie, mad journal, the horribly-impregnated Vanessa that can be found here or other NPCs can fill in at least a bit of the blanks here.

The pdf concludes with further adventure suggestions as well as a nice primer of Meepie words for your roleplaying edification.

Conclusion:

Editing and formatting are top-notch, I noticed no significant issues. Layout adheres to an easy-to-read, cleanly-presented two-column b/w-standard. The pdf sports several absolutely gorgeous b/w-artworks, including full-page ones that make for cool handouts. Cartography is excellent, though a key-less, player-friendly version would have been nice. The pdf iteration of the book has no bookmarks, which constitutes a comfort-detriment -I'd suggest getting the print-version, which has thus the upside regarding the navigation aspects.

Venger As'Nas Satanis' Outer Presence is two things - for one, it is a simple, easy to explain and grasp roleplaying system that works rather well for purist horror modules. Oddly, then, would be the fact that the system eschews this basic strength (perhaps supplemented via a bit more investigation) and instead bashes you over the head with its barrage of the weird. This book is about as subtle as a sledgehammer to the face and, to make that clear, in my book, this is about as scary as a dungeon of bones and blood.

If you expect fully developed psychological horror, the system can deliver that, though the module employing it does not - this is very much indebted to the aesthetics of exploitation movies and pulpy explorations into the weird. Reading the module, it frankly feels like a jumbled mess of themes - Apocalypse Now/Heart of Darkness/Cannibal holocaust, interlude of weird set-piece, then dungeon, which includes sudden influx of potential scifi aesthetics. If your players stop to wonder and think this through, the module may crumble under its own weight and the fact that its themes feel a bit too crowded. You don't have one theme, but a rapid oscillation of horrible things. But guess what? In play, if you maintain a proper pace, you can actually employ this strategy to maintain a sense of wonder and surprise, always keeping the players on their toes. The Outer Presence, frankly, plays much, much better than it reads.

For all intents and purposes, this shouldn't work this well, but it does...which is surprising. At the same time, you should probably generate an atmosphere that emphasizes this pulpy aesthetic: If you go the whole way with sounds, lighting and locale, the module is too inconsistent in its themes to make full use of these components. There is no linear rise of tension, but rather a rapid succession of spikes and as such, a beer-and-pretzel-environment may actually work better here and make it still feel like pulpy horror; something also emphasized by the simplicity of rules.

So, while we had a blast, I'd hesitate calling the module-portion "horror" - it features horrific themes, yes, but the engine could do the horrific better than what is presented here. That being said, this can be an incredibly fun, pulpy experience of dying in horrible ways and marveling at what's around the next corner - think of this, in theme, closer to Cthulhu meets JohnnyQuest/Indiana Jones than bleak, nihilistic cthulhiana. In my own sense of the word, this is not horror - it does not generate fear, a sense of being disturbed or the like. This startles the players, it does not frighten them.

For people looking for a psychological scenario, I'd rate this as a low 4; however, for getting a fast-paced, easy to run and prepare pulpy one-shot, this is a fun book to have and works well in the context. Thus, my final verdict will clock in at 4.5 stars...and while personally, I'd round down (since I'm very much a believer of the power of subtlety in horror, of establishing leitmotifs and themes and of some restraint being better than overkill), if you're looking for popcorn-cinema horror, this delivers in bucketloads and spades. Hence, my official verdict will round up.

Endzeitgeist out.



Rating:
[5 of 5 Stars!]
The Outer Presence
Publisher: Kort'thalis Publishing
by Joel B. [Verified Purchaser]
Date Added: 10/02/2015 13:26:29

Venger Satanis’ latest foray into Lovecraftian territory is a compact, pick up and play game of investigative horror. It features an abbreviated (or streamlined) version of the Crimson Dragon Slayer rule set. It also includes a scenario, so it’s a bit of a double feature, which is appropriate considering the gritty Grindhouse style of the adventure itself.

It is 45 pages with a colour cover and black and white interior. This is a review of the PDF version.

As usual, the look of the product is great! The black and white artwork is decent and the layout, typography and editing gets more polished with each new release. Seriously, Venger’s layout person, Glynn Seal (MonkeyBlood Design) is getting better and better at this. The text flows well, the headings are stylized but clearly readable and the watermarks are not obtrusive in the least. It was a pleasure to read. Fantastic maps in the adventure by Glynn Seal as well.

A new feature in this book are little side notes or boxes with added Game Master tips and advice. This was a nice addition and I would like to see Venger do more of this. There were other bits here and there that I felt should have been highlighted in this way.

My only gripe, and this criticism applies to many, many other publishers, not just with Korthalis, are the extra empty pages of padding that are included for print reasons but serve absolutely no purpose for digital consumption. It’s tedious and annoying to flip through several blank pages on my tablet. To be clear, just about everyone does this, except for a very few, and I think that it is just the growing pains of the new digital era. I wish desktop publishers would make at least two versions of their PDFs: one for print and one for digital-only consumption. Anyway, moving on…

Quick and Dirty Rules for an Investigative Horror RPG

The first half of the book (pages 4 to 12) covers the game system itself, beginning with character creation. This is fast and loose: you pick or randomly determine a career for your investigator and this determines where and when they get an advantage or disadvantage on dice rolls, depending on context.

Next is a bit of a nice way to add background depth to your character. You pick or randomly determine which secret society or organization that you character has ties to and what sort of relationship that you have. We’ve seen this before in Crimson Dragon Slayer, but there’s a bit more depth to it here. I was very pleased with this.

Lastly you get to determine your character’s Drive to investigate and what sort of Weakness that they have. For the latter, the author explains how this concept is integral to horror narratives and I agree with him wholeheartedly. The brief Game Mastering advice here on how to channel these character flaws is also good and reasonable.

Here’s a sample character that I just rolled up:

Profession: Gangster (or Con Man)

Organization: Former member of a Scientific Team

Drive: Cold, hard cash

Weakness: Will do anything for power

The Rules

The dice system is elegantly simple: everyone is considered to be average at everything unless consequences, or background career, would affect the chances of success or failure. Just like Dungeons and Dragons 5th edition, multiple “advantages” and “disadvantages” to a roll just cancel each other out and the character rolls with an average difficulty. Effective and straightforward, but depending on Game Master ruling, which I know doesn’t suit every play style out there. Then again, I only play RPGs with people whom I know and like so this is not an issue for me whatsoever.

Combat, just like regular checks, works in very much the same way. It’s also very simple, with varying degrees of effect. At worst your enemy gets a free hit on you, at best your foe is insta-killed. However, that’s also context-heavy: it all depends on the weapons used, the people (or creatures) involved and other factors. Some big monsters, such as Lovecraftian demigods and what have you, never die: they can only be subdued temporarily… which fits perfectly with the Mythos. Sometimes dynamite and big guns only buy you extra time to run away! It should be noted that there are no hit points to speak of in this game. There are basically two hurt conditions prior to death: wounded and incapacitated. Your character can theoretically get killed by a single monster attack or gun shot. Again, this lethality is fitting for the premise: getting into fights is typically not a good idea at all unless you’ve got the stakes highly in your favour.

There’s also simple Insanity rules and a reward system of Bonus Dice, which characters accumulate and can spend at any time to give them better chances of success. Considering that all dice rolls are constrained to 1, 2 or 3 dice at most, these Bonus Dice are a Big Deal.

The Insanity check rule is good but the table of results is… okay. Basically nothing very good can come from making an Insanity check unless the character rolls the best possible result. While I understand the need for streamlined simplicity, I’ve never been a fan of insanity or fear checks that can result in a player basically stepping away from the action for a while. If I ever run this, I think that I’ll tweak these a bit so that the effects are more insidious for a nice build up of tension or at least fun for the player to role play out the madness effect so that they’re still in the game. Then again I know some Call of Cthulhu purists who’d love the way that this table works as it is. Note: upon fully reading the adventure itself, it appears that the Insanity table is only triggered if the player rolls a single die and gets a pre-determined result (usually a 1 or 2, depending on the severity of the horror that they witness.

Overall a nice, tidy system for quick n’ dirty horror gaming. High lethality, a bit abstract and very dependant on GM rulings but very easy to learn and play.

The Outer Presence

The titular adventure of this book (fills out the remaining pages). The genre is horror and thus involves a few disturbing themes. Reader beware.

To give you a clear idea of what’s to come, the author cites his inspiration:

…such great films as Cannibal Holocaust, Cannibal Ferox, and Jungle Holocaust, as well as, the 1960’s Jonny Quest television show….

Interestingly enough, we get a bit of a twist on a somewhat racist trope: the tribal people within this story have become degenerate crazed cannibals because they’ve been corrupted by an evil, twisted, western scholar in anthropology. The evil comes from outside the jungle, both figuratively and literally. In other words, the “aliens” are a tentacled horror in a pit and a white man.

To explain further, the villain is a cruel and sadistic expedition leader who is manipulating an isolated tribe into serving his needs. The people themselves are represented as victims of this creep’s abuse of their superstitions. He’s up to no good and has done bad things to a lot of people. These acts, combined with a few other factors, have led the characters to travel to this remote place in the jungle to investigate.

The adventure is well structured: the author gives suggestions on how to streamline events and encounters for a one-shot game versus a long-term campaign. There are a lot of options, even though the basic structure is pretty standard horror RPG fare. The author even gives a proposed timeline of events.

There’s some good advice on starting the adventure with some humour, in the form of a random table of “what was your character doing right before this adventure?”. All of which could potentially lead to some funny character and relationship building at the table. I think that this is a good idea because what follows is rather grim and the contrast helps.

Venger also suggests not being too harsh on the characters until the climax: as mentioned earlier, the results of a dice throw depend quite a bit on Game Master ruling and creativity. The best part is at the ending and everyone should get there mostly intact, after all! Again, very good advice that I agree with.

I won’t go into a lot of detail about the adventure itself, but overall I liked it. There are a lot of knobs and dials that a Game Master can tweak to suit the themes and events to taste. I’m not very fond of the treatment of the sole named female character and I think that I would change her situation a bit (spoiler: when she gets thrown into the pit with the titular tentacled cosmic horror, I’d have her become a vessel for it and evolve into a devious villain at odds with her desire to free her new master but also to have revenge on her traitorous ex-lover, possibly becoming the True Priestess instead of him as a twist ending).

Because it is rather system-agnostic, a group could use this adventure with any other Investigative Lovecraftian RPG, such as Silent Legions (Sine Nomine), Tremulus (Reality Blurs), Trail of Cthulhu (Pelgrane) or, of course, Call of Cthulhu (Chaosium). In fact, I think that a group could pick up any scenario written for any of those games and run it with Venger’s system.

Summary

Get this book for any of the following reasons:

If you’re a fan of Venger’s other works, especially Crimson Dragon Slayer for its simplicity If you are a Lovecraft nut and love collecting RPGs in his style If you like the style of 70s Italian Horror films If you prefer rules-light systems that rely a lot on GM ruling



Rating:
[5 of 5 Stars!]
The Outer Presence
Publisher: Kort'thalis Publishing
by Miles W. [Verified Purchaser]
Date Added: 08/21/2015 13:24:04

This was the first tabletop RPG I've had the pleasure of experiencing! It's easy to learn and teach. It really allows for the narrative and character development to really shine! The pacing is perfect and its incredibly well written and the artwork is awesome! I will and would recommend this to anyone! You'll be missing out on a truly awesome experience if you don't have this for your collection!



Rating:
[5 of 5 Stars!]
The Outer Presence
Publisher: Kort'thalis Publishing
by Eric F. [Verified Purchaser]
Date Added: 08/16/2015 13:19:30

Want to get your players hip deep in weird Lovecraftian hijinks without the huge prep time that seems to come with contemporary adventures that sap your sanity as a DM? Need a game adventure that is self contained and easy to run at the drop of a hat with ten minutes of prep time? Well Kort'thalis Publishing is here to help with the Outer Presence. An adventure and modern horror d6 PC system all in one self contained horror package ready to go straight out of the gate. I followed the Kickstarter action on the Outer Presence adventure and I'm very happy with the result. I received my pdf copy of The Outer Presence a few days ago and its really essentially a boiled down pulp adventure done in a more contemporary style with Venger's flare for the gonzo with heap of Lost, Cannibal Holocaust, and a piping hot side of HP Lovecraft. But it doesn't venture into the territory of Crimson Dragon Slayer. Seriously though this is a very well done adventure which clocks in at about forty five pages of out and out weirdness. This adventure is new school & old school at the same time, this adventure uses the principal game mechanic of d6 dice pools. This seems to be the in house Kort'thalis Publishing system which is easily convertible into your favorite OSR or modern system. You get a full range of options straight out of the gate in this module but from a 1970's grind house horror movie perspective. Described as

This is both a self-contained, investigative horror RPG and "weird tales" scenario set in 1970's New Guinea. I get the sneaking suspicion that Venger watched tons and tons of VHS 1970's and 80's horror films and The Outer Presence is the result. But is it playable? Yes if your into the dangerous and sanity action fest that's laid at your feet as the DM of this easily convertible adventure. You could use this with any D6 or Call of Cthlhu style adventure. The trick here is that this adventure actually delivers what it promises straight up. Monsters, mayhem, and nastiness right out of the gate with everything laid out at the DM's feet. I actually like this adventure. And it delivers exactly what it promises. Everything from careers for the PC's to weirdness rules are laid out in spades. Even from the introduction to the Outer Presence everything is laid bare with as much minimalist outfiting as possible;

"This story is meant to take place in the 1970's, but can easily be modified by the Game Master. I was influenced by such great films as Cannibal Holocaust, Cannibal Ferox, and Jungle Holocaust, as well as, the 1960's Jonny Quest television show.There's precious little preventing the Game Master from swapping New Guinea out for the jungles of South America or similar locale. This scenario could take placeat any period of the 20th century. If the 70's don't resonate with you, feel free to change it. Some conversion will be necessary, but the majority should play just fine as it is."

There are elements of Robert Howard's Cthulhu Mythos and other far more contemporary echoes in The Outer Presence. With a heap of Jim Jones style madness that anyone who grew up in this time will recognize. For example is Doctor Karl Steiner, anthropologist, ego-maniac, and frequent contributor to the quarterly anthropology journal Culturally Speaking. With the help of Dr. Steiner and his team, the Meepie tribe has regressed to cannibalism and human sacrifice in order to appease something that lives in the nearby temple…the outer presence. On the surface this seems rather simplistic and rather straight up horror gaming but this is a pot boiler of an adventure with lots happening under the hood. I don't want to really get into the back end or front end of the Outer Presence because I don't want to spoil the adventure but this is one to get. The maps here are solid, the ideas straight up well presented and represented, the artwork isn't bad at all and is evocative of the grind house vibe that the Outer Presence is going for. All in all this is a really solidly presented at adventure that is a must for any system neutral or old school contemporary or modern adventure game. Or simply use it on its own. Five out of five for one of my favorite straight up adventures. Because I love the weird 70's cannibal exploitation Lovecraft horror vibe that Venger is going for here! Eric F Sword and Stitchery blog



Rating:
[5 of 5 Stars!]
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